Alan Bennett’s remarkable appraisal of Philip Larkin (LRB, 25 March), touching, funny and just as it is, may perhaps bear one small qualification. Bennett writes: ‘That Hull was the back of beyond in the Fifties wasn’t simply a London opinion; it prevailed in Hull itself.’ He cites his own experience at an interview for a university job in 1959, and quotes the professor’s opening comments in support of the view that ‘a slow and stopping train southwards was some kind of lifeline.’ This may have been true of those who arrived from London, or Oxbridge. It wasn’t always the case with natives or with people who had come from regular England, or further afield. I could have introduced Bennett to plenty of people at that date, varied in age, gender and class, who had no such hankering for the slow train. Around 1959 I played in a soccer team where only three of us had ever been to London.
Larkin, of course, had reached Hull via Wellington, Leicester and Belfast. It’s not altogether news that he did harbour urges for public recognition which could not be satisfied on Humberside. But he may have come to realise that something, like nothing, can happen anywhere – in Hull as in Coventry; and one suspects that the myth of the Hermit of Hull relies on the metropolitan assumption that anyone who lives in Hull is ipso facto not quite inhabiting the real world.
For all Bennett’s wonderful human insight, and his enduring Yorkshire connections, he may not be the best equipped to deal with these facts. And, if I can say it without rudeness, the best place may not be the LRB, whose Scotland year by year turns out to consist almost wholly of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and whose awareness of normal England (the Wellington which is now Telford; Hitchin; Gainsborough; Bournemouth; Rugeley; Chelmsford, Redditch, and so on) is not always as sharp as it could be.
De Bartolo Chair in the Liberal Arts
Alan Bennett’s review of Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion takes the line of sympathy with the biographer, appreciation of the poet and – in the main – disgust or hostility towards the man. This, I imagine, will be the general reaction.
There are, however, two relationships with women which Bennett omits to analyse, and which for me stand out in the Selected Letters, throwing different lights on this complex and not altogether despicable character. The first is the friendship and, for three years, ‘passionate but intermittent affair’, as Anthony Thwaite puts it, with Patsy, the charming Roedean and Somerville-educated wife (at that time) of the second Baron Strang. Larkin, after a clandestine weekend with Patsy, refers to ‘that shadowy and furtive land we inhabit together’, and addresses her variously by a plethora of Times Valentine Day sobriquets: ‘white bear’, ‘sugarbush’, ‘valuable honey-bird’, ‘fabulous giraffe’, ‘exquisite political prisoner’. One letter from Mallaig is started in a snatched moment ‘while Monica is still dressing’. Here the crabby, misanthropic, self-pitying poet appears in the guise of a playful, infatuated, adulterous young lover. (Four days later he was addressing Winifred Arnott as ‘delicious Winifred’ and ending: ‘with you in spirit always – the breeze hot on your neck, the bramble catching your skirt’.) The other important but purely Platonic – and, for a long time, only epistolary – friendship that Bennett does not mention was that with Barbara Pym, whose work he genuinely admired (as much as he hated Iris Murdoch’s), and for whom he had a quite disinterested affection.
One must finally agree with Bennett’s opinion that the poems, ‘without which there would be no biography’, remain undamaged by the exposure of the life, just as those of Hardy and Auden do – and that this is a fair and patient account of that life. Larkin the kindly professional (another aspect of the man) wrote to a would-be woman poet of his acquaintance, ‘a poem is usually a highly professional thing, a verbal device designed to reproduce a thought or emotion indefinitely; it should have no dead parts, and every word should be completely unchangeable and immovable.’ That was the voice of the true artist.
Lyme Regis, Dorset
In his perceptive review of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (LRB, 8 April), W.J.T. Mitchell endorses Said’s remark that Jane Austen ‘in Mansfield Park sublimates the agonies of Caribbean existence to a mere half-dozen passing references to Antigua’. She offers rather more. In Chapter 21, when Edmund Bertram chides Fanny Price for being too passive towards her Uncle Thomas – the plantation-owner – and for not talking enough to him, she replies that she loves to hear her uncle talk of the West Indies and adds: ‘Did you not hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?’ Her question met with ‘such a dead silence’. Hence Jane Austen, fierce Tory that she was, acknowledged the public debate on the morality of the slave trade, if not slavery per se. True, she has Fanny admit ‘but then I am unlike other people.’ Yet that is precisely why Fanny is Jane Austen’s heroine and the moral centre of her masterpiece.
