Sunday 24 October 2010

Amis on Larkin

Philip Larkin's women
When it comes to women, I give you up, Kingsley Amis wrote to Philip Larkin. Although the poet – bald, peevish and apathetic – had several romantic relationships, most enduringly with the indomitable academic Monica Jones, his private life was ultimately a failure.

Martin Amis
The Guardian
Saturday 23 October 2010

The age of the literary correspondence is dying, slowly but surely electrocuted by the superconductors of high modernity. This expiration was locked into a certainty about 20 years ago; and although William Trevor and VS Naipaul, say, may yet reward us, it already sounds fogeyish to reiterate that, no, we won't be seeing, and we won't be wanting to see, the selected faxes and emails, the selected texts and tweets of their successors. Philip Larkin's Letters to Monica, published by Faber, covers the period 1945-70, and passively evokes it: digs and lodgings ("I have put in for a flatlet!!!"), pre-decimal currency ("I owe you 21/1d I think – 24/11 plus 1/2 minus 5/-"), The Archers, Pickford's Movers and myxomatosis; its settings are remorselessly provincial, mainly Leicester and Hull (and Belfast, true), with so-called holidays in York, Sark, Lincoln, Poolewe, Bournemouth ("I hope you got my card from Pocklington"). The volume will be of vital interest to all admirers of Larkin's work, and to all students of the abysmal mystery of Larkin's life, with its singularly crippled eros. Much of the time, though, readers will be thinking that the "literary correspondence" is something we're well shot of – a postwar embarrassment, like child labour, meat rationing and outdoor toilets.

Sexual intercourse, as everyone knows, began in 1963 (which "was rather late for me"). But what preceded it?

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

Larkin got to know Monica Jones in the late 1940s, at which stage he was wrangling over a ring with Ruth Bowman, who was a 16-year-old sixth-former when they met. The wrangle with Ruth lasted eight years; the wrangle with Monica would last for 35, leading to the same outcome. Ruth's frail yet defiant homeliness can only be described as quite extraordinarily dated. Monica was a robust and comparatively worldly blonde, with well-shaped bones (but ogreish teeth). A lecturer in English at Leicester, she was a small-community "character": she wore tartan when she discussed Macbeth, and in general favoured dirndl skirts, low-cut tops and markedly cumbrous jewellery. But her defining characteristic was her voice – or, rather, her overpowering idiolect.

This is an extract from the most memorable letter in the book (October 1952): "Dear, I must sound very pompous & huffy . . . It's simply that in my view you would do much better to revise, drastically, the amount you say and the intensity with which you say it . . . I do want to urge you, with all love & kindness, to think about how much you say & how you say it. I'd even go so far as to make 3 rules: One, Never say more than two sentences, or very rarely three, without waiting for an answer or comment from whoever you're talking to; Two, abandon altogether your harsh didactic voice, & use only the soft musical one (except in special cases); & Three, don't do more than glance at your interlocutor (wrong word?) once or twice while speaking. You're getting a habit of boring your face up or round into the features of your listener – don't do it! It's most trying."

Larkin's tone is wholly unmalicious; it is affectionately, even pleadingly protective. And he at once retreats, explaining that those "3 rules" are merely "simple points of technique". We may take it as significant that the word "boring" is used here in an unexpected application – as a verb rather than a naked adjective. The person this letter describes is not just an individual but a familiar and fearsome type: the congenital, and unstoppable, windbag.

This collection qualifies as inside information; so it is not indecorous, I hope, to add some inside information of my own. Although the trajectory of Larkin's relationship with Kingsley Amis was already evident in the 1992 Selected Letters (edited, as is the current volume, by Anthony Thwaite), Letters to Monica adds substance and detail: undergraduate infatuation, measured disaffection, growing irritation, unregulated envy (envy being best understood as empathy gone wrong), a bourgeois distaste for bohemianism ("Patsy says [so-and-so's] house is filthy. I pressed her: 'As filthy as Kingsley's?'"), and finally a settled ill-will, occasionally tempered by nostalgia. Kingsley's feelings were more constant. But there was a Larkinian peculiarity that filled him with almost lifelong incredulity and dismay: Philip and the women. And, most especially, Philip and Monica.

In 1948 or 1949 Kingsley spoke slightingly of – or quite possibly to – Bowman. What followed was an alarming froideur. ("Kingsley was petrified," my mother later told me. "He thought he'd never see Philip again.") But Larkin extended no such chivalric shielding to Monica Jones. This is from an Amis-Larkin letter of the same period: "It doesn't surprise me in the least that Monica is [studying George Crabbe, 1754-1832, poet and parson]; he's exactly the sort of priggish, boring, featureless (especially that; there isn't anything about him, is there?), long-winded, inessential man she'd go for; if she can see beauty in a derelict shit-house, she must have more [sensibility] than you. Talking of [shit-houses] . . ."

