Anthony Thwaite, editor Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985.
Faber & Faber (London), 791 pages, £20
reviewed by Penelope Fitzgerald
There is no direct train from London to Hull, in Yorkshire. You have to change at Doncaster. Philip Larkin used to claim that he went on working there because literary curiosity-seekers (not to speak of “Jake Balokowsky, my biographer”) would be daunted when they discovered that the journey took three to four hours, and might decide on another poet instead.
Certainly Hull seemed like seclusion, almost retreat, with correspondence as a lifeline. “Postmen like doctors go from house to house”—although Anthony Thwaite is perhaps too optimistic in saying that Larkin thought of both of them as healers. Postmen and doctors make mistakes, and the relief they bring is often only temporary.
Larkin decided early on against marriage, risking loneliness in exchange. He valued jazz, cricket, drink, women (some women), books (some books), poetry, and friendship. “‘Friend’ can mean three things,” he wrote somewhat sourly in 1941, “acquaintance, comrade, or antagonist.” Of his three joint literary executors, all were unquestionably his comrades and two are poets—Andrew Motion, whose biography of Larkin comes out this year, and Anthony Thwaite, who edited the Collected Poems (criticized for putting in too much) in 1988 and these Selected Letters (criticized for leaving out too much) in 1992. The third executor, Monica Jones, a university lecturer, was by far the closest of Larkin’s women friends.
The correspondence will only be completely comprehensible when the biography appears. Meanwhile, faced by several thousand letters, Thwaite has had to save space and at the same time do what he could about some awkward gaps. Only a dozen or so letters to Monica Jones have been made available (although Thwaite discreetly says that “apparent losses may later be recovered”), and it seems that those to Bruce Montgomery (the detective writer Edmund Crispin) can’t be inspected until 2035. George Hartley, the publisher of Larkin’s first important collection, The Less Deceived (1955), reserved his letters because he wanted to sell them unexcerpted. And the important correspondence with Kingsley Amis, who first met Larkin when they were students together at Oxford, and to whom the very last letter in this book, dictated just before the final operation, is addressed—this correspondence, too, is rather ragged.
Thwaite’s job, or one of them, has been to show the “stages of life” which Larkin himself so dreaded—the inescapable I-told-you-so of mortality. First there’s the adolescent, trying out romantic ideas and dirty language. Here the chief correspondent is Jim Sutton, who knew Larkin as an eight-year-old schoolboy at King Henry VIII School, Coventry. Sutton never became a celebrity. He was an unsuccessful painter, an Army driver in the war, later a chemist’s dispenser, and evidently a choice spirit. To him Larkin confided not only his early disappointments with publishers and with sex but his concept of poetry itself. “A poem is just a thought of the imagination—not really logical at all. In fact I should like to make it quite clear to my generation and all subsequent generations that I have no ideas about poetry at all. For me, a poem is the crossroads of my thoughts, my feelings, my imaginings, my wishes, and my verbal sense: normally these run parallel … often two or more cross … but only when all cross at one point does one get a poem.” At this time he was “humanly although perhaps not excusably tired of not getting any money or reviews or any sort of reputation.” The only “adventurous” thing in his life, he told the agent Alan Pringle, was to apply and be selected for the public librarianship at Wellington, Shropshire, replacing a man of seventy-six, and “handing out antiquated tripe to the lower levels of the general public” for £175 a year. And yet by the time he was twenty-five he had published two novels and a volume of poetry. The poems had only one reviewer, but that reviewer was D. J. Enright.
From the 1950s his life quite rapidly, if warily, expands. The toad, work, always keeps a precious jewel in its head of self-doubt, misanthropy, and irony. But the nervous beginner becomes what he has to admit is a well-known poet, and the young writer who signed his first book contract for £30 turns out to be an excellent business man. To Patsy Strang (whom he met after moving from Shropshire to Belfast) there is his first series of love letters, or something very like them. “You are the sort of person one can’t help feeling (in a carping kind of way) ought to come one’s way once in one’s life.” When she decamps to Paris, he tells her she is like “a rocket, leaving a shower of sparks to fall on the old coal shed as you whoosh upwards.” In 1959 he was appointed to the University Library of Hull. In 1961 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry. It was not until the end of the Seventies that he began to feel the wretched approach of dryness, although even then he “would sooner write no poems than bad poems.” Thwaite believes that this drying-up or desertion was partly, at least, the result of the unsettling experience of his last move. In 1973 the University of Hull decided to sell off its “worst properties,” including the one where he lived, and he became, for the first time, a houseowner, faced with endless practical difficulties, and feeling “like a tortoise that has been taken out of one shell and put in another.” But even this experience never stopped him from writing letters.
