They are creatures of the moment, and they’ve created an end-of-the-century literary genre all their own. If you haven’t actually read their books, you’ve surely skimmed their reviews or perhaps even seen them on the afternoon television talk-show circuit. Their story is always the same, these writers, and it’s always delivered with the same straightforward, controlled, and terrible bitterness: I loved him, he was in many ways a great man, but Daddy wasn’t the little tin angel he led us to believe he was.
Andrew Motion, though he is also a distinguished poet, critic, and editor, is, in his new biography of Philip Larkin, just another such writer. His book is the high-art critical-bio version of Daddy, Dearest, but it’s Daddy, Dearest all the same, and the English-language audience for poetry has been snapping it up like some sort of hardcover tabloid, clucking their tongues with condescending pleasure over just how bad the Old Man really was. Nugget-diggers will find the excellent index invaluable, especially, under “Larkin, Philip Arthur” (1922-85), the subheadings SEX (“attitude to women . . . complains about expense . . . sexual log books . . . pornography”) and ATTITUDES AND OPINIONS (“dislike of children . . . fear of marriage . . . loathing of abroad . . . right-wing politics . . . racism”). It’s a map to what Tom Paulin, the British press’s foreman nugget-digger, calls “the sewer under the national monument Larkin became.”
Describing this ground must necessarily alter the image of Larkin that he prepared so carefully for his readers.”
In his introduction, Motion, sketching the connections among Larkin’s art, life, and public persona, lays out the major theme of the book in three memorable sentences: “[M]any of Larkin’s inner conflicts evolved in ways his work can only hint at. When he found his authentic voice in the late 1940s, the beautiful flowers of his poetry were already growing on long stalks out of pretty dismal ground. Describing this ground must necessarily alter the image of Larkin that he prepared so carefully for his readers.” In other words: How perfect the art. How imperfect the life. And oh what a sham all that charming, curmudgeonly, “Hermit of Hull” crap he served up on a pub-lunch platter. Motion’s chief aim as biographer is not to devalue Larkin’s oeuvre—on the contrary, most of his reading of it is appreciative—but to make us marvel at the paradox of its very existence: for Motion, it’s the improbably gorgeous product of a wholly loathsome mind. “To follow [Larkin’s] development”—and here Motion means emotional and ideological development, not artistic—“is to have our sense of his achievement sharply increased.”
Motion, of course, is not Larkin’s son—not, that is, in the literal sense. But to Motion’s generation of poets, Larkin was the father-figure, the standard-setter. To Motion himself, as to much of the public, he was the greatest contemporary English poet—indeed, “one of the great poets of the century.” And Motion was Larkin’s protégé—if Larkin can be said ever to have had one. Thirty years Larkin’s junior, Motion first met the poet in 1976 when he, Motion, was twenty-four and newly appointed a lecturer in English at the University of Hull. Larkin was then fifty-three, and had been the university’s librarian for over twenty years. The two became good friends, and in 1983, not long before his death, Larkin asked Motion to become one of his literary executors. “At no time during the nine years of our friendship did we discuss his biography,” Motion writes. “He did not ask me to write this book.”
Neither did Larkin ask another of his executors, his old friend Anthony Thwaite, to collect and edit his letters. (Whether he wished the letters to be collected at all is uncertain; his will, which has much vexed the trustees of his estate, is contradictory on this and other matters pertaining to the posthumous fate of his unpublished writings.) Thwaite’s eight-hundred-page selection, first published in England last fall, will be brought out here by Farrar, Straus in December. It is very much a companion piece to Motion’s Life in that it gives us, in great detail and at great length, the same “new” picture of Larkin. This Larkin is not the public Larkin of the published interviews, who, with self-deprecating humor, presented us with a highly attractive case of stiff-upper-lip in the face of life’s shortcomings and of self-sacrifice in the name of art. This Larkin is the private Larkin, and his picture is painted in darker tones of “racism, misogyny and quasi-fascis[m]” (Tom Paulin again). Both the Life and the Letters may have been begun by friends wishing to do honor to Larkin’s achievement, but in the end, and on the bookshelf together, their fourteen hundred pages seem intended to crush the three skinny books of poems—The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows—that remain the heart of his oeuvre. More exactly, the books seem intended to vandalize—and certainly have had the popular effect of vandalizing—the familiar, shyly smiling image that peered out at us from Larkin’s jacket photos. Like the idealized girl on the poster in “Sunny Prestatyn,” this image of the poet was too good for this life. It proved an irresistible target to Motion and Paulin and all the other conflicted scribblers who both take excitement from Larkin’s work and, consciously or not, hate him for it.
You know,” Larkin once wrote to Thwaite, “I was never a child: my life began at 21, or 31 more likely. Say with the publication of The Less Deceived.” This was one of Larkin’s many ways of saying that only his art really mattered; all else, including the “biographical sources” of that art, was dross. But Larkin was, of course, a child once, and he remained forever his parents’ son. Motion is at his most sympathetic when writing of Larkin’s early years and the ways they shaped his sensibility.
