Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ian Hamilton on Larkin's afterlife

The Larkin fun in the sidebar here (it points here and here) sent me scurrying back to Ian Hamilton, who I rememembered being good, and angry, on the post-biography change in Larkin's reputation. Sure enough:

A couple of weeks ago, there was a write-up in the Independent about a rap performer name of Ice Cube, author of 'A Bitch is a Bitch' and 'Now I Gotta Wet'cha'. Ice Cube, we were told, is notorious for his misgyny and racism and for whipping up his fans into ecstasies of loathing: he has them 'grooving to a litany of hate'. Only one of Ice Cube's lines was quoted - 'You can't trust no bitch. Who can I trust? Me' - but the reviewer did attempt to pinpoint his subject's characteristic manner of address. He called Ice Cube's language 'incessantly Larkinesque'.

Larkinesque? Did this mean that Ice Cube, for all his appearance of commercialised aggression, was secretly a somewhat poignant type of artist, wry, subtle, elegiac; that his dignified, distressful lyrics were likely to linger in the memory for decades? It seems not. In this context, 'Larkinesque' signified 'foul-mouthed'. And the Independent's readers were supposed to know this. Oh, Larkinesque, they'd think as one, that means Cube uses the word 'fuck' a lot.

And who can blame them if they do so think? After all, in the week before the Ice Cube notice, these same readers were treated to a daily dose of Philip Larkin's more repulsive apercus: sexual intercourse is like having someone else blow your nose, women are stupid, kids should be sent away to orphanages more or less at birth, and all the rest of it. At the bottom on one page, in a little box, we would get the Independent's 'Daily Poem' - usually some workmanlike concoction without a flicker of inspiration or originality - and on another, similarly boxed, there would be the ugly mug of Philip Larkin, together with a line or two of his off-the-cuff plain-speaking. What a busy newspaper: encouraging les jeunes and les no-hopers even as it chips away at the repute of the best poet we have had since Auden.

That's the introduction to a review of the Motion biography. The start of his review of the letters gives one notable reason why fashionable literary London (as the phrase goes) might have turned against Larkin:

There is a story that when William F. Buckley Jr sent a copy of his essays to Norman Mailer, he pencilled a welcoming 'Hi, Norman!' in the Index, next to Mailer's name. A similar tactic might happily have been ventured by the publishers of Philip Larkin's Letters: the book's back pages are going to be well thumbed. 'Hi, Craig', see p. 752, you 'mad sod'; 'Hi, John', see p. 563, you 'arse-faced trendy'; 'Hi, David', see p. 266, you 'deaf cunt', and so on. Less succinct salutations will be discovered by the likes of Donald Davie ('droning out his tosh'), Ted Hughes ('boring old monolith, no good at all - not a single solitary bit of good'), and Anthony Powell, a.k.a. 'the horse-faced dwarf'. There is even a 'Hi, Ian': he calls me 'the Kerensky of poetry'. Not too bad, I thought at first. Alas, though, the book's editor advises me that Larkin almost certainly meant to say Dzerchinsky, or somebody - some murderer - like that.

(It seems the letters were out first, by the way, at least in England.)

But Hamilton does not follow the approach of defending Larkin by attacking his executors. He had written about them sympathetically (in the greatly to be recommended Keepers of the Flame) before the Letters and the life came out. He jibs at Motion's style -- "too solemnly intrusive... The teacher in him is often at war with the narrator and, in the early sections of the book, where he is guessing, he slips easily into an inert biographese"; but he does not cricitise the handling of Larkin's sex life and his primary reactions seem to be shock and (for Larkin) something between anguished empathy and pity, with a dash of irritation. I'm going to take him as my guide, for now.

You see, I've never actually picked up the Motion biography, having heard so much bloody about it. But a good sample of Larkin's hates and rages come through in his poems. We don't have to live with them on the basis that his feelings against women, black people, lefties, rivals, everyone, were first and deepest feelings against himself, although probably they were. We have to live with them because he forged them into poems that are lasting and memorable and touching and draw echoes from us (me, anyway) even of their most shaming admissions. If we can't cope with that, it's our problem -- not his and not even (I suspect) his biographers'.

(The Hamilton reviews quoted appear in the The Trouble with Money, which is apparently still just about in print, and in Walking Possession, which isn't. I'm afraid you still need both.)

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