on 21 November 2010
This volume is a wonderful addition to the already published Selected Letters both edited with scrupulous care and sympathy by Anthony Thwaite. Larkins relationship with Monica Jones is covered from 1946 through to 1984 when they lived together, in part due to Larkins wish to look after Monica after she hurt herself in a fall. The letters are a wonderful mixture of the mundanities of life as Larkin struggles to live in "digs" that are always plagued by noise from above and below (loud radios; conversations; bangs and crashes seem to plague him). This is against a background of his career as a Librarian chiefly in Belfast and then more famously Hull. We get details of his work colleagues and his literary pursuits as he struggles to write the poems that would make him famous. Bitchy but heartfelt comments come thick and fast about Kingsley Amis and numerous other friends and acquaintances. His constant concern about his mother (widowed and alone for a long part of her life) and observations about the weather, radio programmes and his own reading habits provide a fascinating insight into this intensely private and personal poet.
His letters to Monica are often affectionate; self deprecating and full of plans for holidays, visits and observations about her own situation. There are limitations- the reader rarely gets a hint of Monicas perspective (though there are some useful footnotes that occasionally summarise crucial periods when she was upset about his affair with Maeve Brennan for example)There is also an overall feel for a lost period before the internet when letter writing was the only means of long and heartfelt communication- and this is indeed one of the last big collections of letters from a writer- there will be few if any from now on unless publishers are keen to print collections of tweets and emails. Larkin's enthusiasms (Katherine Mansfield; D H Lawrence; Gin and tonics; Jazz) are all mentioned and the feel for a Britain (particuarly in the letters spanning the 1950s) is tangible and touching. Larkin may come across as a curmudgeon but his sense of humour is also apparent in his gentle pastiches of letter writing styles and in his genuine affection and respect for Monica Jones. True; he refused to marry her and had relationships with other women but his relationship with Jones was truly a meeting of minds and crucial to them both. The days when one hung around by the post box for a real letter to pop through the door are long gone but this collection is truly touching, amusing, and makes even the mundanities of life sparkle again.
on 8 January 2011
The contents of this book are wonderful - five stars. In his own way Larkin is just as interesting and moving as any of the great poet/letter writers
As an object, this volume is disappointing - one star. Faber produce books of very varied quality. The best are very good, and include excellent recent productions of the letters of Ted Hughes, and the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (just to focus on hardback editions of poets' letters). Their worst are dreadful (eg their recent two volumes of the letters of T S Eliot - contrast the excellent first volume they published twenty or so years ago.) This edition of Larkin is one of their poorer productions. It feels light and shoddy. The pages - glued, of course, (they were sewn in both the Hughes and the Bishop/Lowell mentioned above) are already showing signs of falling out. The paper, smelling of cheap cardboard when you turn the pages, will, I'm sure, go brown quickly. The person who gave me the book for Christmas apologised, saying she thought about sending it back.
Faber needs to understand that if its customers just want content they will wait for the paperback, or, increasingly, go for an e-book. More and more customers will only buy a book, particularly a hardback, if it feels like a quality object. It's not a question of economics. I for one would be prepared to pay a couple of quid more for a hardback if the production standards are excellent; if the production standards are poor I often won't buy the book at all.
on 12 February 2012
These letters apparently came to light after the Selected Letters were published. Taken along with the latter, and the Andrew Motion biography, this makes for a rounded picture of Larkin.
Larkin was a chameleon in correspondence, in that he adapted the style and subject matter of his letters to the addressee. compare the letters to Kingsley Amis, for instance, to those to Barbara Pym - one laddish and irascible (like Amis), the other old-maidish (prim like Pym). In contrast, those to Monica Jones, his long-term partner, are intimate and affectionate, and seem, to me at least, to be the closest to the 'real' Larkin.
He must have been an infuriating person. What struck me is the self-absorption of his letters - endless trivial detail of the food he eats, the records he listens to, the books he reads, his groans of despair at having to work, his gripes over money, his constant feeling of being put-upon by the presence of others (which to Larkin amounts to theft of his time and energy), and, most of all, the horror of other peoples' noise. Very rarely does he refer to anything of Monica's life.