Shipley, West Yorkshire
Unfaithful to Wagner
Paul Lawrence Rose (Letters, 25 March) tries to make himself clearer by saying that he wants to confine Wagner’s banning ‘only to Israel’. Then he goes on: ‘I took pains at a meeting of the New York Wagner Society … to emphasise that I was in favour of performing Wagner outside Israel.’ What a pain. Had this not been a symptom of a much vaster political phenomenon, I wouldn’t have bothered commenting on it; but it is yet another example of how our real life here is being kept, mainly by American Jews, as a Museum for Jewish Suffering, or Archive of Jewish History. To put it more bluntly: we are their instrument to fulfil their national fantasy.
One can find very similar reactions in different discourses. One can hear American Jews justify all sorts of ‘historical necessities’ that we ‘have to pay’, as if we had been sent here on some kind of mission on someone’s behalf. Sometimes they go so far as to claim that Israelis can’t determine the future of the colonial conflict in the occupied territories, because the territories are the property of ‘the Historical Jewish People’ (whatever that may mean).
Professor Rose might (or might not) go to any American opera house to see a Wagner performance, while living his American life, and refrain from doing so during his ‘idealistic life’ in Haifa, ‘realising the Zionist dream’. But what about ‘us’? Haven’t we the right to live in a real Israel, to judge for ourselves the rights and wrongs of watching Wagner (or buying pork, or using public buses on Saturdays, or choosing the kind of matrimonial ceremony we want and the religion and nationality of our spouse)? Is it because we are living tombstones of ‘Jewish History’, or ‘victims of Professor Said’s Palestinian brethren’, as Rose, vulgarly, put it in his letter, using again that old worn-out narrative to capitalise on the Israeli-Palestinian colonial conflict in the sixth year of the Intifada, when there isn’t too much doubt about who are the Davids and who the Goliaths, not any more.
Since the cruel, unlawful, stupid deportation of the ‘Hamas members’ (and who proved their membership, Professor Rose?) there has been an extreme escalation of violence here: dozens have died, including many innocent Palestinian children, including innocent Jews. Who needs enemies, with the friends we have?
Paul Lawrence Rose says there can be no comparison between the transfer of Palestinians from Israel and the transfer of a German Jewish population that was ‘devotedly loyal to the German state’. The relative loyalties of the German Jews and Israeli Palestinians can help explain their own responses to events but not why the events happened. The fact is that the persecution of both groups occurred because they were perceived as threats; one economic and cultural, the other (having no opportunity to influence economic or cultural events) physical. In both cases people were persuaded that the survival of the state was at stake. In neither case was the solution sensible, humane or appropriate.
Edward Said (LRB, 11 February): Wagner’s ‘obsession with water dominates all his operas’. Said (Letters, 25 March): ‘I didn’t say “all”, I said “most” of the operas.’ Tanner (Letters, 25 February): ‘I can’t readily call to mind an obsession with water in Die Walküre.’ Said (Letters, 25 March): ‘the irascible Tanner says, again recklessly, that he can’t recall any mention of water in Walküre.’ Since those are fair samples of Said’s ability to read me and himself, I don’t think any farther reply is necessary to his letter.
Corpus Christi College,
Edward Said writes: How convenient for Michael Tanner to retreat into undergraduate nitpicking, having lost his case on all the essential points about Wagner. There aren’t 13 operas, water is everywhere (this is Vogt’s point anyway), Wieland Wagner’s influence, the importance of Wagner’s politics to his aesthetics, the need for ‘infidelity’, Proust and Mallarmé as avant-garde Wagnerians etc, etc. Aside from that Tanner is a very attentive reader of his own prose.
