Books: Mr Miseryguts: Philip Larkin's letters show all the grim humour that was a hallmark of his great poems, but, as the years pass, they also chart the true depths of his misanthropy and despair

LARKIN never made out that it was much fun to be Larkin. His verse makes no bones about the ginny loneliness of his life, the boredom, the fear (of death and women, his twin Grim Reapers), the poems that wouldn't come. Nor was he known for the generous breadth of his critical sympathies. His crabbed judgements on his contemporaries and juniors were famous in his lifetime, and it's no great surprise now to learn that Robert Lowell 'never looked like being a single iota of good in all his born days', that Donald Davie's poems are 'tosh', that W D Snodgrass was a 'dopy kid-mad sod', or that Larkin was strongly against the award of Arts Council grants to 'wogs like Salmagundi or whatever his name is'. We already knew of Larkin's crush on Margaret Thatcher ('superb creature') and his saloon-bar Conservatism ('Prison for strikers, / Bring back the cat, / Kick out the niggers, / How about that?').

Yet nothing has quite prepared the reader for the Larkin letters. The sheer weight and bagginess of this collection is its most immediately disconcerting feature. Up till now, we've learned to treasure every fragment of Larkin's writing as a once-in-a-blue-moon miracle of perfect phrasing. Now comes the deluge. Anthony Thwaite says that he has selected some 700 letters as 'a sample' of the 'many thousands' he has inspected; but the book is still a sackful, through which the reader has to rummage to make his own selection.

Some letters are fuddled, many are repetitious. One finds oneself dulling to the tone of forced jauntiness that Larkin kept up for his male correspondents - and, more damagingly, dulling to his inexhaustible flow of self-

concern. Often one feels an uneasy trespasser, embarrassed for Larkin as one stumbles on private details that one would sooner not have known. Most of all, it is shocking to discover (although 'Dockery & Son', 'Aubade', 'The Old Fools' and other poems had told us this all along) the helpless depths of distress that Larkin routinely plumbed. In 1979, at half-past four on a Sunday afternoon ('the arse-hole of the week'), he wrote to Kingsley Amis:

Now there can only be don't normally take anyone over 55, like to do a few tests if you don't mind, am returning it because it isn't really up to your own high standard, afraid I must stop coming Mr Larkin hope you find another cleaning lady to

AAAARRRRGHGHGHGHGH

The sound of that exclamation, part growl, part moan, part scream, haunts the book: it's there, just beneath the surface of the badinage, the gossip, the diplomatic compliments, the critical swipes, and it chills the blood.

The letters loosely divide into those written before 1955 and those written since. Moving from Oxford to Wellington to Leicester to Belfast, Larkin was on an upward spiral; a young writer, with a healthily bumptious sense of his own talent, finding his voice and tasting publication and reputation. His early letters, whether Dirty (to Amis) or Literary (to his school friend, J B Sutton), were the spontaneous overflow of a life filled with work and seething with ambition.

Larkin was 20 when he took a First in English in 1943; 22 when he finished Jill and when The North Ship came out; 24 when both Jill and A Girl in Winter were published. This was some going, by any standards. Librarianship kept at bay most of the enemies of promise (the hack reviewing, the French Pub at lunchtime), and if Larkin's first job, at the Wellington Urban District Library, Salop, was a cold and solitary berth, at least it gave him the time to reflect - in long, somewhat greenery-yallery letters to Jim Sutton - on where he stood in relation to Lawrence ('the greatest writer of this century'), Yeats, Auden ('blown up by words and ideas'), and Katherine Mansfield ('Have been rereading KM's Journal which impresses me once more with the high mind of the artist and the necessity for Courage in pursuing them').

He was 28 when he was appointed sub- librarian at Queen's University, Belfast in 1950 - and for the next four and a half years his letters reflect a life of friendships, flirtations, affairs and of poems on the boil. In Belfast, apparently, he was as near to being happy as his glum nature ever allowed. In 'The Importance of Elsewhere', written three months after leaving Ulster, he wrote: 'Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home, / Strangeness made sense'. Semi-exile, in a city of 'draughty streets, end-on to hills', gave him a sense of firm self-definition; and in Belfast, with some help from Thomas Hardy, he recast himself as the ruminant, cycle-clipped figure whose voice sounds through The Less Deceived with such exhilarating authority and precision.

