Larkin ascending

Near­ly missed it; an intel­li­gent, allu­sive, gos­sipy memo­r­i­al of Philip Larkin by Mar­tin Amis in the FT. A teas­er for Amis’s forth­com­ing col­lec­tion of Larkin poems. Amis apt­ly quotes lots of them in his arti­cle; which is, in part, what makes it such fun to read.

This is the key to Larkin: his fric­tion­less mem­o­ra­bil­i­ty. To use one of Nabokov’s pret­ti­est coinages, he is mnemogenic.

Extract from The Larkin puz­zle — FT.com

Not pret­ty at all, I would say. But I know what he means: that there’s a sense in which you don’t remem­ber Larkin’s verse, it cre­ates mem­o­ries in you. Amis proves this with snip­pets from love­ly Larkin favourites (Aubade, Liv­ings III, Mr Bleaney).

(But I don’t agree. It’s true that Larkin, like, say, Cole Porter, makes phras­es that appro­pri­ate us. I’ve recent­ly mem­o­rised The Whit­sun Wed­dings, how­ev­er, and found that although the flow is near­ly irre­sistible, the ver­nac­u­lar­i­ty of the meter and the almost inci­den­tal way that unstressed words car­ry the rhyme make it all-too-easy to trip up on a col­lo­ca­tion that is mine, not Larkin’s; and then to stum­ble over the recov­ery.)

Amis takes plea­sure, as we all do, in the per­sis­tence of Larkin’s pop­u­lar­i­ty despite the “PC” judge­ments, 10 years after Larkin’s ear­ly death, that dis­missed him for his misog­y­ny and “racism”. Today’s restora­tion, Amis says, is an “After” that is rich­er because of the puz­zles pro­voked by—and remain­ing from—the rev­e­la­tions that went “Before”.

The poems are trans­par­ent (they need no medi­a­tion), yet they tan­ta­lise the read­er with glimpses of an impen­e­tra­ble self: so much yearn­ing, so much debil­i­ty; an eros that self-thwarts and self-finess­es. This is what riv­ets us: the mys­tery sto­ry of Larkin’s soul.

Still, Amis, does con­tin­ue to strug­gle with Larkin’s atra­bil­ious char­ac­ter.

What fol­lows is a per­son­al assess­ment of Larkin’s char­ac­ter, and one that reflects a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion that can fair­ly be described as life­long.

What fol­lows is, in fact, a fur­ther teas­ing out of the Larkin puz­zle draw­ing on two or three pos­si­bly ambigu­ous annech­dotes. Amis recounts his father’s (Kinglsey’s) “almost phys­i­cal” love for Larkin, and the long-after-revealed dis­cour­tesy of Larkin in return. He shows Larkin’s bizarre cold­ness with a sto­ry of a vis­it to his par­ents’ house­hold dis­pens­ing “tips” to the Amis boys. He dis­cuss­es Larkin’s friend­less­ness and opaque sex­u­al­i­ty with sug­ges­tions that his choice of lovers was inap­pro­pri­ate. He recounts a dis­cus­sion with the poet at a par­ty that appears to demon­strate an odd obses­sion with mon­ey (or at least “bills”) but may just indi­cate that Larkin was not ter­ri­bly inter­est­ed in Amis. He offers a sur­pris­ing account of how an abort­ed Larkin nov­el “attack­ing” his life-long cor­re­spon­dent and once mis­tress (the “vir­ile” Mon­i­ca Jones) appeared soon after, trans­formed with Larkin’s tute­lage, as Amis’s Lucky Jim.

There’s much more, too, that I enjoyed includ­ing a reminder of the tow­er­ing good sense of Northrop Frye when it comes to the pre­ten­sions of lit.crit. and a tan­ta­liz­ing quotes from a pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished, pos­si­bly unfin­ished, Larkin poem Love again

… but why put it into words?
Isolate rather this element
That spreads through other lives like a tree
And sways them on in a sort of sense
And say why it never worked for me.
Something to do with violence
A long way back, and wrong rewards,
And arrogant eternity.

Larkin said of this poem:

It broke off at a point at which I was sil­ly enough to ask myself a ques­tion, with three lines in which to answer it.

What­ev­er the answer was—assuming it was—we don’t have it.

I like the whole arti­cle so much that I’m only a lit­tle piqued by Amis’ appar­ent agen­da, revealed by his repeat­ed claim that Larkin is a “nov­el­ists’ poet” (Huh? Is Cézanne a sculptor’s painter? Is Wag­n­er a mythol­o­gists’ musi­cian? ) and sup­port­ed by ref­er­ences to Larkin’s knack for cin­e­mat­ic phras­es (a “scene set­ting phrase mak­er”, says Amis, mak­ing phras­es).

Plau­si­ble crit­i­cism; but it also seems a slight­ly cheap attempt by Amis, the nov­el­ist, to appro­pri­ate Larkin on behalf of his new edi­tion or per­haps on behalf of some oth­er project to which he coy­ly refers:

…my final attempt to parse him will be in the form of prose fic­tion

Ok. I’ll bite.

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