Larkin’s father, Sydney, a government accountant in Coventry, filled his son with the faults he had, but also imparted his virtues. He was, in Motion’s words, “intolerant to the point of perversity, contemptuous of women, careless of other people’s feelings or fates, yet at the same time excitingly intellectual [and] inspirationally quick-witted.” Larkin’s mother, Eva, a cosseting parent and a cowed wife, was passive, snobbish, and forever bewailing her lot. In an unpublished memoir, Larkin wrote that “the marriage left me with two convictions: that human beings should not live together, and that children should be taken from their parents at an early age.”
The week in culture.
Recommendations from the editors of The New Criterion, delivered directly to your inbox.
According to Motion, Sydney Larkin’s chief legacy to his son was twofold: a taste for literature, especially Thomas Hardy, and a tendency toward what Motion calls “reactionary politics.” (Sydney was a Nazi sympathizer, may have been part of a British para-Nazi organization called the Link, and kept a mechanical statuette of Hitler on the mantelpiece at home that, at the touch of a button, sprang into the “Sieg Heil!” salute.) He died in 1948, when Larkin was twenty-five. Eva Larkin’s legacy was a good deal more complicated. Motion makes her out to be both Larkin’s deepest emotional attachment and, more than any other woman in his life, his muse. “Although [she] was often silly,” he writes, “although she often drove Larkin into agonies of boredom and frenzies of rage, the ties which bound her to her son were not merely comforting but inspirational. They connected Larkin to his past, to memories of hope and excitement, and to the creative ‘sense of being young.’ Until the end of her life”—she lived on to the age of ninety-one, and Larkin didn’t long survive her—“Eva . . . crucially influenced the accents and attitudes of his poems.” Indeed, says Motion, “many of his best [poems] were either triggered by her or about her: ‘Love Songs in Age,’ ‘Reference Back,’ ‘To the Sea,’ ‘The Building,’ ‘The Old Fools,’” and, finally, “Aubade.” This said, it strikes one as decidedly odd that Larkin’s letters to his mother—there are several hundred extant, for after his father died, he wrote her at least twice a week—are scarcely quoted by Motion and don’t figure into Thwaite’s collection at all.
After Coventry came Oxford, where Larkin struck out with the girls, flirted with at least one young man, and, at the prompting of his friend Kingsley Amis, began to write imaginative prose—mock-lesbian romances, mostly, set in a girl’s school. Despite his best efforts to play the Bad Boy—to keep his reading strictly off the syllabus and to spend his nights in jazz cellars—Larkin took a First. He left Oxford without plans, longing to become a great writer and hunting for a trade that would both complement that desire and suit his temperament. Quite by accident, while paging through the Help Wanted section of the Birmingham Post, he discovered an opening for a librarian position in Wellington, Shropshire. He applied for the job and got it, beginning a distinguished career in librarianship that would take him, in 1955, to the University of Hull.
By that time—he was then thirty-two—he had already completed the bulk of his writing. There had been two remarkably accomplished novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, and the beginnings of a never-to-be-completed third. He had brought out a book of poems, The North Ship, and found a publisher for his first mature collection, The Less Deceived. In an interview with the London Observer, Larkin would later call this “probably the ‘intensest’ time of my life”; for Andrew Motion, who once remarked that “obviously I regret not having known him when he was writing more fluently,” they were also his most admirable. What followed, much to Motion’s “obvious regret,” were three decades of fame, frustrated creativity, and, consequently, lack of authenticity. “All the faces, voices, attitudes, beliefs, jokes and opinions that had evolved during his growth to maturity were,” with the popular success of his second book of poems, “suddenly enshrined in the personality which the public decided was ‘him.’ Like the characteristics he later described in ‘Dockery and Son,’ they hardened into all he’d got.” Larkin suddenly became “Larkin,” a character of whom his biographer disapproves.
Larkin suddenly became “Larkin,” a character of whom his biographer disapproves.
Fame,” writes Motion, “endangered [Larkin’s] poems by threatening the delicate balance between a desire for private rumination and a longing for a public hearing. He wondered how he could continue to ‘be himself’ if his self depended on remoteness and disappointment, neither of which he could truly be said to possess any more.” Here and elsewhere throughout the latter half of the book, Motion is arguing that Larkin, by winning what every poet hopes for (readers, reviews, and respect) and yet rejecting all the perks of the modern poet’s “profession” (writer-in-residence sinecures, television appearances, public readings, book tours, etc.), was being hypocritical or even clinically perverse. All that poet-of-deprivation stuff should have been abandoned after 1955, and Larkin should have “developed” beyond it, moved on to other and perhaps sunnier incarnations. He should have “improved” himself, but instead he patented “Larkinism,” a private-label poetic shtick. Increasingly, “he was tempted to freeze his life in postures of continuing unhappiness. As far as his work was concerned, this meant making things out to be worse than they actually were, and at the same time denying that there was anything redemptively strange or unique involved in writing about them.”
