PHILIP LARKIN by Andrew Motion


A Writer's Life
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One of three literary executors of British poet Philip Larkin (1922-85), fellow poet Motion (The Lamberts, 1987) ill serves his subject with this drab, exhaustive biography full of bland literary criticism and inappropriate psychologizing. With complete access to Larkin's unpublished archival material--from which he quotes liberally--Motion establishes that Larkin's father was a Nazi sympathizer, as well as a misogynist and an autocratic parent, and that the poet's ``whining'' mother exerted an equally debilitating influence on her sensitive son. Tall and gawky, young Philip stammered and made few friends: This overwhelming sense of isolation stayed with him even through his years of critical acclaim. A voracious reader, he idolized Auden, Lawrence, and Yeats, despite his later antimodernist stance. At Oxford, Larkin formed his legendary friendship with Kingsley Amis, whose fame he would continually envy even as they shared a love of jazz and drinking, as well as a hatred of pretension. Larkin experienced difficulty with girls, not losing his virginity until well into his first job as a librarian (``handing out tripey novels to morons''). While developing his career--he created a major library at Hull--he also gained stature as a writer. Hoping to equal the achievements of Amis and their friend, Bruce Montgomery, he devoted his early efforts to fiction, producing two novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, which was a modest success. But Larkin's real greatness was as a poet. Some juvenilia inspired largely by Yeats was eclipsed by his mature work--poetry in the plain-speaking tradition of Hardy, Housman, and Edward Thomas. The obsessions of his verse--sadness, death, failure--flow directly from his troubled life (fearing marriage and family, he managed to maintain three long relationships with dramatically different types of women), though he himself always discouraged such readings. Sure to be the standard life for some time, this cadaverous book seems dead to Larkin's amazing sense of humor, one of the sources of his poetic achievement. (Photos)

Pub Date: July 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-374-23168-0
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1993


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