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Less safe than strange?

Dom Hewett

Clive James
Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin
Picador
2019
94pp
£12.99



There is a category of literary figure who feels familiar to us and yet who we may have not spent much time reading. Salman Rushdie is in this category for me, Cormac McCarthy too, and, up until a few months ago, so was Philip Larkin. I had never sat down to read Larkin, but a few of his greatest hits – ‘Church Going’, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, ‘This Be The Verse’ – had reached me via cultural osmosis. I had an impression of the poetry, laced with irony, downbeat, rooted in an imagined disappearing England; the paintings of John Piper in a minor key. I had an image of the man too, and not a positive one: bespectacled, besuited, self-deprecating, xenophobic. A curmudgeonly librarian with a taste for racial epithets.

It was a surprise, then, to be so deeply affected on encountering Larkin’s poem, ‘The Explosion’. This poet wrote with an unexpected delicacy of phrase and generosity of emotion. I was keen to read more and did so, before spotting Somewhere Becoming Rain, the late critic Clive James’ collected writings on Larkin.

If you read nothing else from James’ book, I urge you to look up his 1973 review of Donald Davie’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, originally published in the TLS. It is difficult to imagine a compliment more double-edged than James’ that the book is ‘a testament to Britain’s continuing fertility as an intellectual acreage in which ideas will flourish at rigour’s expense’. What a line. Works of criticism, James writes, should be ‘less safe than strange’, and at times Somewhere Becoming Rain succeeds in offering something distinctly unusual. This is a heterogeneous collection, including the author’s poetic tributes to Larkin as well as prose reviews spanning five decades.

A long-standing admirer of Larkin’s work, James’ early reviews offer some memorable verdicts: Larkin is ‘Betjeman in a murderous mood’, his ‘grimness of spirit producing…  a beauty of utterance’. Perhaps inevitably, later reviews are concerned with addressing the damage to Larkin’s reputation caused by the posthumous publication of his frequently racist and sexist letters. While he occasionally decries the ‘dunces’ who focus on Larkin’s private failings and overlook his works, James’ own reviews from the 1980s onwards become increasingly concerned with responding to these issues.

These later reviews tend to tread over and over the same ground, arguing that Larkin mistakenly believed in a firm distinction between his tightly controlled, carefully considered public writing and his unimportant private correspondence, where he expressed offensive opinions to outrage and entertain his friends. James is careful not to excuse this behaviour, admitting that there was ‘something twisted about the way he got his xenophobic rocks off in private’, while pleading with the reader not to let Larkin’s personal failings overshadow his poetic achievements. While James is mixed in his feelings about Larkin the man, he saw Larkin the poet as something akin to genius, referring to his works as ‘the most magnificent poetic achievements since Donne and Marvell’. Given the reputational stakes involved, James’ frustration at Larkin’s detractors – and at Larkin himself most of all – can be best understood.

Somewhere Becoming Rain is broad in its focus, incorporating James’ reviews of Larkin’s novels, his writings on jazz and his often-overlooked first poetry collection, The North Ship – ‘Larkin’s mesmerised submission to Yeats’ – in addition to the later poetry collections and the posthumously published poems and letters. There’s even space for an entertaining theatre review in which James calls for Jack Nicholson to play Larkin in a film biopic. At under 100 pages, this is a slim and readable volume, with James’ writings interspersed with affectionate letters sent by Larkin to James. At their best, both author and reviewer balance lightness and heft in their work, achieving ‘a level of seriousness which only those capable of humour can reach’.

**

Dom Hewett is a librarian in Oxford.