Even worse, Larkin’s fame justified him in his selfishness. “The success of The Less Deceived strengthened his resolve to live alone,” to have no obligations but to himself and his art. “Never mind that his rate of production was so low (only two poems in 1956)—he now regarded every [positive] development in his career as proof that he was right to behave as he did.” And, Motion argues, Larkin behaved very badly, especially toward his women.
In his adult life, there were four. There were Patsy Strang, the free-spirited wife of an acquaintance in Belfast; Maeve Brennan, a member of his staff at Hull; and Betty Mackereth, his personal secretary. But first and foremost there was Monica Jones, whom he met in 1947, when he was a librarian at the University College of Leicester and she a lecturer in English. Except for his mother, she was the most important person in Larkin’s life, and she survives him as co-trustee of his estate and, with Thwaite and Motion, one of his literary executors. Although I’m certain the author doesn’t see it this way, she emerges as the true heroine of Motion’s book when, after being asked by the dying Larkin to do so, she arranges to have his diaries fed to the Hull University Library shredder. She also appears to have been admirably stingy about sharing her most intimate letters from Larkin with her fellow-executors.
What did Larkin get out of these relationships with women, none of which, he was adamant, would ever end in marriage, and three of which, those with Monica, Maeve, and Betty, he juggled at one time? Beyond providing the pleasures of sexual companionship, these love affairs “activated,” Motion argues, “a dramatic struggle between life and work on which his personality [and his poems] depended.” By dividing his affections among two or more women at once, Larkin ensured emotional disappointment for every party involved, disappointment he could then (sometimes) turn into poetry. Furthermore, his candid acknowledgments of faithlessness, like his openness about his habit of masturbating to pornography, made it clear to would-be wives that he was promised to no one but himself.
Larkin’s taste in pornography, like his taste in everything else, was essentially conventional.
Larkin’s taste in pornography, like his taste in everything else, was essentially conventional. (His friend Robert Conquest called it “really very unchallenging. Perhaps a bit of spanking, that’s all.”) Unchallenging or not, that Larkin had any kind of taste for it clearly unsettles Motion, as does the wildly abusive language about women (and “wogs” and “socialists” and so on) that peppers many of Larkin’s letters, especially those to old schoolmates such as Kingsley Amis. That Larkin the letter-writer was often playing to his recipients’ expectations—that he was trying to keep a wartime school-chum camaraderie and a damn-the-world adolescent’s worldview alive for old time’s sake—is cold comfort to Motion. For Larkin to have used such language in his youth, back when the world was less enlightened about “the other,” is one thing. For him to have used such language even into the 1980s is unforgivable.
This is why Motion saves his most severe blasts for the last years of Larkin’s life, the years between the publication of his final book of poems, High Windows (1974), and his death, at age sixty-three, in 1985. It was during these years, when the poems were no longer coming, that his “anger and sense of futility kept pace with each other, driving the comedy out of his extravagant opinions and clouding the pleasures that remained to him.” In other words, “his frustration as a writer had by now affected all his judgements.” That Larkin professed in an interview to “adore” Margaret Thatcher is offered up as definitive proof of his jadedness, of his having gone totally beyond the pale. Motion cites this tidbit no fewer than four times, with the word “adore” always in scare quotes.
Martin Amis, writing about the Life in a recent issue of The New Yorker, wrote that “in Andrew Motion’s book we have the constant sense that Larkin is somehow falling short of the cloudless emotional health enjoyed by (for instance) Andrew Motion.” As an effort to catch the between-the-lines condescension of biographer to subject, this sentence can scarcely be improved. But Motion is not merely condescending, he is, by the book’s final pages, wholly out-of-sympathy, unable or unwilling to imagine Larkin from the inside out. Larkin saw him coming, or someone very much like him, when he dreamed up “Jake Balokowsky, my biographer,” in the poem “Posterity.” Balokowsky is the jeaned-and-sneakered embodiment of the Sixties-generation literary professional, a careerist who laments that, in writing Larkin’s life, “I’m stuck with this old fart at least a year.” “Just let me put this bastard on the skids,” he says, “I’ll get a couple of semesters leave/ To work on Protest Theater.” What’s Larkin really like? a friend enquires. “Christ, I just told you,” he replies:
“Oh, you know the thing,
That crummy textbook stuff from Freshman
Not out of kicks or something happening—
One of those old-type natural fouled-up
At the end of his Observer interview, Larkin says: “I should hate anybody to read my work because he’s been told to and told what to think about it.” For my part, I should hate anybody not to read Larkin because he’s been told what to think about the man and so thinks he needn’t bother. There’s a brand-new generation of readers that believes, and is being instructed to believe, that flowers grown from dismal ground are not worth picking. Well, Larkin’s flowers are of a hardy strain, and they will survive the present miasma in which they must live, the poisonous and obscuring atmosphere created by the Letters and the Life and the Paulins among their reviewers. “Church Going,” “Dockery and Son,” “The Whitsun Weddings,” “An Arundel Tomb,” “Aubade”: go read them again, now, and aloud. To do so is to be moved by them afresh and to drown out all the irrelevant noise about the “unfortunate” circumstances of their composition.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 1, on page 83
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com