Two omissions seem strange. There are no letters to Larkin’s family, not even to his mother, to whom he wrote regularly until her death at the age of ninety-one. And there are almost none to do with his official career at Hull, and yet the building of the Library Extension, of which he had been in charge since his arrival, was, as he put it, “the daysman of my thought, and hope, and doing.” At the same time, he was secretary of the university’s publishing committee. Very likely these letters might be considered dull, but dullness is a necessary part of most existences, and certainly of Philip Larkin’s.
What was he like, exactly? Having decided, by its usual mysterious processes, that Larkin was one of the very few living poets that anyone (apart from students and teachers) wanted to buy and read, the British public accepted his persona from the poems they knew, and grew attached to it. He was modest and humorous, lived out of tins in rented rooms, was “unchilded and unwifed,” worked decently hard without becoming rich, visited churches as a wistful sightseer, had missed the sexual revolution of the Sixties by being born too early, was “nudged from comfort” by the sight of ships and aircraft departing and of the old people’s ward. He refused to bother about what didn’t interest him. He was the writer who, when asked by the interviewer about the influence of Borges, said: “Who’s Borges?” New music, a new generation’s language, was not what he wanted. “My mind has stopped at 1945, like some cheap wartime clock,” he told Kingsley Amis. In defiance of realism’s bad reputation, he continued to write about the recognizable human condition. “I’m not interested in things that aren’t true.” But with this marvelous talent for the clearest possible everydayness he combined the torment of the romantic conscience and, however embarrassing it might be, the romantic vision. In “The Whitsun Weddings” he is forced to admit—though not until the train is nearly into London—that the absurd honeymoon couples, and not himself, are the source of fertility and future change. The “success or failure of the poem [when read aloud] depends on whether it gets off the ground on the last two lines” he explains to Anthony Thwaite in 1959.
To a considerable extent, the Larkin of these letters is the reader’s familiar Larkin. What you paid for is what you get. But there are passages that are not so reassuring. It isn’t so much that he sent for girlie magazines and, for long periods, drank too much and got “routinely pissed,” or even that he allowed himself to resent the success of others and to hate extensively. His women colleagues in Belfast were “old Sowface” and “old Bagface.” Seamus Heaney is “the Gombeen man,” R. S. Thomas “Arse Thomas,” Ted Hughes a “boring old monolith” and “no good at all,” but so are Pope, Shelley, Robert Lowell. Blake is an ass, Byron a bore. “I find old Henry James repulsive sitting there cuddling his ideas, like a butler warming up the undermaids!” Still, these are private letters. Who would want to be answerable for everything they’ve said, in private letters, to friends they hope to amuse? More distressing by far are his general opinions, forcibly expressed, which leave the whole concept of political incorrectness gasping. If they represent what he really or even sometimes felt, immigration (LETTING THE BUGGERS IN HERE) must be made illegal before every household in the land is overrun, unemployment should be got rid of by stopping national assistance, workingmen are “awful shits marching or picketing,” the Labour Party are Communists who would like to see him in a camp for dissidents. In a Hull student’s paper he was said to have “Judged it prudent/ Never to speak to any student,” and if they continue to demonstrate he recommends flogging.
How seriously were his correspondents supposed to take all this? I think quite seriously. When I was working in an unimportant capacity for the British Arts Council Literary Panel, Larkin was asked for advice on the funding of ethnic arts centers. He replied that anyone lucky enough to be allowed to settle here had a duty to forget their own culture and try to understand ours.
Thwaite, it has been suggested, has done his best, through his selection and omission, to sweep things under the carpet and give as favorable a picture as possible. This may be so. And perhaps he was touched by Larkin’s mild complaint to a woman friend: “[I am] rather depressed by the remorseless scrutiny of one’s private affairs that seems to be the fate of the newly dead. Really, one should burn everything.”
It has even been argued that Larkin, a favorite with examiners and educators, shouldn’t, after the publication of this book, be allowed any longer onto the school syllabus. But what schoolchildren learn and will continue to learn from his poems is that “what will survive of us is love.” And there is some evidence of this too in the Selected Letters—in his encouragement of Barbara Pym, for example, when she was struggling with unresponsive publishers, a correspondance which became what Thwaite calls “a delightful and moving intimacy.” There are the pains he took for his old friend Jim Sutton, who had written an unsaleable book on his war experiences, his loyalty to long-term library colleagues, and his agonizing worry over the health of Monica Jones. His letter to Douglas Dunn, after the death of Dunn’s first wife, begins: “Dear Douglas—I don’t know whether it is harder to speak or write to you of these last weeks. Whichever I am doing seems the more difficult.”
Thwaite makes only the modest claim to have compiled “an interim account of a memorable man, much loved by many people.” Meanwhile, I imagine, he must be scanning the horizon for the arrival of Andrew Motion, whose Life, let’s hope, will provide him with a much-needed and decisive ally.