Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth review – judge the poems, not poet

An enthusiastic but judicious corrective to previous biographies of the ‘Hermit of Hull’

This is now the third biography of Larkin. So far, they seem to be coming out at the same rate as his volumes of poetry did: that is, about once a decade. For a man whose life was quiet even by the standards English writers are said to set, this is quite something. The lesson here is that even a dull life will fascinate if the work is interesting or good enough, or if there is a question of adjustments to be made to the reputation.

When his letters and the first biography, by Andrew Motion, were published, more than 20 years ago, Larkin was revealed as someone given to poisonous racist utterance in private, and as a collector of pornography. The image of the gloomy ‘Hermit of Hull’ became tarnished; at the time it seemed irreparably so. But there were still the poems, and for all that academics such as Lisa Jardine said, in effect, that they weren’t that good anyway, a lot of people felt otherwise, with good reason, and the dust has settled.

However, James Booth feels that the modified reputation Larkin now has – yes, a fine poet, but not a nice person at all – could do with some correction. “Those who shared his life simply do not recognise the Mr Nasty version,” he says in his introduction, and his biography is a corrective.

Booth has been a keeper of the Larkin flame ever since he was a colleague of the poet’s at Hull University, so is well placed to know at least some of the facets of his personality, or how the life influenced the work. He has wisely chosen to examine the work in detail so as to illustrate the life, although some readers may balk at the chapter in which Booth carefully studies Larkin’s writing as “Brunette Coleman”, author of pastiche girls’ school stories. (“Mentally, with pardonable epicureanism, she noted for future reference that bare-backed riding without knickers was a pleasurable occupation”, etc.) I certainly found myself asking how much more of this there was going to be, and I don’t think many people will be as impressed by Larkin’s technique in these stories as Booth is. Then again, it’s better to take it seriously than to mock it or pretend it isn’t there, and knowing what he wrote in this vein comes in handy later on when we start thinking about the different voices in Larkin’s poems (more various than you might have imagined or remembered), or his attitudes to women (more complex than you might have imagined or remembered).

Booth’s dissections of the poems are not – how shall I put this? – of an intimidatingly academic nature, but he’s alive to what makes them tick, and is also unafraid to point out when Larkin’s execution was not up to his usual high standard. Larkin could be scathing about his own work: he described “The Trees” (one of my favourites) as “very corny” to his lover, Monica Jones, and to himself, in the workbook in which he inscribed it, as “bloody awful tripe”.

But the value in this book resides chiefly in reminding us just how great a poet he was, and how much care and work he put into it. Booth’s enthusiasm is judicious and infectious; the lesson here is to trust the song, rather than the singer. (“The Trees” is good whatever Larkin says about it.)

We learn not to make easy judgments: Larkin’s idea of privacy extended to withholding parts of himself from even his closest friends. “I sometimes wonder if I ever really knew him,” Kingsley Amis said to his son after returning from Larkin’s funeral, and Booth avoids second-guessing what was going on in Larkin’s head.

The best thing literary biography can do is send you back to the work, more knowledgeable, more sympathetic. Booth succeeds – and he also makes Larkin more likable (one of the pleasant things about this book is that, thanks to Larkin’s wit, we are never far from a joke). So I would recommend reading it as I did, with a paperback of the 1988 Collected Poems by the side, and once again taking the opportunity to contemplate just how it was that this miserable, self-hunted man managed to produce such great, enduring work.

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Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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