John Banville's homage to Philip Larkin
February 6, 2006 12:49 PM   Subscribe

He complained to [Kingsley] Amis in 1943...that "all women are stupid beings" and remarked in 1983 that he'd recently accompanied Monica [Jones] to a hospital "staffed ENTIRELY by wogs, cheerful and incompetent." ...His views on politics and class seemed to be pithily captured in a ditty he shared again with Amis. "I want to see them starving,/The so-called working class,/Their wages yearly halving,/Their women stewing grass..." For recreation he apparently found time for pornography, preferably with a hint of sado-masochism".
John Banville on Philip Larkin.
posted by matteo (30 comments total)
Miggy's old Larkin post
posted by matteo at 12:50 PM on February 6, 2006

Banville's defense of Larkin, from the NYBooks link:
Although it is not much of a defense, one might say of Larkin that he was the victim of what our teacher-priests used to call "bad companions." Richard Bradford points out that "virtually all indications that Larkin was a misogynistic, intolerant racist occur in his letters to Colin Gunner and Kingsley Amis." Amis, who was as funny as Larkin, early on abandoned his youthful socialist convictions in favor of a kind of radical low Toryism which swelled with the years to caricature proportions; Gunner, whom Larkin had not seen since their schooldays together, renewed contact with him in 1971, and the two embarked on a correspondence in which each shored up the other's baleful right-wing leanings. "Gunner," Bradford writes, "was the kind of eccentric Englishman one might expect to find in fiction but who frequently survives outside it: lower middle class, quixotic and reactionary, and almost endearingly self-destructive."
posted by matteo at 12:58 PM on February 6, 2006

Is it just me, or does Banville come off as kind of a dick?

(The question needn't be asked of Larkin--he is unquestionably a dick.)
posted by Anonymous at 1:16 PM on February 6, 2006

I used to care about such things: I no longer do. Great artists are often not great people. End of story.

The work matters; trust the art, not the artist. And so on. Expecting artists to be as good as their work only leads to disillusion.

I love Philip Larkin's poetry, and will continue to do so.
posted by jokeefe at 1:24 PM on February 6, 2006

Larkin is a poet I've been meaning to read more fully for a long time. My sense is that you'd find plenty of lefty progressive types who adore his work, despite his reactionary tendencies--besides, a lot of great authors are notorious for having bad taste in humor (Eliot, Pound, Lowell come to mind immediately). Not to excuse bigotry, but it's just as much a "pose" as anything else.

Banville strikes me as someone with all of the gesturing and cockiness in place, but none of the humor. I'm not that interested in tracking down one of his books, but open to a mefite convincing me otherwise.

Also, since someone quoted "This Be the Verse" in the Cardoso thread, here's another one of my favorites:

High Windows

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives--
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
posted by bardic at 1:25 PM on February 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh, and matteo: I didn't mean, earlier, to criticize your post in itself. I think it's a good FPP.
posted by jokeefe at 1:50 PM on February 6, 2006

I went to Hull University when Larkin worked there as librarian. A doleful figure, I could not imagine anyone less interested in porn. Which probably means he was.
posted by A189Nut at 1:55 PM on February 6, 2006

Who’s really interested in porn anyway? I mean for more than a few minutes...
posted by Smedleyman at 1:59 PM on February 6, 2006

Philip Larkin as an execrable man but fine poet was also discussed previously here.
posted by onlyconnect at 2:38 PM on February 6, 2006

Those of uniquely complex creative vision tend to have uniquely complex sexualities. Extreme desires and fantasies with multiple layers of psychological meaning. I doubt that porn itself was what drove the man.
posted by wayside at 2:39 PM on February 6, 2006

Banville's my favourite contemporary Irish writer. His novel The Untouchable, loosely based on the life of Anthony Blunt, is exquisite. His current one, The Sea, for which he won the Booker Prize, is sitting on my desk, waiting to be read a second time as soon as I can. I want to mark and underline paragraphs while I'm reading his work, or look up from the book and tell my fellow commuters: 'Yes! This is how I see it. I could have written this! I am this retired, aging, male protagonist...' But of course I couldn't have and I'm neither retired, aging nor male. But Banville's work moves me.

I'm not sure that'll convince you, Bardic.
posted by prolific at 3:09 PM on February 6, 2006

What jokeefe said. The impact of his poetry far outweighs that of his "questionable" views or (god forbid) love of pornography to an immeasurable degree. It's ridiculous that someone who once privately said the word "wog" to a friend, had right wing views in private, and may just not have been very nice, again in private, should have his entire artistic legacy reassessed.

