A passing glimpse into a deepening pit

First Boredom, Then Fear
November 11, 2005

Forget the subtitle. Richard Bradford's First Boredom, then Fear: The Life of Philip Larkin is not a biography, and at less than 300 pages it cannot hope to rival Andrew Motion's magisterial work. Instead, regard it as a critical book that takes Larkin's life as its structure and intersperses literary analysis with episodes of biographical summary.

Bradford insists on the importance of a biographical context to a reading of the works. The early poem "To My Wife" is thus "a savagely economical account of his parents' marriage (which) could indeed have been uttered by his father"; from "I Remember, I Remember" Larkin edited out the figure of Monica Jones, who was with him on the railway journey it describes; "Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel" recalls the place where Larkin sometimes took Maeve Brennan; while "Annus Mirabilis" describes Larkin's relationship with her - a dimension that, Bradford claims, "further animates one's fascination with its author".

But does it? After all, the poems do not have to be read within the context of Larkin's life. Before his death in 1985, most readers knew virtually nothing of him. Were they worse off than we are now, one wonders, surrounded by a plethora of biographical data? To take an innocuous example: does it make any difference that "The Whitsun Weddings" was "inspired by a train journey from Hull to London on 28 May, 1955, the Saturday of the Whitsun weekend"? Its power as a literary work surely has nothing to do with such minutiae.

Confronted with a weight of biographical interpretation such as that offered by Bradford - some of it plausible, some less so - one is tempted to ask, does any of it matter? Dragging the author down to one's own level is an inevitable by-product of the biographer's (and critic's) labour, and one with which most of us are glad to go along. Though outwardly disapproving, we are inwardly pleased to find that the artist is as shambling and chaotic in his or her life as we are.

But Larkin's is an extreme case. It is impossible not to feel enervated, even mildly depressed, by Bradford's recounting of Larkin's private life: the "impressive" porn stash (that included magazines with titles such as Bizarre and Swish ); his interest in photography, which he used to record his own amatory encounters; his documentation of masturbatory activities in notebooks and letters to Kingsley Amis; Monica Jones's "impressively varied wardrobe of erotic underwear" ("Do you remember putting on your red belt and openwork stockings?", Larkin asked her); his acquisition of a telescope so that, as Amis charmingly put it, he could "get a better view of passing tits". Which is to say nothing of the multiple affairs, the Nazi regalia owned by his father and so forth.

Bradford's strategy, when dealing with all this, is to look for excuses: Larkin's interest in porn, he suggests, is really a form of academic study ("The detailed scrutiny which Larkin brings to erotica betrays the temperamental stamp mark of a New Critic"); his racist inclinations were those of "a self-willed grotesque", to be explained by the combined influence of his father and Colin Gunner, who encouraged them; while poor Monica and her "openwork stockings" were a form of therapy that served to "erase Larkin's fear of drab permanence" (whatever that means).

The truth is that Larkin was a bit of a fascist, as his letters reveal. He was capable of telling Robert Conquest: "Fuck the students (fuck you students everywhere), fuck the Common Market e'en. Hurray for Ian Smith, Ian Paisley (fuck all branches of the IRA)I Fuck the unions, fuck Harold Wilson and several cheers for the Vietnam war and Enoch Powell."

Whatever his views, Larkin will, I believe, always be regarded as a great poet; but the fact is that his advocates remain on the back foot. For Motion, the work "floats free of its surrounding material"; for Bradford, our appreciation of it is intricately related to our ability to see him whole.

Neither strategy works. The question we should be asking is: why should Larkin's biography, with all its derelictions, bother us so much? The answer is that the mess of real life, especially in Larkin's case, is an affront to the ideal, ordered beauty of a poem, even one that takes as its first line, "Love again: wanking at ten past three".

It seems to us as readers that life, with all its errors, false steps and violations (as we see it), compromises the poetry almost to the point of strangling the idealising impulse by which it is underpinned. That is not the poet's fault. What it betrays is something within ourselves - the compulsion to make biographical fact square with the ideal space of art. It never does. After all, it is the nature of the work to transcend the chaos out of which it came. Our reaction is always the same: we react like spoilt children, condemning the artist and criticising their work on grounds that echo our frustrations.

It is a sad paradox that, because the excuses do not convince, Bradford succeeds only in deepening the pit into which modern critics have cast Larkin, even though he writes as his apologist. The problem is less with Larkin than with the unwritten law demanding that writers conform retrospectively to the rules we make for them, regardless of the impossibility of their doing so, and our own reluctance to face up to what it reveals of ourselves.

Duncan Wu is professor of English language and literature, Oxford University.

First Boredom, Then Fear: The Life of Philip Larkin

Author - Richard Bradford
Publisher - Peter Owen
Pages - 2
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 7206 1147 4

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