Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth
(Bloomsbury Press, 2014, 532 pages)
I love Philip Larkin’s poetry, and I’ve been anxious to read Booth’s biography. Larkin is a profound but accessible poet. Many of his poems deal with failure, disappointment, and death, so he has the reputation of being something of a pessimist and a grump. However, his humor and his emotional articulacy have made him one of England’s most beloved poets.
Larkin’s reputation has suffered since the publication of his selected letters and of Andrew Motion’s major biography in the 1990s. These painted an unflattering portrait of Larkin that included significant doses of casual racism and misogyny. However, Booth, who is the literary advisor to the Philip Larkin Society and was a colleague of Larkin’s at the University of Hull, seeks to correct this impression. He does not shy away from the uglier statements found in Larkin’s correspondence, but neither does he offer a very convincing apology for them. Booth refers to Larkin’s “flashes of performative racism,” suggesting that these comments are more satire than conviction. He tries to counter Larkin’s reputation for right wing nationalism with a younger Larkin’s expressions of his liberal political leanings. Despite Booth’s attempts at portraying a more sympathetic Larkin, the picture that actually emerges is one of a writer whose prejudices grew and became entrenched as he aged.
Despite this particular failure, the book is still immensely valuable. Booth strikes a good balance of biographical detail and literary analysis. He thoroughly details the manuscript history of Larkin’s poems, using these details to give a picture of the poet’s writing habits and emotional life. As the title suggests, Larkin’s love life is a major subject of the book. Larkin never married, and many of his poems and letters deal with the indecision and potential selfishness surrounding this topic. However, Larkin’s broken engagement with Ruth Bowman, his long term relationship with Monica Jones, and several affairs with colleagues and employees at Hull University’s library (where Larkin served as the University Librarian for thirty years) provide plenty of biographical interest.
Booth’s deep understanding and analysis of Larkin’s poetry is the strength of the book, but his interviews with people who knew Larkin also contribute to the portrait. Though he doesn’t succeed in reversing the perception of Larkin’s more objectionable statements, Booth does show that his poetry – skeptical and gloomy as it often is – is inspired by and infused with a sense of the beauty of life in the world. Sometimes these contradictions must just be left alone.