But despite all that, you can understand why women found him attractive. He's emotionally sensitive, expressive and funny. He is also affectionate, albeit in a slightly distant way. He refers to Jones throughout as a rabbit ('Dearest Bun') which paradoxically also seems a way of distancing her from him.
There is a lot of intentional humour here, which also emerges in some of the poems, but there's a lot that's unintentionally comic, too. Larkin's resentment of others is particularly funny. He grinds his teeth with fury at the unfairness of having to work; he is appalled and disgusted by his fellow-lodgers; their radios drive him mad (while ironically his letters are also full of the radio programmes he he inflicts on them - cricket, jazz, Handel, The Archers); his mother and sister seem to be a grave disappointment to him. 'Selfish' doesn't begin to cover this. Larkin also struggles to keep Jones at arm's length; he constantly apologises for not being ready or willing to marry. He also apologises several times for his sexual apathy towards her. So Larkin was no bedroom beast then; but he used the distance he kept between himself and Jones to provide him with the freedom to work his way steadily through the female staff at Belfast and Hull.
But this selfishness was the price to pay for his brilliant, detached poetry. One of the joys of this book is to see some of the best known poems emerge. We see him wrestling with early drafts, with appeals to Jones for advice and support. This is a fascinating part of the book.
One nice thing about the paperback is the photograph on the cover, of Larkin and Jones on holiday in Sark in 1960. They face each other, about 10 yards apart, Larkin standing, Jones sitting. It's one of the happiest times of their lives, on a sunny, breezy day. This photo holds these two now-deceased people like a heaven. I found it incredibly poignant.
Overall, a lovely, funny book, a satisfying completion of our picture of Larkin. You have to warm to anyone who, while discussing the Archers, expresses a desire to drive a tractor over Walter Gabriel's face. Highly recommended for fans, but I do think that even non-fans would be charmed by it.
on 7 July 2013
... are just some comments I can make about this. This is the domestic Larkin, sitting with a G & T, record player or "wireless" on, writing to his long-term, and often long-suffering, friend, girlfriend, lover, partner... I don't know what the correct term is for Monica, and I'm not sure she knew either! Larkin was a wonderful letter-writer, and, as the "Seleceted Letters" demonstrated, had a different voice for different listeners (compare his letters to Barbara Pym with those to Kingsley Amis, or notoriously, Colin Gunner) but here we get, if not THE Larkin, the biggest part of Larkin.
We also get an insight into the writing of, or gestation of, some of his poems, including An Arundel Tomb, This Be The Verse, and The Card Players, as well as comments on other poets. A goldmine for Larkin studies, and a jolly good read.
on 19 December 2010
I borrowed this from the library but shall buy it, a sentiment similar to many which Larkin expresses in a volume which is always fascinating on his reading, as he is on much else: he comes at everything from an unexpected angle, including his own existence.
Although there are the customary laments that he has let life slip through his fingers and that others have done as much in a year as he has in two decades, the volume is not so much absorbing for the trajectory of his relationship with Monica Jones but the way in which it allows him to riff, often surreally, on the passing show.
That vanished England in which people sat around and read the Sunday papers, and had to forage for obscure records.
The more I read the volume, the more I am convinced that if Larkin could have overcome his shyness, then there would have been queues for a self-deprecating act as a atand-up comedian. He often anticipates Woody Allen, and is galaxies away from lookalike Simon Fanshawe (why does anybody call him a comedian?).
Take, for example, Larkin's letter of 28 December 1950, in which he thanks Monica for a Christmas present: "you would have laughed at my expectations: as soon as I handled it, I thought: I know what this is - it's The ordeal of Paul Cezanne by John Rewald (Phoenix House, 30/-), & a slight pang of apprehension went through me, despite the quite genuine pleasure I should also have felt, at the thought of the ordeal of Philip Larkin that would come from reading it"... and so the paragraph goes on, as he unwraps what turns out to be The Wind in Willows, illustrated by Rackham, which he describes cogently.
