BOOK REVIEW / Lonesome Larks and the Fabulous Rosina: Anthony Lane reads the letters of Philip Larkin, and takes refuge in the poems: Selected letters of Philip Larkin 1940-85 - Ed. Anthony Thwaite: Faber pounds 20

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SO NOW we know. There we were, thinking of Philip Larkin as a poet of great gifts and a bachelor of modest means, and all the while, curled snivelling in the corner, sat his monstrous crime: failure to purchase a wireless licence in 1954. Worse still, he admired Patience Strong and enjoyed watching Miss World, an intriguing combination. Above all, he had mauve sheets on his bed: 'I shall have to wear the mauve pyjamas to match.' Was there no end to this man's calumny. Why didn't they lock him up?

They didn't need to, of course. He turned the key on himself at an early age, and only ventured out on poet's parole. Anthony Thwaite's selection of Larkin's letters comes out shortly after a new biography of P G Wodehouse, and both seem intent on artificial resuscitation.; the shy Wodehouse becomes a knowing gadabout, nearer to Bertie Wooster than Lord Emsworth, while advance word on the letters has transformed Larkin the librarian into a roguish lover and slinger of caustic mud - Philip Larkin, what larks] Something is rotten in the state of letters when we deny genius its right to silence, or at least its stammering reticence. Solitude may not suit the temper of the times, but must we thereby presume that any desire for it is no more than a nicely calculated act?

That, at least, has been the path taken by Larkin enthusiasts since his death. With his privacy now relished as an inverted public show, Larkin has suffered that peculiarly English fate, the one that afflicts Dr Johnson: he has become a figure - more than that, a character, set out on display with his fellow eccentrics. This process was encouraged, oddly enough, by the publication in 1988 of the Collected Poems, also edited by Anthony Thwaite: very nearly a disaster, with unpublished verse queueing up next to published, and little respect shown to the restraining orders imposed by Larkin upon his own work. Already this scrupulous poet was being skinned of his most protective scruple; now comes the correspondence, ready to bare him to the bone.

It runs from 1948 to his death in 1985; from raucous undergraduate profanities ('What is truth? Balls. What is love? Shite. What is God? Bugger.') to endless polite exchanges of admiration with Barbara Pym; from formal dealings with Faber to the scrambled private jargon sent to Kingsley Amis, invariably ending with the word 'bum'. The Amis tone seeps back into Larkin's own political impatience and practised ribbing of the young: at weekends, he says, 'all the students go home to make sure their girlfriends aren't being screwed by the local Hell's Angels'. His own sex life huddles between the lines, a complicated ronde of affairs that we can only guess at, forever threatened by 'the wish to be alone'.

There is much to fascinate here, but as with the T S Eliot letters published in 1989, nothing that we cannot discover tuned, refreshed and deepened in the poems. To take a small example: writing to his close friend Winifred Arnott in 1953, Larkin talks of the Botanic Gardens in Belfast, with their 'mist-loaded, flower-heaped, dew-drenched autumnal beauty'. He strains a muscle in reaching for high pastoral; turn to the poems, however, and you find the same distinctive fondness for hyphenation grown more relaxed yet also more intense, in mild and peaceful epiphanies that pack the sense in rather than piling it on - 'high- builded cloud', 'bone-riddled ground', 'any-angled light', 'the sun-comprehending glass'. The letters ask for an effect that the poetry gives with pleasure.

Still, they have their moments, even if some are a long time coming - a trial for Larkin readers, I suspect, a spoiled bunch who have never been bored by him before, although great deserts of boredom were sifted and funnelled through the slender neck of the verse. Here they stretch out over more than 750 pages, all too easily skipped and skimmed.

The footnotes are helpful enough, although to say that Raquel Welch was 'noted at the time for large breasts' is pretty close to libel. At the time? Have they got smaller? But then Thwaite's judgement is often suspect: why he thought we needed to know about the poet's VAT returns, for example, only he can say; perhaps he wanted to bulk the book out so defiantly that no one would dare to query his omissions. Nevertheless, for many years Larkin wrote to his mother every day - a strange feat of endurance in the age of the telephone, but clearly not strange enough for Thwaite, who offers no examples from that correspondence, preferring to quote instead the poet's burning inquiries to paperback imprints.

This is not to condemn the trivia in this volume; on the contrary, what keeps us reading is the sight of Larkin panning his daily experience for specks of interest. All that glistered was not gold, of course, which is what he liked about it: 'I bought 2 pounds of plums - they were marked 'Eating'. This means they are too sour to be eaten. The funny thing is I knew that, but still bought them. One never learns. I suppose I shall have to stew them,' he adds, happily doing so in his own juice. Food is one of the comic co- ordinates by which he maps out his life, the precise contours of his loneliness: 'I like spaghetti best - you don't have to take your eyes off your book to pick about among it, it's all the same.'

This is brilliantly timed, but also sauced with self-pity, like his accounts of slumping in front of the television with a weak drink. (His reaction to sherry, by the way, produces exactly the same sound of disgust as he uses for Fay Weldon: Wyyaaarch.)

As became clear from his book of selected prose, Required Writing, Larkin considered it his fate to become the Eeyore of English poetry - 'I don't want to go around pretending to be me.'

What he meant was 'me' the public poet, invited to lecture and read; the 'me' at home in Hull was less of a put up job, closer to the genial provincial melancholy of Edward FitzGerald, although Larkin still enjoyed tapping the walls of his life and listening for the dead sound: 'Absolutely nothing happens in my life, except routine work and thinking from time to time I've got lung cancer.'

The trouble with this, over 750 pages, is that it extends into what he calls 'a frieze of misery'. He uses the phrase when gently admonishing a woman who has written a novel of personal suffering - entirely sincere, he argues, and therefore in need of refinement, however painful or frivolous such a process might seem. 'One might almost say it's the mixture of truth and untruth that makes literature.' More than once in the letters, Larkin proposes a poem as 'a verbal device' and his own watchmaker's skill in verse, the intricate devices of his own desires, are what one misses here. None of the drinking passages is as stinging and desolate as the first line of 'Aubade': 'I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.' It's the 'half' that breaks your heart, the thought that he still has half a mind to contemplate the close of the day, and hence the final closing-down of his life.

So how much of that life escapes from this book? Well, it's nice to know that he joined MCC and the RSPCA; less of a surprise to learn of his weakness for pornography. This began in the 1950s, when the titles had a kind of healthy innocence - Bamboo, Frolic, The Fabulous Rosina. It makes you wonder about his earliest literary obsession, with D H Lawrence of all people - England's greatest novelist,' Larkin called him in 1942 and almost 40 years later still professed 'affection for the weird old Beardie'. The catty, opinionated Larkin is often good company - any man who describes Ted Hughes as looking like 'a Christmas present from Easter Island' gets my vote - but eventually the needle gets stuck in the groove. The words are all here - 'Life has a practice of living you, if you don't live it' - but the tune will only start when you open the poems again, where that helplessness comes under control. There we find, in his own words, 'the kind of artist who is perpetually kneeling in his heart - who gives no fuck for anything except this mystery, and for that gives every fuck there is'.

(Photograph omitted)