Friday, August 11, 2017

`If You’re Not 2/3rds of the Way There Already'

A modestly proportioned book of off-the-cuff literary judgments could be distilled from Philip Larkin’s Selected Letters (1992) and Letters to Monica (2010) – and, come to think of it, from the letters of other good writers. Correspondence has the advantage of being informal, non-scholarly and potentially honest. If writing to a friend, as Larkin usually was, he felt no need to censor himself. He could be as funny and savage as he wished, as we ought to be with a trusted friend. (See Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, by Joseph Epstein and Frederic Raphael, 2013). Nothing beats cruel, intelligent gossip.

In Letters to Monica, on Aug. 10, 1954, he is reading Wyndham’s Lewis’ final novel, Self-Condemned (1954). This seems unlikely, given Larkin’s general dismissal of high-toned Modernism. It reminds him, he says, of Kangaroo by D.H. Lawrence (a lasting Larkin enthusiasm). Like Lewis’ Tarr, Self-Condemned “carries a feeling of a man trying to convince himself that things that hinder or disturb him are wrong.” Larkin never says he regrets having read the novel, which I recall as the most readable of Lewis’ lot, but his ad lib review is hardly an endorsement: “The reader is left longing to draft him into the nastiest division in the American Army for a long spell of latrine-fatigue. I don’t think W.L. is any good.” That’s worth enduring the plot summary. On Oct. 10, 1950 he writes to Jones of Yeats (and closely replicates my own history with the Irishman):

“I had a great love of him when I was 21-22 which has since waned considerably. Now I can’t stand the fervent unreal atmosphere of all his moods, his wild-old-man stuff, his arrogance -- he is the very antithesis of D.H.L. [Lawrence] & Hardy. However, he can write.”

Elsewhere, he writes shrewdly of Virginia Woolf: “there is much wooden & dead in V.W.”, and on Oct. 21, 1950, says of Auden:

“I read his collected shorter poems recently. Not expecting to be impressed, I was impressed: by the liveliness and the variety. How clever these people are. I also happened on a poem called Dublin by MacNeice & that also depressed me by its extraordinary talent. Despite all we have said about them, Auden & MacNeice have talent, whereas the tiny fish have not. Poetry is like everything else: if you’re not 2/3rds of the way there already, it’s not worth starting.”

My favorite lit-crit passage in Letters to Monica comes in 1951 when Larkin is reading Great Expectations: “This jerking of your attention, with queer names, queer characters, aggressive rhythms, piling on adjectives -- seems to me to betray basic insecurity in his relation with the reader. How serenely Trollope, for instance, compares. I say in all seriousness that, say what you like about Dickens as an entertainer, he cannot be considered as a real writer at all; not a real novelist. His is the garish gaslit melodramatic barn (writing that phrase makes me wonder if I'm right!) where the yokels gape: outside is the calm measureless world, where the characters of Eliot, Trollope, Austen, Hardy (most of them) and Lawrence (some of them) have their being.”

[Another fine mini-review shows up in What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan 1920-1970 (1973). Bogan is writing on Oct. 19, 1957 to Robert Phelps: “I have read Lolita with a great deal of pleasure . . . –An account of a real addiction is v. rare, in any language, at any time—of a sexual addiction, all the more so. Part of the force here comes from the contrast between the raffiné protagonist and the crudity of the situation in which he finds himself; the concealed wildness and violence of the American `scene’; together with the absolute commitment. Nabokov has finally mastered the American idiom; it took him years, but now he has it. And such richness of perception! An end-product. I keep thinking of Chekhov’s interiors and Turgenev’s weather.” Bogan was born on this date, Aug. 11, in 1897.]

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