In addition, as is well-known, Larkin acquiesced and indeed connived in Amis's merciless portrait of Monica (as Margaret Peel) in Lucky Jim (1954). Margaret is not only plain, theatrical, garrulous and of course boring; she is also a lying manipulator bent on entrapment. And Larkin would continue to regale Kingsley with grimly jovial asides about Monica's affectations – and, for instance, about her facial resemblance to Stan Laurel (an improvement, one supposes, on Oliver Hardy).

Ruth and Monica shared a certain trait: a restless self-importance unaccompanied by the slightest distinction (Monica, for all her strong opinions, published not a single word in her entire career). Two of the other three women in Larkin's life were similarly "superior": the aggressively "permissive" Patsy Strang (who drank herself to death at the age of 48); and the virginal, religious and implausibly naive Maeve Brennan (who claimed, in her maturity, not to know the meaning of the word "wank"). Only Betty Mackereth, Larkin's "loaf-haired secretary", seemed cheerfully content in her being. When it comes to women, as Kingsley wrote (in a style not to everyone's taste), "I fucking give you up". My mother, who revered Larkin, used to say, "Well, don't forget he went bald in his 20s. And he had a stutter. I think women frightened him." Then why, one wonders, were the women he chose so frightening?

And why was it Monica he always ended up with – Monica, the most frightening of them all? To describe Larkin's half of it as "love-hate" is perhaps too bold. On the positive side we register an urgent warmth, a snug intimacy of jokes and whimsies, and Monica's courageous acceptance of Larkin's intense melancholia – melancholia not as a mood or a susceptibility, but as a besetting Jonsonian humour ("black bile"). Larkin could be frightening too (and without much provocation): "No, I really can't do anything at all – it really is disgusting, I feel tearful with rage – why must [the landlady] leave her door open so that her filthy radio floods the whole house? . . . It really affects me strongly: a kind of spiritual claustrophobia – I can't get out, & can't get away, there's no way out, I can't stand it! Oh hell. How long will this go on, wasted time, wasted wasted wasted . . ." All this Monica shouldered and palliated. Still, on the negative side, we register Larkin's solemn exasperation, and his suppressed hostility and contempt. As early as 1953 Larkin told Strang why he was abandoning The New World Symphony (his third novel and his last attempt at fiction): "You know, I can't write this book: if it is to be written at all it should be largely an attack on Monica, & I can't do that, not while we are still on friendly terms, and I'm not sure it even interests me sufficiently to go on."

It is hard to construe this singular blend of animus and apathy. Even the "attack" on her bores him. So why did he cleave to Monica for another 32 years – till death did them part? He knew why. The reasons he gives Monica for not marrying her (often rehearsed) are the same reasons he surely gave himself for not leaving her. Failures of energy and courage, and a vast inertia.

Well, there was sex, too. Or was there? No indication is given, in the early letters, of the transition from friendship to romance. Turning to Andrew Motion's biography, we learn that Larkin "had come to me", as Monica quaintly put it, by the summer of 1950. (What would be the male equivalent of this phrase? "It was in August that I first took her"?) But such brooding cadences seem inapposite. "If it were announced that all sex would cease on 31 December," writes the hot 32-year-old on 15 December 1954, "my way of life wouldn't change at all." Evidently, though, they fumbled along. "[O]ften I'm quite uncertain whether you are feeling anything . . . you rarely seem to like anything more than anything else"; "I'm sorry our lovemaking fizzled out . . . I'm sorry to have failed you!" Larkin seeks a kind of safety in portraying himself as the omega male. Anyway, "taking care of business" (to paraphrase Aretha Franklin) was definitely not this man's game.

But these are turbid waters, thick with suspended matter, and go far deeper than Larkin's admittedly preternatural indolence. I defy any man – even the most self-sufficient poodlefaker – to read the following without a twinge: "I think . . . someone might do a little research on some of the inherent qualities of sex – its cruelty, its bullyingness, for instance. It seems to me that bending someone else to your will is the very stuff of sex, by force or neglect if you are male, by spitefulness or nagging or scenes if you are female. And what's more, both sides would sooner have it that way than not at all. I wouldn't. And I suspect that means not that I can enjoy sex in my own quiet way but that I can't enjoy it at all. It's like rugby football: either you like kicking & being kicked, or your soul cringes away from the whole affair. There's no way of quietly enjoying rugby football."

"In bed," the poet Ian Hamilton once told me, "you don't want to be too clear-headed about what you're doing." Larkin's clarity, his almost clinical over-sensitivity (naturally vital to his genius), could not be muted or muffled. This was his curse.

