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Monday, 22 October 2012

'Philip Larkin - A Writer's Life' by Andrew Motion

This comprehensive account of the life and work of Philip Larkin is remarkable in its detail and scope, particularly when you consider that the poet insisted, on his deathbed, that his diaries be destroyed. At times, it reads like a novel as we follow the development of the bookish, precocious middle-class child who became a jazz-obsessed undergraduate before ‘settling’ for a career as a librarian. Showing some flair for the work, he made his mark in his first job by reviving a dowdy Shropshire branch before moving to Leicester, Belfast and eventually, Hull University. Library triumphs aside, the writing is what we are interested in and Motion reveals a great deal about the poet’s various struggles with his art. Concerns about the worth of his endeavours loom large, as does the influence of his autocratic father and demanding mother; it is no wonder that one of his most famous lines was: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”.

Some modern critics have foolishly chosen to judge Larkin by today’s politically correct standards and, invariably, he is decreed to be ‘unsound’ on just about any topic you could mention. There is, however, a sense in which his life and work can be seen as illustrative of the disillusionment of the post-war years; many of the best minds of his time will have shared his opinions on, say, social engineering, modernism and the decline of empire. Motion is broadly sympathetic and, rather than condemn the poet for some of his ‘old-fashioned’ views, tacitly recognises that he was a product of his times. Complicated and contradictory as Larkin often was, one suspects that some of the so-called ‘damning’ correspondence detailed in this book was written in something close to the spirit of caricature, designed to amuse and tailored to what he thought the other person wanted to hear; his letters to Kingsley Amis and Barbara Pym are examples of that.

Having long feared –presciently, as it turned out- that he would not live beyond the age of sixty-three, his final years were marked by alcoholism, bitterness and regret. Towards the end, he confided to Monica Jones (one of his long-term girlfriends) that he was “spiralling down towards extinction”. In truth, that was the kind of remark that he could easily have made at any point during his previous forty years. Reading Larkin’s poetry, one knows -for all the mordant humour- that boredom, failure, disappointment and death are never very far away. It is quite sad that in spite of accumulating an impressive body of work, he could often view his artistic life as a rather tepid failure.

Chosen to edit the Oxford book of Twentieth Century English Verse, Larkin made enemies in literary and academic circles when the final selection appeared to reflect his own view that modernist poets were often elitist, wilfully obscure and somewhat over-rated by the cognoscenti. But what some interpreted as a cantankerous and conservative eccentricity on this topic actually reflected a principled belief in the value of verse that was accessible to all. There is something very English about that kind of unfussy and unpretentious approach to art; indeed, it is probably one the reasons that Larkin’s work endures.

Until reading this biography, I was unaware that his love life was quite so complicated. He obviously had strong desires for love and sex, but also a need for solitude. Having made the decision to put his writing before other considerations, he scrupulously chose to avoid making a firm commitment to any one of several women with whom he might have led a very different kind of life. His work turned out to be remarkable, but one wonders whether the women in his life would have considered it all to have been worth it.

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