Philip Larkin (1922-1985) is one of the most beloved poets in English. Yet after his death a largely negative image of the man himself took hold; he has been portrayed as a racist, a misogynist and a narcissist. Now Larkin scholar James Booth, for seventeen years a colleague of the poet's at the University of Hull, offers a very different portrait. Drawn from years of research and a wide variety of Larkin's friends and correspondents, this is the most comprehensive portrait of the poet yet published.
Booth traces the events that shaped Larkin in his formative years, from his early life when his his political instincts were neutralised by exposure to his father's controversial Nazi values. He studies how the academic environment and the competition he felt with colleagues such as Kingsley Amis informed not only Larkin's poetry, but also his little-known ambitions as a novelist.
Through the places and people Larkin encountered over the course of his life, including Monica Jones, with whom he had a tumultuous but enduring relationship, Booth pieces together an image of a rather reserved and gentle man, whose personality - and poetry - have been misinterpreted by decades of academic study. Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love reveals the man behind the words as he has never been seen before.
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Good literary analysis embedded in a grating hagiography
Yes, I'd read a book by James Booth about someone he is less embarrassingly personally biased towards. The close, sensitive readings of the poems are excellent and beautifully done. The constant praise and defence of Larkin's personality - often contradicting and dismissing Larkin's own serious self-criticism - is deeply off-putting. It's annoying throughout the book but becomes appalling and offensive in the section excusing Larkin's racist language (which, broadly, adopts the theory that it's totally okay and ironic to refer to immigrants as niggers and pakis, provided you have a brown colleague somewhere who you are polite to). There's also an unintentionally hilarious moment when Booth proposes that Larkin is sexually involved with 2 women at once because he's too kind and considerate to break either's heart (again, dismissing Larkin's own scathing analysis of his own motives as misplaced 'guilt'). In general, I think that the book would have been much much better if all the barrister-for-defence stuff was dropped and he let Larkin do more of the talking.
He could have avoided editorialising so extensively on Larkin's personality. I'm interested in Larkin's work and his life, on which James Booth is an expert. I'm not interested in James Booth's view on what counts as harmless racism and when cheating is altruistic - he's clearly not an expert in moral philosophy and it's both boring and embarrassing to have to listen to him go on and on in speeches for the defence that are built on such tenuous foundations.
Clear, lively, unobtrusive.
More than a biography.