Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love review – James Booth's life of the poet is wide of the mark

Except when dealing with the poetry itself, James Booth's biography of Philip Larkin reaches some muddled conclusions

As treasurer of the Oxford English Club, the young Philip Larkin met several famous writers, among them Lord Berners, George Orwell and, most anticipated of all, Dylan Thomas. The poet visited the university in the winter of 1941 and went down a storm, his audience rolling on the floor as he parodied Stephen Spender. Larkin, though, couldn't quite get with the programme. Thomas's reading was "wonderful", his voice slow and artfully lingering. But how quickly the memory faded. In the days afterwards, he came to a far sadder verdict, writing to his pal Jim Sutton: "On the whole, he was rather a pathetic figure. It was difficult to connect the man and his poetry."

Seven decades on, and while Thomas is the stuff of stirring movie biopics, it's Larkin who's the pathetic figure: a racist, misogynist, death-fixated porn addict whose refusal to commit to any of the women he was blithely three-timing stole from them the best years of their lives. Just as the undergraduate Larkin could not connect Thomas with his poetry, so many 21st-century readers have had trouble coping with the fact that he, Larkin, wrote such exquisite masterpieces as At Grass, Love Songs in Age and An Arundel Tomb. It's true that the poems, luminous and wise, have sailed irresistibly on since the publication of Andrew Motion's biography of Larkin in 1993; my sense is they're more loved than ever. But Larkin himself is an ongoing problem, like a smell that won't go away.

In his new biography, James Booth, a retired professor of English at the University of Hull, is keen to deal with this stink. He rushes about the place with the literary equivalent of air freshener, determined to render even the most whiffy facts a little more fragrant. It's a strategy that's only partially successful. Booth is certainly less sententious than Motion; he leans towards understanding rather than judgment, which seems to me to be the bigger part of the biographer's job. But it also gets him into several scrapes. Not only does it lead him to be unfair to Larkin's lovers, women he apparently regards as the poet's "creation" (Monica Jones, the academic with whom Larkin was involved for more than 30 years, would have shrieked to hear this – and rightly so). It also causes him to overstate the Larkin-haters' case, the better that he might ride to the rescue. Is there anyone alive, for instance, who honestly regards Larkin as a "pugnacious philistine"? He strikes me as having been one of the better-read writers of the last century, and rather timid to boot. Equally, when Booth refers to the "gross eroticism" of one of Larkin's letters to Jones – the poet writes of a long, hot night spent imagining how nice it would be to gather her "great smooth hips" under him – I felt nothing but bafflement. The professor must have led an exceedingly sheltered life.

It's not even as though all this special pleading is really required. As writers go – as human beings go – Larkin was surely no odder than most, his sins no greater. He was a product of his time and class, and complicated, as all of us are. It's possible that his particular complications had their roots in his childhood, though this remains hazy territory. Contrary to popular belief, Larkin was close to his parents – not only to his mother, Eva, to whom he wrote, as an adult, such copious and loving letters, but also to his father Sydney, Coventry's city treasurer. Sydney's rightwing tendencies are well documented – he kept a "comic" statue of a Nazi on his mantelpiece – but it's interesting that it was he who encouraged his son's "addiction" to jazz, he who convinced Larkin there was more to reading than the novels of John Galsworthy. Perhaps both men were more instinctively bohemian than they cared to admit.

Booth moves clearly and swiftly through Larkin's childhood, his time at Oxford during the war, his jobs at libraries in Wellington and Belfast, his arrival in Hull, the city with which he'd be forever associated. Along the way, he lines up all the women: Ruth Bowman, Patsy Strang and Winifred Arnott; Monica Jones, his colleague Maeve Brennan, and his secretary Betty Mackereth (with whom he had concurrent relationships). But if only he'd made more effort to bring these places and people alive, to elucidate their characters that we might understand their particular appeal for Larkin. I suppose there is compensation in the form of his lengthy readings of the poems, which are close and thoughtful if not exactly exhilarating, and in his use of Larkin's letters, which remind the reader again and again what a fantastic writer the poet was, even in casual mode. (In a letter to Jim Sutton, he describes himself huddled by a gas fire, his hands "like chilly frogs" – a simile you want to steal and stash in your handbag.) However, in its turn, all this must be set against the quite deranged amount of attention – an entire chapter! – Booth gives to Larkin's alter ego, Brunette Coleman, author of the high camp lesbian school story Trouble at Willow Gables. I hardly knew where to look. It's as if a bishop had devoted Thought for the Day to an analysis of Peep Show.

I think it was Martin Amis who told me in an interview that, at the reckoning, a man's life comes down to his relationships with women. Where does Booth stand on this so far as Larkin goes? It's hard to know. The phrase "the heart has its reasons" seems to have no resonance for him. He prefers to see Larkin's behaviour as a pathology, his favourite word being misogamy, a term he deploys so often it ceases to have any meaning. Perhaps it bewilders him that what clues we do have by way of an explanation for the mess of his sex life tend to be sentimental rather than sordid. "I'm a romantic bastard," said Larkin in 1950, the die already cast. "Remote things seem desirable." And on the other side, there come, irrefutably, the voices of his at-a-distance partners, fierce with pain but intensely warm nevertheless. "He lied to me, the bugger, but I loved him," said Jones after his death in 1985, a statement that must surely have applied to Brennan as well.

Larkin's first audience, of course, was never lied to. He gave us the best of himself, and kept the rest out of sight. "I want readers to feel 'yes', I've never thought of it that way, but that's how it is," he said of his poetry towards the end of his life. Yes. In his relationships, it was a word that always eluded him. On the page, though, affirmation – even celebration – was often in his grasp. Larkin's letters to his friend Bruce Montgomery are safely embargoed until 2035, which means that no more biographies – no more "revelations" – will be headed our way for a very long time indeed. Let us put our muddles and righteous indignation to one side, then, and turn back to the work, which continues untarnished and inordinately beautiful.

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love is published by Bloomsbury (£25). Click here to buy it for £18.99 with free UK p&p


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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