Paul Lawrence Rose’s letter is both self-incriminating and a retrospective attempt to make his appalling views about Wagner seem reasonable. Rose openly advocates ‘transfer’ of the Palestinian Arabs from their homeland, exactly as the Zionist movement has always advocated that particular policy of ethnic cleansing, and as such zealots as the late Meir Kahane, Rafael Eytan, and other extreme right-wing Israelis more recently have. His moral blindness keeps him from seeing that Jewish settlers from Lithuania, Poland and New York who seek forcibly to dispossess or supplant native Palestinians in their lands are not the exact ethical equivalent of those same Palestinians resisting the invasion; nor can he point to any comparable ‘Arab proposals’ (there were none) to ‘transfer’ Jews.
Besides, I nowhere equate Palestinian suffering with Jewish suffering (that, too, is Rose going over the top), but I do see the tragic consequence of the latter in the former. Of course I can ‘bear’ and feel compassion for the ‘singular suffering’ of Jews during their Holocaust: but why should I, or any other Palestinian, be required passively to accept that Zionists (whose discriminatory ideology commenced before the Holocaust and was infected, like Herzl, with the same ideas about non-Europeans quite Openly proclaimed by white colonialists in Africa and Asia) should walk into our land, and try to throw us out just because they said that God and Balfour gave them the right. How preposterous! And how sleazy of Zionists like Rose to pretend to be outraged! As if the pillaging settlers who still maraud, burn and kill on the West Bank and Gaza are the aggrieved ones! Why when Rose speaks of the Mufti does he not mention that Shamir’s own political group made appeals to the Third Reich also? And note too how there isn’t trace of understanding of Palestinian travails in what Rose says; for him Palestinians who resist Israeli occupation are all terrorists.
Not surprisingly, therefore. Rose’s book on Wagner contains not a shred of musical understanding, but a great deal of blustering about Wagner’s music being infused, drenched in, oozing with anti-semitism. Beethoven’s music is full of nobility, he actually says; Wagner’s is full of violence and hatred. Wagner’s ideas are characterised by Rose as nebulous and vague, on the one hand; directly anti-semitic and virulently racist, on the other. Parsifal, he says, is a parable of how European civilisation is ‘poisoned by alien, inhuman Jewish values’, despite no reference to European or Jewish values in the work. He goes on and on in this vein, making no distinction between prose tract, drama, music: this allows him to state that Wagner was little more than a crazy proto-Nazi who just hap period to write music, and that too is as hateful as his ideas. Rose wants Wagner banned in Israel, and generously allows that it’s OK to perform him elsewhere (that bit of largesse isn’t in the book at all, by the way, so if one wasn’t in attendance at his lecture to the Wagner Society on 25 February it couldn’t be guessed from his book). Of course he implies that listening to or performing Wagner is equivalent to covert anti-semitism: for 250 pages in his book he says that Wagner’s music and art are mainly, principally, centrally about nothing else but hatred of Jews. What does liking or interpreting Wagner mean but that you support anti-semitism?
I had thought that, like Khomeini, Professor Rose at least had the courage of his, to say the least, fundamentalist convictions. Now it appears that he’s just another trimmer who wraps himself in sanctimony and insulting cant. His letter also reveals him to be someone willing to go in for getting rid of Palestinians. Professor Rose and his Wagner are perfectly made for each other.
Jenny Diski’s short story (LRB, 25 March) brought back another improbability concerning Mount Rushmore, this one drily told by Mort Sahl in the early, Camelotian Sixties. Leaping surrealistically from the idea of John Kennedy as film star (by comparison with Dwight D. Eisenhower and prefiguring perhaps Ronald Reagan), he lights on the notion that JFK on retirement as President would feature as the lead in a remake of North by Northwest – but this time climbing up his own face.
May I add a footnote to the great asparagus correspondence (Letters, 11 March and Letters, 25 March)? It turns out that sensitivity to the aroma of asparagus in urine is determined by a single gene, and that, as with so much else in life, one has it or not. The ability to roll the tongue is also genetic. The jury is out on whether or not one can learn to wiggle one’s ears.