All of it capped by "Not much of a haul this Christmas! A laundry bag (asked for), a 10/6 book token, a second-hand tie, & a pair of expanding cufflinks enamelled in blue with large 'P's in cursive script on them. That's all, that's all, that's all, that's all. Shan't get very fat on all that, eh? Not even a card from my sister: I am left with a powerful sense of having given rather than received, & the 4 above-mentioned articles. The family so far has not been so bad as I feared - plenty of time yet - but the utter comfortlessness of the spiritual slum my sister inhabits is not cheering."
What an encapsulation of Austerity England. Asking for a laundry bag!
He also draws a another link, not the famous line, between the Beatles and his own work. Seek that out, and much more.
I would have given it five stars, but the paper is not as good as the book deserves.
One mystery: here, as in the Selected Letters, many contemporaries and others receive a drubbing - there is some jealousy of Kingsley Amis - but somebody who emerges unscathed is Anthony Thwaite.... editor of both volumes.
I doubt that Larkin ever expected these personal letters to the fascinating and long-suffering Monica Jones to be published. After all he took great care to ensure that his diaries were destroyed. It seems to be an accident of fate that led their editor to discover them and there are suggestions that by then Monica was possibly not in a fit state to consider whether she or PL would have wanted them in our hands. Certainly this reader - admittedly amongst all manner of other feelings - felt at times discomfort at the intrusion. Of course now they are an institution and within one, The Bodleian, I believe. The argument goes, I imagine, that such materials throw light on what really matters - the poems. There are, of course, a number of references to particular poems during the course of their taking their final shapes. Whether this enhances our understanding/appreciation is another matter. Would we value Monica's favourite Shakespearian play, "Antony and Cleopatra", the more highly if we knew more of WS and the circumstances of his life at the time of writing? Very much I doubt it. What matters is the work. I've no doubt that Larkin is the finest British poet who stated creative life post WW11. His enthusiam for cricket is immaterial.
I think Thwaite should be commended for the disciplined, restrained and always helpful information he provides and for his self-effacing introduction. It would be good to think that at least in Larkin's personal letters to someone he certainly cared for he dropped his masks. Sometimes, during his fears about his illness he seems to. Elsewhere I wonder if he does no more than hide from us yet again behind his shared loves/prejudices/whimsies with MJ. On the face of it he comes across most unsympathetically to this PC brain-washed world. He is open about his racial and other prejudices and makes no attempt to hide his contempt for most of his fellow creative practitioners alive and dead. Lawrence, Hardy and Beatrix Potter apart, there is scarcely any writer for whom he can sustain any kind of respect. This can be bracing if also an invitation to wallow in our own non-PC prejudices. Some of his judgements surprise, his enthusiasm for D.H. Lawrence for example. He never makes clear here whether it is the novels or poetry that command his assent - surely not the latter - but........
With a book of this kind, especially one that can never bypass a judgement, I found myself looking for witty destructions that invite "yes","yes", yes"! "The Guardian" and C.P.Snow for example, and also for shared enthusiasms , "Take it from Here", but then I find myself caught by attacks on Tony Hancock and more significantly F. R. Leavis, and by his liking for C.S. Lewis. Personal considerations no doubt account for his over-rating of Kingsley Amis , certainly a highly intelligent man, a witty one, too but not a poet of say Gunn's standard, who PL dismisses as "dull", without suggesting that his tongue is in his cheek.
There was clearly another side to PL that gets short shrift here. He was a conscientious and able administator and a more shrewd negotiator re his poetical output than he pretends here. In the last analysis what really matters are the poems - many very fine ones. That is why PL is important and of what we need to remind ourselves when we find ourselves poking our noses into a sensitive personal relationship. ogh ogh ....