Then he went to Hull. Four days into the new job, the augurs were not good: 'There is a negro in the next room who wd benefit enormously from a pair of bedroom slippers.' After three weeks, he wrote to D J Enright: 'Yes, I'm settling down in Hull all right. Each day I sink a little further.' After four months, it was: 'God, what a hole, what witless crapulous people, delivered over gagged and bound to TV, motoring and Mackeson's stout] . . . Hull (is) a frightful dump.' And two days later: 'I wish I could think of just one nice thing to tell you about Hull - oh yes, well, it's very nice & flat for cycling.'

The dating of the Collected Poems tells its own story: in 1953 and 1954, Larkin's last two full years in Belfast, he wrote 30 poems; in 1955, the year he moved to Hull, he wrote eight; in 1956, two; in 1957, one. He was 32 when he took Mr Bleaney's room at 200 Hallgate, Cottingham, East Yorks, and began to harden into a prematurely unhappy and unfulfilled middle age. 'Autumn, autumn] It comes quickly in these parts,' he wrote to his long-time companion, Monica Jones, on a windy September night in 1956; and so it did.

The letters reflect a life of greater sexual turmoil than one might have guessed from the poems: of tanglements and disentanglements, of the question of marriage broached (on several occasions) and fled from in panic. Larkin's tone often suggests that intimacy with women was another nuisance to be endured, along with meetings of the library committee. 'Life is pretty great up in Hull,' he reported to Robert Conquest in 1966: 'Maeve wants to marry me, Monica wants to chuck me.' And what did Larkin want? It's very hard to tell.

He had struck up the friendship with Conquest in 1955. The connection came about through Conquest's editorship of the New Lines anthology; the friendship blossomed on a shared interest in what Thwaite describes as 'illustrated magazines for men' and Larkin more bluntly called 'sex, in printed or photocopy form'. Chaperoned by Conquest, Larkin toured the porn shops of Soho, looking for pictures of schoolgirls being caned. 'Bamboo and Frolic are the tops, or rather the bottoms . . .'; 'MINUIT CINQ has some good rears in it now and again . . .', 'Yes, I got the pictures - whacks. I admired the painstaking realism of it - I mean, the teacher really did look like a teacher, and I greatly appreciated the school-like electric bell on the wall.' When Thwaite says that this kind of thing is Larkin's 'bawdy', the red-blooded Falstaff-&-Mistress-Quickly word does less than justice to the desolate giggliness of the letters to Conquest and the way they conjure, with horrid poignancy, the emptied bottle and the lonely room.

On politics, as on sex, Larkin sounds like a man out of control. There's the same shrilling note: 'The lower-class bastards can no more stop going on strike now than a laboratory rat with an electrode in its brain can stop jumping on a switch to give itself an orgasm.' When C B Cox unveiled his plan to launch the Black Papers on Education in the Critical Quarterly, Larkin responded: 'Jolly good stuff: better than counting the colons in R S Thomas. I just want to see the universities closed down, except for Oxford and Cambridge. I think they have all been a terrible mistake.'

It will be objected that here, as elsewhere, Larkin was 'joking'. Not much. Or only just. His habitual manner in his letters was to speak his mind, but increase the volume by one notch to allow his correspondents, if they so wished, to treat a heartfelt misery as a comic turn. At the same time, he was clearly making life more endurable by taking his revenge on it in letters with what he called 'a few good cracks'.

Writing letters was a way of holding on to sanity. This comes across most clearly in the 70 letters to Judy Egerton, whom he met in Belfast and with whom he corresponded until his death. To her, he managed to maintain much of the spirited aplomb of his Ulster years even into the desperate 1980s. Writing to her about her work (as an art historian) and his own, about dressing gowns and kitchen shelving, he seems to shed most of the intervening quarter century. Even in mortal illness, he managed to summon a voice of still-youthful resilience and good humour. On 12 May, 1985:

The drama of my life proceeds: ACT I: The Colon is over, though there may be some encores; ACT II: The Liver, is also over but CUT DOWN ON DRINK, wch I am doing - haven't touched whisky (or sherry) for 2 months. The curtain goes up on ACT III] The Stomach on Tuesday . . .

