Thursday 23 May 2013

The Odd Couple: The Curious Friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin - review

Soul Brothers - review
Richard Bradford: The Odd Couple - The Curious Friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin (Robson Press, 2012), 373pp. ISBN 978-1-84954-375-0

Richard Bradford is not a man for critical half-measures. Laying his cards firmly on the table in the opening line of his introduction to The Odd Couple, he declares: 'During a thirty-year period between the 1950s and the 1980s, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin produced, respectively, the finest fiction and poetry of the era.' While the second half of this statement would doubtless find ready assent among readers of About Larkin, the first half is surely more problematic. Bradford's critical certitude is again in evidence when he takes up the cudgels against those in the literary establishment who turned against Larkin following the publication of firstly the Selected Letters (1992) and later Andrew Motion's Philip Larkin - A Writer's Life (1993). Resolutely anti-modernist in his approach, Bradford feels Amis's comic writing is wrongly downgraded by academics in favour of what he calls the 'surreal speculation on the absurdities of the intellect that finds its way into the work of Joyce, Beckett, Pinter and their successors', adding defiantly: 'His work is serious because it is funny.' Similarly, with Larkin, Bradford's broadsides in defence of the poet can sound shrill: 'Academics and other members of the literary establishment dislike writing that is self-evidently beautiful but which does not, like modernism, demand their services as explicators.' Arguing in defence of what he calls 'formal conservatism', Bradford plays the literary reactionary, echoing Amis at his most curdmudgeonly: 'Moreover, they show that the successful command of traditional techniques requires far more skill and intellectual investment than the tired and predictable practices of experiment... In the latter half of the twentieth century they were the torch bearers for writing that tested the intellect and sensibility of its readers without resorting to the self-obsessed preoccupations of modernism.'

This kind of broad stroke critical approach is a feature of The Odd Couple, which drew criticism from Christopher Tayler, in the London Review of Books (Vol. 34, No. 24, 20 December 2012): 'Even some of Bradford's esoteric interpretations could have been made to look more plausible by a less clumsy writer, and the book is hard to fault on detail. The main problem is one of emphasis: Bradford isn't good with humour, and his narrative requirements make him put too much on the idea of Larkin as the surly underdog... If Amis took more from Larkin than Larkin did from him, maybe Larkin had more to give.' Although reviewers have generally been kind to The Odd Couple, commending the book for its detailed analysis of the Amis-Larkin friendship, eagle-eyed satirist Craig Brown excoriated the book for blatant self-plagiarism in The Mail on Sunday, in the kind of withering review which would force most authors into hiding. Calling the book 'a triumph of cut and paste,' Brown accuses Bradford of taking both reader and his publishers 'for a ride', by reproducing verbatim chunks from his previous books on Amis and Larkin. Slamming The Odd Couple as 'a shameless exercise in marketing old rope', Brown demonstrates how often only the linking passages between previously published text are new, cheekily speculating if 'self-plagiarism is an offence in academia?' And Bradford's wholesale recycling can have other, unintended consequences, when previous unforced errors are not picked up. Reviewing Bradford's First Boredom, Then Fear - The Life of Philip Larkin in About Larkin 20 (Autumn 2005), this writer noted that the earlier book had the poet being interviewed – posthumously – by Melvyn Bragg in 1986. Unfortunately, the selfsame error appears in The Odd Couple, surrounded by the same recycled prose Craig Brown enjoyed lampooning.

But for all its cutting and pasting, The Odd Couple does present a very detailed picture of the Amis-Larkin relationship, from its beginnings at St John's College, Oxford, in May, 1941, to its sad and muted conclusion, with Larkin's death in 1985. Bradford reasonably observes that the largely epistolary friendship of Amis and Larkin 'energised, sometimes even shaped, much of their finest writing.' But he cannot resist drawing apparently definitive aesthetic conclusions from literary evidence. So we are told that 'Lucky Jim, the novel that launched Amis's career, could not have been written without Larkin', and that while Amis apparently 'exploited their intimacy for his writing, Larkin's mature poetry was largely a reaction against it.' But Bradford does avoid some of the self-plagiarism charges by featuring unpublished material from the archives, including previously unseen documents from the Hull History Centre and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

From the moment Larkin spotted Amis faking a gunshot wound and collapsing on some laundry bags outside St John's College, their lives were drawn together. The friendship blossomed in the beery context of 'The Seven,' a kind of disrespectful, debunking literary gang. Both agnostics, Amis and Larkin came from similar social and educational backgrounds. They shared a scabrous, casually obscene sense of humour, a passion for traditional jazz, drink and sex – or, in Larkin's case, fantasizing about sex. And they also shared a secret, coded language in an almost hermetically sealed private world. In terms of literary nous, Amis considered Larkin 'the senior partner', with the latter encouraging his friend to read Auden, Flann O'Brien and Henry Green. The pair peppered their private world with scurrilous, parodic and obscene verses. The Amis-Larkin relationship presented a stiff index finger to academic or literary propriety. Bradford notes: 'It was as though both were in private able to enjoy breaking down the institutionalised borders between comic irreverance and high culture, while in their attempts to produce proper literature they deferred to the humourless conventions of the latter.' But although the bond between the two friends was strong, their literary tastes often diverged. Amis, for example, never shared Larkin's admiration for D.H.Lawrence or his attachment to the psychological theories of John Layard.