If you are wondering whether it is worth laying out your money on a one-sided correspondence by a poet who has plenty of other books and collections written about him then I can advise you with confidence to acquire this volume. This book was my Christmas reading and I found it totally compelling from beginning to end. However, I must issue some provisos before celebrating its virtues. Firstly, the letters do require some knowledge of mid-twentieth century poets (more than I have really)and many names are referred to using only capital letters which means a lot of checking with Anthony Thwaites' invaluable footnotes and appendices. Secondly, the vast majority of the correspondence dates from the period 1950-65 with almost nothing after 1972 so this is an incomplete picture. Having said all this, there is a lot to enjoy in this selection-one of its great joys is the sense of eavesdropping on the daily life of a great poet and what a mundane life it was in many ways! You are far more likely to read of Larkin 'nursing a lamb casserole' or having a bath than you are to hear of him attending a smart literary lunch. What does emerge clearly here is a portrait of a selfish man who sought above all his own comfort and peace and was always keen to avoid emotional commitment either to Monica (and his other lovers) or his ailing mother. Yet this is also a man with a conscience who recognises his own weakness, but is unable and unwilling to do anything about it-a dilemma which made for depression in life and brilliance in verse. Lovers of Larkin's poetry will also find illumination as to the inspiration for many of his most memorable pieces including The Whitsun Weddings and An Arundel Tomb. Yet although Larkin clearly did'nt suffer fools gladly and had some cutting remarks to offer about some of his
contemporaries, it is also fascinating to read of his very modest assessment of his own work. Ultimately though the delight of this collection is in the personal detail-Larkin's love of rabbits and test cricket, his delight at seeing the spring blossoms, his passion for Thomas Hardy and his hatred of pretension and buraucracy. Here we are given an intimate portrait of a poet warts and all, but even if you don't love the man who emerges from these pages you will be intrigued for there is much of ourselves in him if we are honest, particularly if you are a man. A strong recommendation.
I found these very difficult. Firstly, I love Larkin's poems and it was fascinating to see more of what informed them. Secondly I found him a difficult person to like and the things that make that difficult shout loud and clear from the letters in a way that cannot be ignored as you can slide over them in the poetry. Some of the turns of phrase are marvellous. Some of the letters are touching and sometimes funny, but the self obsession and the shabby way in which he treated others is not particularly edifying reading. A real mixed bag.
on 3 December 2010
A mind changing collection that challenges any preconceived notions about the misogynistic poet. These are disarmingly frank and revelatory. As an insight into the poems the letters are of limited interest, but if you simply want to know how this cool genius lived this is essential.
on 10 March 2011
Dearest Bun, Dearest, My Dear, Dear Rabbit and occasionally - when Philip Larkin's fear of exchanging his oneness for twoness is at its lowest - Darling... you can assess Larkin's awful 40-year journey through the lower reaches of relationship commitment by the levels of affection in these appellations and others for Monica Jones. Dearest Bun is the most common term, and is certainly affectionate, but not exactly a term of passionate endearment. It keeps her close to him, but not much closer than arm's length.
Although I took away from these letters everything you would expect from Larkin's always wonderful prose - humour, elegant writing, wry insights, further evidence of his strangely appealing glass-three-quarters-empty world view - and was often moved by his life and his perceptions of his life, I was also really depressed by the lethargy of both Larkin and Monica Jones in their management of their relationship. It's easy to blame Larkin the most, for having it both ways for so long: enjoying her company when he felt like it, and her absence when he felt like that (especially when he was playing away), while she got older and more lonely and less marriageable in an era when marriage cruelly defined female value. But her own apathy in putting up with his semi-detached love and sporadic cheating is just as mind-boggling: five years is understandable, ten years is possible, but forty? This book is a bulging epistolary lesson in the awful dangers of being timid. For God's sake, ditch each other, I kept thinking...
Anyway, a must-read book for any fan of Larkin the poet and Larkin the curmudgeon, and a blueprint for any couple intent on causing each other moderate distress for four decades.
And finally, hopefully one day there will be a complete edition, when the question of whether Anthony Thwaite has represented himself accurately or vainly in this selection (he only gets positive comments by Larkin, unlike virtually everyone else) will be answered. And finally finally, as other reviewers have pointed out, the production values of this hardback by Faber are lamentable - the book was falling to pieces as I approached the end.