Books May 2011

Philip Larkin, the Impossible Man

How the most exasperating of poets met his match

One of his ways of keeping Monica while keeping her at bay—they did not cohabit until very near the end, finally forced into mutual dependence by decrepitude on his part and dementia on hers: perhaps the least romantic story ever told—was to make an over-full confession of his own inadequacies as a male. “I’m sorry our lovemaking fizzled out,” he writes after a disappointing provincial vacation in 1958. “I am not a highly-sexed person.” This comes after a letter in which he invites her to consider their affair in the light of “a kind of homosexual relation, disguised: it wdn’t surprise me at all if someone else said so.” And even earlier—it is not as if this is the record of a hot thing cooling—he writes, in December 1954, “If it were announced that all sex wd cease as from midnight on 31 December, my way of life wouldn’t change at all.” This naturally prompts one to review one of his best-known poems, “Annus Mirabilis”:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

The lines can easily be read as a non-literal satire on the exuberant 1960s in general. The less-quoted succeeding verse is arguably more revealing:

Up till then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for a ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

In Larkin’s mind, marriage was invariably a trap set by females: a ring in exchange for some perfunctory sex and then a lifetime of domestic servitude and—even more appalling—the rearing of children. Once again the poetry is unambiguous. “The Life With a Hole in It” conveys the cringe with greater complexity, but “Self’s the Man” is not unrepresentative:

He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she’s there all day.
And the money he gets for wasting his life on work
She takes as her perk
To pay for the kiddies’ clobber and the drier …

Even “The Whitsun Weddings,” in which he manages to write with some tendresse about a famous northern-English nuptial tradition, closes with an extremely melancholy metaphor of energy mutated into futility, or possibly potency into liquefaction: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” And as for the thought of parenthood, not just by or from oneself, but even of oneself, we need look no further than the celebrated poem that probably convinced his admirer Margaret Thatcher that he wasn’t the family-values type. “This Be the Verse” opens by saying, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do”; and it closes by advising, “Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself.” There are virtually no references to children in Larkin that are not vivid with revulsion, the word kiddies being the customary form the automatic shudder takes.

No keen analyst is required to unravel this. Larkin had not only a bombastic fascist for a father, but a simpering weakling for a mother. Sydney Larkin had the grace to die early but his widow, Eva, lingered on, querulous, demanding, and hypochondriacal (and extremely unwell), for decades. She may not have meant to make her son’s life a nightmare of guilt and annoyance, but she did. This resulted in Monica Jones’s winning at least one round. On no account, she told her man, should he be blackmailed into living with Eva. “Don’t be robbed!” she beseeched him. “Don’t be robbed of your soul.” If she couldn’t have him, she at least wouldn’t surrender him to that form of “the other woman.”

To have read Larkin’s Letters and Motion’s biography is to be in on a rather dirty joke that surreptitiously permeates these pages. Larkin may not have been highly sexed in the conventional sense, but he was a heroic consumer of pornography and an amateur composer of sado­masochistic reveries, which he often shared with his worldly friends Robert Con­quest and Kings­ley Amis. He didn’t much like the capital city, but would never visit London without spending good money, or paying through the nose, as one might say, with the vendors of semi-licit glossies in the Soho quarter. Why Andrew Motion maintains that Larkin didn’t have specialized tastes, I cannot think: he was in constant search of material featuring schoolgirls, flagellation, and sodomy. (In 1958 to Conquest: “I agree Bamboo & Frolic are the tops, or rather bottoms: do pass on any that have ceased to stimulate.”) This celebrated fixation is also thought by some to be “quintessentially English.” At his death, along with many other private papers, the vast library of a hectically devoted masturbator had to be hastily destroyed. (He obviously had not mistaken his calling as an archivist.) Once one knows this, many of the letters to Monica become instantly intelligible. He comments slyly but learnedly on the buggery implications of the D. H. Lawrence novel that was then on trial in the courts. “You and your bottom,” he elsewhere writes fervently.

I lay in bed one morning last week remembering one after-breakfast time when you were looking out of my kitchen window … You were wearing the black nylon panties with the small hole in!

Or

You must look a wonderful sight in fur hat & boots—nothing else? Holding a rawhide whip? (You see how naturally my imagination composes aesthetic montages for you.)

On and on his plaintively suggestive appeals recur, and—this is somehow impressive—she never seems to take the hint. What Larkin wanted was a Nora Barnacle, and what he got was—Margaret Peel. The sole exception seems to prove my rule: in late 1958, he plumbs the depth of abjectness by writing to her in apology for what clearly must have been a bungled episode of anal penetration:

I’m sorry too that our encounter had such unhappy results for you! I really didn’t expect such a thing, though I suppose it might have been predicted. I am sorry. It does rather spoil the incident, even at best, which was very exciting for me anyway. Let’s hope all rights itself soon.

Not since Hemingway so overdid the lapine pillow-talk in For Whom the Bell Tolls has any man referred to a woman as a rabbit with such regularity and intensity. Most of the letters are addressed to either “Bun” or “Bunny,” and not a few are illustrated with drawings of rabbits, references to rabbits in literature, or condemnations of British government policy toward rabbits. The obsession did yield the fine poem “Myxo­matosis,” which I mentioned earlier, but Larkin’s attempt to make a Beatrix Potter nursery story out of the standoff is often in jarring contrast to the content. The sad grovel I quoted from above is concluded by the sentence: “You sound as if you want comforting Fat rabbit lovely pretty rabbit,” which is a lot to bear for those of us who respect Larkin for his lack of sentimentality. And rabbits are, above all, philo­progenitive … Incidentally, all resemblances to Orwell break off at this point: the author of Animal Farm had a tough enough time with women but was eager for marriage and anxious for children, preferring to adopt rather than go without.

This collection is an accidental success as a period piece. The Britain of the immediate post-war era was in many ways even more austere and impoverished than the Britain of the Depression, with bad and scarce housing, for example, made very much worse by the recent aerial bombardment. Larkin, who once told an interviewer, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” found his poetic promptings in the overcrowded, overworked, underfed society that he so much purported to resent. Not only that, but his chosen career as a librarian led him to live in Belfast, Ireland’s (and Britain’s) most immiserated and forbidding city, at the cusp of the 1940s and ’50s. His political sympathies can scarcely have been Republican, but a description of an Orange Day rally is one of the best short evocations of massed boorish fanaticism I have ever read. “It was a parade of staggering dullness (every face wore the same ‘taking-himself-seriously’ expression) & stupefying hypocrisy.”

Indeed, those of the Terry Eagleton crew, who have become so righteously fixated on the later “revelations” of Larkin’s racism and xenophobia, might be surprised at the absence of jingoism and nastiness in these letters. He is very strict with Kipling’s excesses, for example, accusing him of betraying his talent in order to be a crowd-pleaser (“hunts with the pack”). Perhaps the uneasy memory of parental Nazism is too close, even though this makes it the more eerie to notice that he never, ever alludes to the then-recent horror of the Third Reich, either in these pages or in any others. Alternative diagnoses include Motion’s opinion that he didn’t quite surrender to reactionary impulses until he became much older, and the high likelihood that much of what he did write in that vein was designed to amuse friends in private letters, by way of outraging the new forms of correctness. A thwarted and furtive sex life, one may speculate, would have been no obstacle in the formation of a carapace of contempt for modernity and its hedonistic outriders.

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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