Tuesday, 29 April 2014

John Osborne: Radical Larkin - review by Terry Kelly

The Master of Misdirection
Terry Kelly

John Osborne: Radical Larkin - Seven Types of Technical Mastery (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 304pp, ISBN 978-0-230-34824-0

John Osborne is one of the handful of really important Larkin critics around today. The Director of American Studies at the University of Hull combines a deep and comprehensive knowledge of and love for the Larkin canon with an agile, capacious, critically assertive intelligence. Radical Larkin could never be accused of underselling, simplifying or pigeonholing Larkin. Rather, by employing a polemical, take-no-prisoners, trailblazing critical style, Osborne seeks to reveal the poet's work in all its dazzling variousness. In Osborne's hands, the former bicycle-clipped Hermit of Hull is reborn as The Intertextual Kid. Far from the lit-cit file on Larkin being open and shut, this closely argued study suggests we may only be at the beginning of a greater understanding of a writer of almost shape-shifting complexity; a highly literary creative artist, whom Osborne defines at one point as a 'master of misdirection.' In one sense, Radical Larkin is a development of ideas explored in Osborne's previous critical study of the poet, Larkin, Ideology and Critical Violence - A Case of Wrongful Conviction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). That book was both a defence of Larkin's reputation in the aftermath of the critical furore triggered by the publication of the controversial Selected Letters and Andrew Motion's biography in 1992 and 1993 respectively, but also an agenda-busting bid to place the poet in new, postmodern literary and cultural contexts. Osborne's new book takes that critical re-evaluation one stage further, attempting to liberate Larkin from purely 'biographicalist' readings, to reveal the multi-layered artist beneath what he sees as the often misleading and simplistic literary facade. In Radical Larkin, the 'Parnassian Ron Glum' of Andrew Motion's famous description is remodelled as a truly 21st Century poet, capable of withstanding - and rewarding - any number of postmodern critical interpretations.

Osborne devotes seven chapters to Larkin's art and techniques (what he calls 'seven in-depth demonstrations of the advantages of a text-centred methodology') using theoretical critical language to explore, for example, how the poet uses ellipsis and literary sleight-of-hand in his portrayal of Katherine Lind, the main character in A Girl in Winter, Larkin apparently refusing to define her geographically, whatever the conflicting claims of various commentators. A similar critical approach is employed in Osborne's reading of poems such as 'At Grass' and 'Church Going,' where he again reveals the efforts Larkin made during the drafting process to free the poems from a specific geographical locale. Other chapters analyse the poet's relationship with art as poetic inspiration - or what Osborne calls 'Radical Ekphrasis' - in poems such as 'The Card-Players' and 'An Arundel Tomb,' the handling of poetic structure and plot, Larkin's approach to poetic influence, while there are also close readings of such major works as 'The Whitsun Weddings' and 'Aubade' in a postmodernist light. In fact, each of the chapters presents unique and rewarding stand alone readings of the canon, even separated from the book's larger polemical structure. But what I see as Osborne's overarching critical aim, outlined repeatedly in his dismantling of various rival readings of Larkin's work, is to release the poet from his biographical 'shackles,' in order to grant the work maximum literary, textual and imaginative freedom.

The book's opening introductory broadside, 'A Textuality that Dare not Speak its Name,' which adumbrates many of the ideas explored in greater detail in the main text, sees Osborne taking to task fellow Larkin critics, biographers, and even literary executors - from major critical players like Motion and Anthony Thwaite, to James Booth and Trevor Tolley, plus ancillary commentators like Stephen Regan and Sean O'Brien - for allegedly placing the work within a restrictive autobiographical or biographical, place-specific framework. He feels such critical traditionalists are forced to 'deny the textuality not only of his texts but also of their own,' adding: 'Theirs are scripts that try (and fail) to hide their own inscriptedness.' Taking his cue from the deconstructionist theories of Jacques Derrida, Osborne doesn't accept anything within the Larkin canon on face value, viewing purely biographical readings as 'invariably reductive, often false.' Osborne seeks to undermine the usefulness of secondary texts which have proliferated within Larkinland - including what he calls 'kiss-and-tell memoirs or gossip columns' - arguing that such supposed biographical fixity is actually 'disputed ground.' But Osborne also accepts that Larkin supported and often encouraged a more straightforward, non-theoretical reading of his work, by highlighting the anti-intellectual, man-in-the-street, even 'Luddite' aspects of his public personality. However, following the example of Larkin's literary hero, D.H. Lawrence, Osborne also believes we should never trust the teller, but trust the tale, arguing the poet often filters his resistance to modernism and allusiveness through literature itself, explaining: 'The textuality of the text is never more apparent than when denied.' Further, Osborne notes that despite the poet's avowed distaste for the literary life and his caricaturing of figures such as the campus poet, he chose to spend most of his working life precisely within the milieu of the campus, at university libraries in Leicester, Belfast and Hull. Larkin's apparent contradictory approach to the literary life was further underlined in his support for the Compton Fellowship, which brought a series of contemporary poets to the Hull campus, and as a long-term champion of the collection and preservation of literary drafts.