To Barbara Pym, he wrote cosily, spinster- to-spinster ('I am just awaiting the last 15 mins of an Allinson breadmix loaf to finish in the oven . . .'). Yet there is, in these now-famous letters, a distinctly forced note, as if Larkin were trying to smuggle himself into the appealingly simple world of A Glass of Blessings on forged papers. When Pym's A Few Green Leaves was published posthumously in 1980, he wrote to Egerton: 'It's very much a reprise: back to anthropology, & parsons, & certain familiar characters - far too many characters really, but there are some quite good bits' - which sounds as if the balloon had popped for him after Pym's death, and it leads one to wonder whether he had ever been entirely at home among those anthropologists and parsons.

Though Larkin never completed another novel after A Girl in Winter, he retained in his letters the novelist's gift of writing most freely when he was writing in character. He dissolved himself into the personae of The Gay Dog, The Spinster, The Senior Man of Letters and the rest; in each role there was a lot of Philip Larkin, but none contained the whole man. The strain of artifice shows in some more than in others (and it shows especially strongly in the letters to Conquest on the one hand and in those to the sentinels of literary London on the other). It is in the letters to Monica Jones that Larkin seems to be writing without the aid of props, mask or accent.

There are only 13 of them, and they stand proud of the others in the book for their tender, troubled, sometimes peevish candour. Larkin had met Jones (a lecturer in English) in Leicester in 1946, and they remained close until his death. In October 1966, Larkin wrote to her:

I hate it when you go, for the dreary failure & selfishness on my part it seems to symbolise - this is nothing to do with Maeve, you've always come before her; it's my own unwillingness to give myself to anyone else that's at fault - like promising to stand on one leg for the rest of one's life . . .

Two weeks later, he continued the same thought:

Our lives are so different from other people's, or have been, - I feel I am landed on my 45th year as if washed up on a rock, not knowing how I got here or ever had a chance of being anywhere else . . . Of course my external surroundings have changed, but inside I've been the same, trying to hold everything off in order to 'write'. Anyone wd think I was Tolstoy, the value I put on it. It hasn't amounted to much. I mean, I know I've been successful in that I've made a name & got a medal & so on, but it's a very small achievement to set against all the rest.

Larkin deserved some illusions in which to wrap himself, to keep off the chill of age and drought. He had none. He turned on himself a kind of brutal percipience from which most people would shrink as a weapon far too dangerous to possess. From a New Year letter to Amis: 'So now we face 1982, sixteen stone six, gargantuanly paunched, helplessly addicted to alcohol, tired of livin' and scared of dyin', world-famous unable-to-write poet, well you know the rest.' To Anthony Thwaite, he described himself as resembling 'a pregnant salmon' - a phrase so cruelly accurate that it will be hard ever to think of the ageing Larkin without seeing that salmon, and without remembering that pregnancy in salmon is rapidly followed by death. It is an image that works all ways round; one only wishes that Larkin himself had lacked the wit to conceive it.

This is a hard book to read, and a harder one to judge, for several reasons. I can think of no other writer whose life has been so exposed by the publication of his letters - and one knows so little of his surrounding life that the letters loom out, contextless, noumenal, vulnerable to casual misinterpretation. Not knowing who most of the correspondents are, or how close they were to Larkin, it is almost impossible to measure the tone of the letters with any confidence: one has to guess and guess, and probably get it wrong. Anthony Thwaite's editorial apparatus is a lightweight affair. There are footnotes, but they mostly take the line of '. . . M Drabble 3 . . . 3 Novelist' (ah - so it's not Drabble the chiropodist). There is a full biographical note on Julian Barnes (recipient of three letters), together with a handsome photograph, but nothing useful on - for instance - Ruth Bowman, to whom Larkin became engaged in 1948, and whose name returns to the correspondence in 1979 and after.

Most of the recipients, and most of the people mentioned, are still alive and this may well be the best selection that could have been made. But on the face of it, the score-card looks odd: letters to Conquest - 63; letters to Monica Jones - 13; while Larkin's longest and most faithful correspondence, with his mother, who lived until 1977, is not represented at all.

It was thoughtless of Faber & Faber to allow the Selected Letters to appear before Andrew Motion's biography, due out next spring. Set in the context of a clear and detailed narrative of Larkin's life, the letters will read differently - perhaps very differently. Until that narrative is to hand, the ignorant reader feels helpless in the face of these raw and unexplained fragments of Larkin's life; shocked, depressed, grateful for the - surprisingly few - laughs that they afford, and angry at his publishers for having turned Larkin out into the street in such a defenceless condition.

The 'Selected Letters of Philip Larkin' are published by Faber next Monday at pounds 20

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