A Closer Look At Larkin

Largely unimpressed by James Booth’s efforts “to present a warmer, kinder, more admirable Larkin” in his new book, Philip Larkin: Life, Art, and Love, Jonathan Farmer finds the poet something of a misanthrope:

His personality seems to have been, to a large extent, a kind of jerry-rigged response to his awkwardness, and it’s a measure of his extraordinary inventiveness that his manufactured persona endeared him to so many who knew him in so many ways. The poems, at their frequent best, transform those same impulses into art with even greater skill. …

Andrew Motion, whose earlier biography—both more critical of and more sympathetic toward Larkin—will thankfully remain the definitive work, has written of the “number of moments” in Larkin’s work which “manage to transcend the flow of contingent time altogether.” Those moments rarely involved other people. Famously death-obsessed, Larkin seems to have craved such freedoms, but they didn’t come easily to him, probably for the same reasons he so needed them: Life scared him, too. Too long withheld from the company of people outside his family, Larkin sharpened his wit in learning how to please others, but as with so many who invest so much in performing, he rarely found pleasure in others beyond his ability to please them. Company exhausted him, even though he grew lonely in its absence.

Peter J. Conradi, on the other hand, appreciates the complexity of Booth’s portrait:

Booth’s psychology is subtler than Motion’s and more convincing. His achievement is to paint a satisfying and believably complex picture. Larkin the nihilist also wrote: ‘ The ultimate joy is to be alive in the flesh.’ Larkin the xenophobe loved Paris and translated Verlaine. Larkin the racist wrote the wonderful lyric ‘For Sidney Bechet’ and dreamt of being a negro. The Larkin who wrote ‘They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad’ loved his own parents.

As for Larkin the misogynist, it is mysterious how the character painted by Motion could have had any love life at all, let alone a highly complex and fulfilling one. True, Larkin himself once wrote incredulously and comically of sex as ‘like asking someone else to blow your nose for you’: he sometimes experienced a Swiftian horror at being incarnate. Yet he was also very attractive to women and for excellent reasons: he liked women and was a tolerant, patient listener and a wise soulmate. He regretted never marrying. In one mood he indeed described his life to Motion as ‘fucked up’ and ‘failed’ as a result. But this was one mood; and he had others.

And Jeremy Noel-Tod notices that, whatever his churlishness, Larkin managed to have a robust, if complicated, love life:

Outside the precious space of his writing, his complicated, indecisive love life kept him busy. Booth provides new material drawn from interviews with the various women involved, all of whom are cited in support of the view that Larkin the man has been maligned: ‘Typically, they found him “witty”, “entertaining”, “considerate” and “kind”.’ These qualities are abundantly present in the poems too. But so is unkindness, and the writing wouldn’t be as acute as it is without that unsentimental self-knowledge.

Previous Dish on Larkin here.