Radical Larkin persuades us to look at the poetry and prose with new eyes, as Osborne questions and aims to subvert many of the critical truisms which have attached themselves to the canon. For example, the second chapter's examination of such 'ekphrastic' Larkin poems as 'An Arundel Tomb,' 'The Card-Players' and 'Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album' questions the traditional view of the Movement poets as basically anti-art and opposed to the 'myth-kitty' aesthetic. Rather, Osborne sees much Movement poetry as linked to and inspired by paintings and sculptures. (We should also remember that Thom Gunn dismissed the very notion of 'The Movement' as a journalistic fiction). He also suggests Larkin was 'the most art-conscious British poet of the mid-century period,' his oeuvre encompassing sculpture, architecture, illuminated manuscripts, posters, movies, TV documentaries, public monuments and more. For Osborne, a poem such 'An Arundel Tomb' has been misread as embodying fixed emotional or historical messages, but suggests that even Larkin as poetic narrator is unable to bridge past and present in terms of the sculpture's true meaning. While the sculpture may seem historically grounded and culturally fixed, even the stonework is vulnerable to the ravages of time, while the true significance of the artwork remains ambiguous, an ambiguity reflected in the poem's closure: 'Our almost-instinct almost true:/What will survive of us is love.' Osborne believes the poem embodies a wider critical truth about poetic 'meaning,' seeing the relationship between poem and sculpture as 'unfixed, inconstant, subject to historical accident.' In art, as in literary intention, Osborne argues, all is mutability. And his larger critical objection about 'the naive biographical resolution of the Larkin debate,' based on individual poems, remains constant. Similarly, drawing on the critical theories of Walter Benjamin, and showing how the art of photography fundamentally changed the relationship between artist and viewer, Osborne's reading of 'Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album' stresses the 'inauthenticity of the photographic art,' adding, for emphasis: 'Contrary to proverbial wisdom, the camera does lie.' Osborne attempts to 'unhouse' the poem from a purely biographical reading and its supposed flesh-and-blood progenitor, Winifred Arnott. While conceding that such a poem may have been inspired by an actual photograph album, Osborne suggests that it travels so far from specific biographical starting points as 'to vex, even sever, the connection.' Drawing on references ranging from Tennyson to Roland Barthes, and from Partridge's Dictionary of Historical Slang to a possible literary antecedent in C. Day Lewis's 'The Album,' Osborne highlights the poem's inconsistencies and its fluid creative relationship with the now-iconic actual photograph album known to members of The Philip Larkin Society. His reading of the poem also dwells interestingly on the gender divide in how the female form is viewed and the complex and changing role of women in modern society.

Osborne is a sharply perceptive commentator, who rarely misses a trick when it comes to the nuances, subtleties and deceptions of Larkin's work, contextualising the poems and novels with a wealth of references to literature, history, modern critical theory, music, cinema and the visual arts. He is also generous in his praise of the 2012 edition of the Complete Poems, arguing that Archie Burnett's corrected text and highly detailed, 338-page commentary helps undermine 'biographicalist' readings of poems such as 'The Whitsun Weddings,' by revealing 'the falsity' of Larkin's account of the poem's genesis. But Osborne also seems to relish shaking up the critical status quo, being unafraid of falling out with fellow Larkin critics and rarely sparing the rod when it comes to pointed censure. For example, James Booth is accused of 'textual amnesia' for his attribution of certain Larkin poems to this or that former lover, while elsewhere being criticised, along with fellow critic Tom Paulin, for an overly biographical reading of 'The Winter Palace': 'Had Burnett not intervened, there we might have left the battle of the biographicalists, Booth and Paulin contending over 'The Winter Palace' like two bald men fighting over a comb (as Borges has it).' Trevor Tolley, meanwhile, who has already been taken to task by Burnett for numerous textual errors, faces fresh censure from Osborne, who, en passant, chides what he calls 'the old guard' for coming to the critic's defence: 'Of course there are errors in The Complete Poems, just as there will be in the present volume; but there is a glaring difference between ordinary human fallibility and outright negligence.' Tolley's Early Poems and Juvenilia (2005) is similarly slated as 'the nadir' of Larkin editions while, even less charitably, the censured scholar is portrayed as '(a) master of thinking inside the box.' Although he commends aspects of the 1988 Collected Poems edited by Anthony Thwaite - 'it appealed to scholars and lay readers alike' - Osborne also believes the edition had the effect of 'entrenching biographicalism.' But Osborne is much harder on Thwaite's rejigged edition of the Collected Poems: 'Matters were not improved when Thwaite produced a second Collected Poems (2003) which responded to adverse criticism by retracting all the posthumously published material included in the first version (the words genie and bottle come to mind).'But while many Larkin admirers will be persuaded by his estimation of the second edition - 'much the inferior of the two' - some may also find Osborne's point-scoring tone unappealing. There's a contrapuntal aspect to Osborne's criticism, as he repeatedly elevates his own literary theories while simultaneously downgrading those of rival commentators. (A Bob Dylan line from Blonde on Blonde often came to mind while I was reading Radical Larkin: 'You shouldn't take it so personal'). But neutral readers may also discern an occasional irony in this or that rival 'biographical' reading of Larkin being dismantled by Osborne's recourse to yet more biographical detail. And there's surely a case to be made for a critical 'third way' in Larkin studies, in which the traditional or biographical approach runs parallel with postmodernist, desconstructionist or intertextual readings of the poems. Yes, Larkin was a highly literary creative artist, often adept at throwing readers and critics off the scent, but he was also a flesh-and-blood man of his time, and people and places speak loudly in his work. Speaking as a non-academic, my biggest regret is that Radical Larkin is written in the language of modern literary critical theory, which can make the going very heavy and could unfortunately restrict the book to a purely academic constituency. The constant lit-crit jargon often threatens to overtake the clarity of the prose, which can read like hyperactive J.H. Prynne: '...the aporia at the heart of the text problematizes pre-established taxonometric grids and dominant labelling strategies, making unknowability a central theme in a world given over over to identitarian certitudes, many of them murderous.' But I don't wish to close on a negative note. This is an insightful book, which I'll return to again and again. John Osborne remains one of our brightest, most thought-provoking Larkin critics and Radical Larkin contains a rich harvest of illuminating insights.

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