Sunday, March 03, 2013

`Realistic Firmness and Even Humour'

“In his verse, Larkin appears to relish the tedious, the ordinary, often the distasteful. What makes his work superior to that of his contemporaries is his ability to graft such material on to poems of seemingly incongruous elegance. For this reason he is loathed. Academics hate him because he is not self-indulgent. He makes his language work for him and the reader, not for them...Academics and other members of the literary establishment dislike writing that is self-evidently beautiful but which does not, like modernism, demand their services as explicators.” 

Rare common sense from a literary scholar, and in this case an academic – Richard Bradford, author of The Odd Couple: The Curious Friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin (The Robson Press, 2012). I’ve only just started reading the book, but this passage from the introduction makes me feel welcome. All a reader needs to enjoy the work of Amis and Larkin is attentiveness, a love of language used with precision, a sense of humor and an interest in our fellows. No intermediary is required. Amis and Larkin, without patronizing readers, write about the familiar, not the exotic; the middling, not the exceptional. Reading Bradford, I’m reminded of a scene recorded by Hester Thrale in Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786):

“Nothing, indeed, more surely disgusted Dr. Johnson than hyperbole; he loved not to be told of sallies of excellence, which he said were seldom valuable, and seldom true. `Heroic virtues,’ said he, `are the bons mots of life; they do not appear often, and when they do appear are too much prized, I think, like the aloe-tree, which shoots and flowers once in a hundred years. But life is made up of little things; and that character is the best which does little but repeated acts of beneficence; as that conversation is the best which consists in elegant and pleasing thoughts expressed in natural and pleasing terms.’” 

For this American reader, a defense of “little things” in literature and life defines a rousing English tradition, one devoted to common sense and good humor, in which Amis and Larkin enthusiastically participated. When Faber and Faber permitted the wonderful novels of Barbara Pym to go out of print, Larkin wrote a letter of protest that is at once stirring, in the manner of Dr. Johnson’s “heroic virtues,” and very funny: 

“I feel it is a great shame if ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things can’t find a publisher these days. This is the tradition of Jane Austen and Trollope, and I refuse to believe that no one wants its successors today. Why should I have to choose between spy rubbish, science fiction rubbish, Negro-homosexual rubbish, or dope-take nervous-breakdown rubbish? I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour.” 

In a Times Literary Supplement feature published in 1977, Larkin and Lord David Cecil named Pym “the most underrated writer of the century.” Pym had been unable to find a publisher for her work since 1963. Quartet in Autumn was published in 1977 and The Sweet Dove Died the following year. Pym died in 1980. A year earlier, Larkin privately published one of his last poems, in a commemorative booklet celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his library: 

“New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new books, too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin.”

No comments: