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Daphne Merkin

A Famous Misanthrope Shows his Heartwarming Side

“IT WAS HIS QUOTABILITY,” observed the critic Clive James, “that gave Larkin the biggest cultural impact on the British reading public since Auden.” What comes to mind? The opening lines from “Annus Mirabilis,” certainly—“Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three”—but if there is one Philip Larkin quote even better known, it would surely be: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

Did Larkin’s parents fuck him up? According to his sister Catherine (“Kitty”), ten years his senior, both parents “worshipped” Philip. All the same, they have undoubtedly been demonized—sometimes by the poet himself. There were the sour references he made to his childhood in his poetry (“a forgotten boredom”), and then there was his adamantine bachelor’s decision not to marry, seemingly because he did not want to replicate what appears to have been an unhappy parental union. More damning facts have emerged since Larkin died in 1985 at the age of sixty-three, a much-admired and influential figure who had turned down the position of poet laureate a year earlier. These include his father Sydney’s blithe admiration for Nazi Germany, as evidenced by his observing on the first page of his twenty-volume diary (!!) that “those who had visited Germany were much impressed by the good government and order of the country as by the cleanliness and good behavior of the people,” as well as his unrepentant anti-Semitism. As for his mother Eva, Andrew Motion’s 1993 biography of Larkin describes her as “indispensable but infuriating,” like some grating housemaid. Larkin himself characterizes her in a letter to Monica Jones, the longest-running of his several lovers, as “nervy, cowardly, obsessional, boring, grumbling, irritating, self pitying” before going on to amend his portrait: “on the other hand, she’s kind, timid, unselfish, loving.”

Book Forum | September 2020


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