Literary Lives (2001) is a selection of the DNB’s more recent potted biographies, edited by John Sutherland, though to call them “potted” is misleading. Each is an essay, really, prepared by a fellow writer who was not a stranger to the deceased. Sutherland observes in his introduction: “The writers of these pieces (how often `private knowledge’ and `personal information’ appear) typically knew their subjects, as closely as we know our friends, family, and colleagues.” The method has limitations – most obviously favoritism and special pleading – but many of the entries strike a pleasing balance between reference utility (names, dates) and essayistic interest. Here is John Wain – poet, novelist, biographer of Dr. Johnson -- on his friend Philip Larkin, who died in 1985:
“Larkin, while always courteous and pleasant to meet, was solitary by nature; he never married and had no objection to his own company; it was said that the character in literature he most resembled was Badger in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. A bachelor, he found his substitute for family life in the devotion of a chosen circle of friends, who appreciated his dry wit and his capacity for deep though undemonstrative affection. His character was stable and his attitude to others considerate, so that having established a friendship he rarely abandoned it.”
Not a bad way to be remembered, and certainly a corrective to the many caricatures of Larkin published after his death. Wain is good, too, on the work:
“Both in prose and verse, Larkin’s themes were those of quotidian life: work, relationships, the earth and its seasons, routines, holidays, illnesses. He worked directly from life and felt no need of historical or mythological references, any more than he needed the cryptic verbal compressions that were mandatory in the `modern’ poetry of his youth. Where `modern’ poetry puts its subtleties and complexities on the surface as a kind of protective matting, to keep the reader from getting into the poem too quickly, Larkin always provides a clear surface—one feels confident of knowing what the poem is `about’ at the very first reading—and plants his subtleties deep down, so that the reader becomes gradually aware of them with longer acquaintance.”
In defending Larkin’s poetic practice, Wain is simultaneously defending, in a very Johnsonian manner, the importance of sanity and common sense in art. He accomplishes that, and includes all the vitals, in less than three pages. Compare this to the two pages Wain devotes in Literary Lives to Christopher Murray Grieve (1892-1978), better known as Hugh MacDiarmid. Never overtly dismissive of the Scottish poet, the entry feels clinical, like a police rap sheet. Without comment, Wain notes than MacDiarmid twice joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. The coolness and objectivity of the entry, while mustering the pertinent facts, is damning in its effect. One senses that Wain is not impressed by a modernist Scottish nationalist who dabbled in the most successfully savage political philosophy of the last century.
(This prompts one to ask, parenthetically, has a Communist ever been a first-rate writer? Former Communists, yes: think of Whittaker Chambers and Arthur Koestler. But true believers and fellow travelers? Neruda, Brecht, Sartre and the rest? A sorry lot. One wonders here about cause and effect, but politics undeniably tends to corrupt literary practice. A writer interested foremost in politics probably ought to devote his career to that endeavor, not debasing the language and boring the rest of us.)
Larkin himself contributed the entry devoted to the wonderful novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980), whose reputation he generously helped resuscitate. Larkin praises her novels for “their alertness of eye and ear and unsleeping sense of the ridiculous, [and] their continual awareness of life’s small poignancies and the need for courage in meeting them, expressed in a style exactly suited to her material and for which she never had to strive.”