Or one of them. In Dostoevsky's Demons (1872) Varvara Petrovna accuses a portly valetudinarian bachelor of being "an old woman" – a verdict she promptly refines to "an old bag". Larkin, in his daily dealings (haircut, train ticket, utilities bill, new pullover, salaried employment), had a fair bit of the old bag in him ("I think there's a lot of infection about these days," he typically quavers, "upsetting one's insides: with all these foreigners about [in Hull, in 1966], one is never completely well, as when abroad"). There was, of course, a prominent old woman in his life – his mother, whose solitary widowhood lasted 30 years: "For her the daily round is hideous with traps, and dangerous with hidden ambush, and calamity: it is all she can do to creep through it unscathed. She . . . spends the time thinking about next summer's thunder-storms, gas taps, electricity switches, dark clouds, and I don't know what." Eva Larkin, then, in combination with the long-deceased Sydney (clever, cynical, despotic and pro-Nazi even after the outbreak of the second world war), might be expected to leave her son a heavy legacy.

"[M]y mother seems to be resuming her normal whining panicky grumbling maddening manner," he writes, perhaps self-revealingly. On the whole, though, Larkin tries to resist Freudian entendres and psychological determinisms: "[I]f one starts blaming one's parents, well, one would never stop! Butler said that anyone who was still worrying about his parents at 35 was a fool, but he certainly didn't forget them himself, and I think the influence they exert is enormous . . . I never remember my parents making a single spontaneous gesture of affection towards each other, for instance."

And the instance certainly hurts and connects. In an unpublished memoir (quoted in Motion's biography), Larkin wrote: "When I try to tune into my childhood, the dominant emotions I pick up are, overwhelmingly, fear and boredom . . . I never left the house without the sense of walking into a cooler, cleaner, saner and pleasanter atmosphere." Feelings of guilt, and possibly a desire for utter self-immolation, subjected Larkin to a recurrent temptation: that of setting up house with Eva. On this question Monica was impressively firm: "don't be robbed! don't be robbed of your soul!"

Monica Jones had many other virtues, chief among them her kindness and gentleness; she was stoical and unshockable, and could stand her ground under the awful searchlight of Larkin's candour and truthfulness. Thwaite quotes sparingly but tellingly from her letters (some of which were two or three times the length of this review), in which she also emerges as a tenacious literary critic, and an exceptionally close reader of Larkin's works in progress: it is startling to see how hard and how gingerly he struggled with poems that we now regard as etched in flint ("Church Going", say, or "The Whitsun Weddings"). From Larkin's viewpoint, of course, her main strength was her toleration of meagre rewards: "I accept, don't I, & without private reservation or grudge," she wrote in 1962, "that you don't like me enough to marry me." She accepted much else: his emotional sluggishness, and his morbid dread of effort in any sphere except poetry.

The fact that Larkin made little effort with Monica is everywhere apparent in these pages. His Selected Letters constitutes a literary event of the first order (alongside, for example, the imminent Saul Bellow: Letters). But the present book will remain a literary curiosity. Here, Larkin's prose is habitually perfunctory and pressureless: "Sun still shining here, but 'not for long' I fear"; "Of course, I might have been peevish anyway. More than likely!"; "Sheldon [the new sub-librarian] has started: seems all right, but nothing to write home about"; "Oh dear. I don't seem to be able to write you the interesting sort of letter I should like to . . ."

"Aren't I writing badly," he writes – and quite rightly. "The day didn't get off to a very good start by my reading some stories by 'Flannery O'Connor' in the bath – horribly depressing American South things." American South "things"? Larkin would never have written so exhaustedly to Amis, or to Thwaite, or to Barbara Pym, or to Robert Conquest (the world-famous historian whom he monotonously belittles: "a cheerful idiot", "the feeblewit", "what an old bore Bob is"). An old bore is what Larkin becomes, all too often, when he writes to Monica. But this too was no doubt salutary: a regular collapse into the unadorned everyday.

"It seems to me that what we have is a kind of homosexual relationship, disguised . . . Don't you think yourself there's something fishy about it?" What I take this to mean is that Larkin wasn't very masculine and that Monica wasn't very feminine. They lived, or subsisted, in middlesex. The process was far advanced, if not complete, by 1982, when I spent a long evening in their company. Larkin was demurely diffident (though he retained his "impeccable attentive courtesy: grave, but at the same time sunlit," as Kingsley would say in his funeral address, four years later). As for Monica – well, despite her clothes (brown trousers of crushed velvet, wifebeater blouse, plus earrings the size of hula hoops), she resembled an all-in wrestler renowned for an indifference to the norms of fair play. She also dominated the evening, despite the presence of my father, as host. Larkin had clearly ceased to urge her to revise, drastically, the amount she said and the intensity with which she said it.

Still, one way or another, Monica enabled Larkin to cherish his crucial essences – and to turn them into immortal poetry. "I am sure you are the one of this generation!" she wrote in 1955. "I like your poetry better than any that I ever see – oh, I am sure you will make yr name! yr mark, do I mean – really be a real poet, I feel more sure of it than ever before, it is you who are the one . . ."

Many a muse, no doubt, has murmured these words to many a poet. But Monica happened to be right. Larkin's life was a failure; his work was a triumph. That is all that matters. Because the work, unlike the life, lives on.

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