Though their friendship endured for more than 40 years, the Amis-Larkin relationship was largely based on letters. Larkin was never keen for Amis to visit Hull, perhaps anxious to conceal the mundanity of his working life or his intimate relationships. Their correspondence was sparked when Amis was conscripted into the Army, while poor eyesight exempted Larkin. Bradford pinpoints this as a turning point in their friendship, calling their letters 'unique in the history of literature,' adding: 'Their correspondence provides an index not only to the progress of their relationship but also to each of them as individual writers.' Bradford draws parallels between certain Larkin poems and specific passages in the voluminous, often sexually graphic correspondence. So he considers a letter by Larkin, dating from February 1947, about his crumbling relationship with Ruth Bowman, a 'prose version' of Wild Oats. But some readers may demur at some of Bradford's parallels. For instance, he suggests The Old Fools is simply 'Larkin's response' to the bleak fictional landscape of Amis's novel, Ending Up. The poem has far more complex roots than this. And apart from such simplistic literary intepretations, Bradford can also be accused of overstepping the limits of biography. After quoting a famous Larkin letter to Maeve Brennan in December 1975 – 'I am very close to Monica and very fond of her... But it's you I love; you're the one I want ' – he states unequivocally: 'He was lying. Within three years their relationship would be over, forever.' Bradford fails to acknowledge the inconsistencies and complexities of the human heart, Moreover the reader may reasonably ask, 'How does Bradford know Larkin was lying?'

Arguably the central chapter of The Odd Couple is that concerned with the development of the classic Amis novel, Lucky Jim. Bradford explores Larkin's influence on and inspiration for the book, and Amis's apparently lifelong antipathy to Monica Jones. According to Bradford's reading of the novel's gestation, Amis was 'scrupulously harvesting key aspects of his friendship with Larkin for the novel.' He believes Larkin was complicit in the creation of the character of Margaret Peel, which is widely considered to be based on Monica, his novelist friend making 'disparaging comments' about the woman who was apparently his soul-mate, while allowing Amis to believe the relationship was far more casual. For Bradford, Monica was 'a threat... to the... unique and confidential partnership' between Amis and Larkin. But even as Lucky Jim was taking shape, Monica was actually displacing Amis as Larkin's 'most trusted adviser on his poems-in-progress'. But after a rejected first book, The Legacy, Amis seemed to find his way again with the novel form via Larkin's letters, which he found much funnier than his own.

Bradford considers the Amis-Larkin correspondence a rich literary storehouse, providing many of the comic set pieces in the novel. Amis called his poet-friend his 'inner audience' and drew inspiration from their private, epistolary style, which remained mostly inaccessible to the outside world. In effect, Amis found a way back into fiction by transforming his private correspondence with Larkin into public literary currency. Echoing Pound editing Eliot's original manuscript He Do The Police In Different Voices into The Waste Land, Larkin cast a cold critical eye over 150,000 words of the nascent Lucky Jim and helped shape the book. But Bradford believes Larkin came to regret his part in its creation, accusing his old friend of plagiarism: 'Sometimes he disclosed his feelings to others but never to Amis, even much later when their friendship appeared to be mutating into quiet antagonism.'

Given his teasing out of the many links sparked by the famous literary friendship, it's surprising that Bradford fails to acknowledge a perhaps veiled or submerged Amis caricature in Larkin's satirical poem, The Life with a Hole in it. Yet for all its recycling and often unsubtle readings, The Odd Couple still provides a wealth of detail about the interlinked lives of two highly complex, hugely talented literary figures. What is also clear is that real love underpinned the Amis-Larkin relationship. As Martin Amis commented in his introduction to his selected Larkin, Poems (2011): 'It was always clear to everyone that Kingsley loved Philip with a near-physical passion.' But Amis fils also recalled his father's comment on his return from Larkin's funeral, after finally getting to visit his old friend in Hull: 'It sounds odd, but I sometimes wonder if I ever really knew him.' Just before he died, Larkin was forced to dictate his final letter to Amis on to a tape recorder, which meant dispensing with their traditional, slightly rude but still affectionate and wholly typical valediction of 'bum'.

Terry Kelly 
About Larkin April 2013