I've read Larkin's letters and there is far worse than what is mentioned in that article. Or, quoted in this FPP. Despite being nothing more than yet another brief reheat of Larkin's life and legacy, and with little actual insight from Banville himself as far as I can see, the article is quite fair. Clive James famous "rush of dunces" is a good jumping off point when approaching Larkin's legacy. Anyone in any doubt about him need only read some of his poems, and he probably knew that would be the case. In a recent BBC poll Larkin was the nations favourite post war poet and Whitsun Weddings was the nations favourite poem. The collection of poetry it came from (also called Whitsun Weddings) was the nations favourite poetry book. He is not only insanely good, he is widely loved - cherished even - despite the person he was. But I guess there is still a buck to be squeezed from these "revelations."
posted by fire&wings at 3:34 PM on February 6, 2006

Yeah, I gotta use that one on the wife wayside, see if I can get away with only a small set of cast-iron frying pan lumps.

/Look, honey, those of uniquely complex creative vision tend to have uniquely complex sexualities. Just put on the bunny suit and invite your sister in.

It could be a sort of self-commentary. I’m thinking Lennon & “Working Class Hero” sort of thing.
I know he went to Oxford, but a librarian doesn’t strike me as particularly upper class. (Although I don’t know anything about English society stratification).

I’d agree with wayside though on complexity. It’s only dullards that tend to be totally consistient.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:38 PM on February 6, 2006

Larkin, my favourite poet. His back story is woeful but there it is. I agree with Banville here, it doesn't stop me appreciating his work. On the plus side this piece introduced a new word to me - 'costive', how wonderful, I shall use it at the first opportunity. Oh! and where is the 'hull' tag?
posted by tellurian at 4:01 PM on February 6, 2006

posted by fire&wings at 4:05 PM on February 6, 2006

As long as he doesn't claim it's a memoir...
posted by wendell at 6:16 PM on February 6, 2006

Are the stars aligned in some crazy way today or something?

We were discussing Larkin today in one of my grad seminars, the University's newspaper had a comic strip mentioning Larkin, and now this?
posted by papakwanz at 6:41 PM on February 6, 2006

Nice post.
posted by uni verse at 7:08 PM on February 6, 2006

This is the first thing

This is the first thing
I have understood:
Time is the echo of an axe
Within a wood.
posted by madamjujujive at 9:09 PM on February 6, 2006 [2 favorites]

Continuing To Live

Continuing to live -- that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries --
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
      It varies.

This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise --
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
      But it's chess.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
      To exist.

And what's the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
      But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
      And that one dying.
posted by ori at 12:03 AM on February 7, 2006

Lisa Jardine, a professor in the English department at the University of London, wrote, Bradford tells us, that while she "would not go quite so far as to ban the study of Larkin his poems would be removed from the core curriculum and dealt with only to disclose 'the [parochial] beliefs which lie behind them.'"....She dismisses the poems—"Actually, we don't tend to teach Larkin much in my Department of English"—for not engaging with "everyday discriminations, everyday assumptions of white British superiority" and for the fact that the values she thinks he celebrates sit uneasily "within our revised curriculum, which seeks to give all of our students, regardless of background, race or creed, a voice within British culture."
Folks: English is fucked as a discipline.
posted by ori at 12:21 AM on February 7, 2006

The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
posted by felix betachat at 12:28 AM on February 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Book of Evidence by John Banville is an excellent novel, though I have treid reading others and found them impenetrable.

What most other people seem to believe: the best of him went into his work, the other side I'm not interested in, as we are all smaller in private than we seem in public.
posted by johnny novak at 12:53 AM on February 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I was amused, and a little intrigued, to see that the NYRB sub-editors felt it necessary to explain the word 'bum' in a footnote. ('British slang for buttocks'.) Do American readers really need to have this explained to them?
posted by verstegan at 2:02 AM on February 7, 2006

well, maybe not "bum", but, say, "smoking fag after fag" may indeed be confusing to the average American reader
posted by matteo at 3:40 AM on February 7, 2006

smedleyman - 'I know he went to Oxford, but a librarian doesn’t strike me as particularly upper class. (Although I don’t know anything about English society stratification).'

the Oxford = upper class thing is still true but to a very limited extent - i.e. there's still a group of people who have inherited wealth and use it to buy their sons and daughters a superior education, meaning they punch above their academic weight and get in to universities with very strict entrance requirements.

These days, this group is very small, though, and in Oxford and Cambridge (not that these are the only two such universities in Britain! Just examples) there is a much greater mix of people than there ever used to be. Among my friends who went to Oxford there are a couple of librarians, a journalist, a couple of City financial workers, some engineers, a management accountant, an artist, a few PhDs, and a freelance translator (me). None of us had the option of living on family money (the definition of upper class as far as I'm concerned).
posted by altolinguistic at 6:58 AM on February 7, 2006

we are all smaller in private than we seem in public

I don't think so. Extroverts, maybe, but not introverts.
posted by onlyconnect at 7:02 AM on February 7, 2006

Hi ori!
posted by papakwanz at 10:46 AM on February 7, 2006

papakwanz, please crawl back into whatever academic-edenic lost world you came from, where the concept of "logical fallacy" still holds any sort of currency. i looked for "pedantry and scientism in the humanities" in the index of fallacies and came short. some news travel slow.
posted by ori at 6:35 PM on February 7, 2006

only connect,

I meant in a moral sense.
posted by johnny novak at 1:34 AM on February 8, 2006

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