Becoming a girl

John Bayley

  • Philip Larkin: Writer by James Booth
    Harvester, 192 pp, £9.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 7450 0769 4

It may be off-putting to think that great artists create to excite themselves sexually; yet in some degree this is probably the case. At least with quite a number. Although the obvious danger would then be including almost every artistic effect under the heading of the pornographic (‘everything he does is so artistic,’ as Anthony Powell remarked of Lawrence’s gamekeeper, quoting a song of Marie Lloyd’s), it might be tempting to construct a General Theory of Pornography in Art along these lines. Lawrence himself, oddly enough, would not qualify; certainly not in the context of Lady Chatterley. One of the many not quite right things about that novel is the way Lawrence tries to distance sexual excitement from himself and his readers, making it a matter of the higher impulse: the feel in the blood and not the sex in the head. Being, in one sense, a better artist in this context than he wished to be, Lawrence none the less succeeded, as we know, in exciting many of his readers.

One of them was Philip Larkin, who always liked and admired Lawrence, considering him a criterion for the literary ‘non-bogus’. But Lawrence would not at all have cared for Larkin’s own use of the pornographic, in its higher or its lower manifestations. For Larkin, like Housman, excited himself on two levels, one of which may seem to have been the impulse behind his best and most characteristic art. The other was plain pornography, of the dirty mackintosh kind, corresponding to Housman’s relish for sex jokes. The relation of the two levels is not easy to determine, but the higher seems connected with a yearning to escape the compulsive repulsiveness of the lower: to escape into art and the mysterious sexual excitement of creation, the world of the Shropshire Lad and of Larkin’s ‘dear translucent bergs:/Silence and space’. The escape is palpably disingenuous, for the reader still feels and can participate in the kind of excitement the writer is giving himself. In the poem ‘Dry-Point’ Larkin specifically contrasts the exasperatingly mechanical repetitiveness of sexual desire with ‘that bare and sun-scrubbed room ... Where you, we dream, obtain no right of entry’ – ‘you’ being the diurnal sexual itch. ‘We dream’ shows that the poet himself does not believe it – nor does his poem intend we should. The cube of light, the sun-scrubbed room, like those ‘dear translucent bergs’, are for Larkin sexual properties by other means, as Wenlock Edge and dead soldier lads and nettles dancing on suicides’ graves were for Housman. It is there that for the poet sex in the head most excitingly takes place.

I started to reflect on Larkin and pornography when reading James Booth’s highly effective and detailed study of his poems, though the subject had been put into my head by Anthony Thwaite’s selection of the poet’s letters. Booth, together with Barbara Everett, is among the few critics who have produced real illumination about the way the poems work: ways of working which notoriously have become more and more indefinable the more public and popular a figure the poet has become – and indeed the more he has become a new industry for the critics. The point to hold onto might well be that such a popularity occurs on the rare occasions when a highly idiosyncratic writer like Larkin or Housman manages unexpectedly to strike an all-responsive chord; when, in fine, as Henry James would say, by exciting themselves they excite others. Like the higher pornography, the higher self-pity – vital to any bestseller – is an important ingredient in Larkin’s popularity.

There is nothing specialised about the excitement. One does not have to share homoerotic feelings to be excited by Housman; or, when moved by Larkin, to share his fantasies about schoolgirls. The higher pornography does not work that way, for its erotic charge is not only generalised into art but disseminated among mysterious and apparently neutral properties, to which it transmits an excitement which can always none the less be traced straight back to the poet’s own sex feelings. This is particularly true of the masterpiece which is one of Larkin’s two youthful attempts at fiction, A Girl in Winter, which should more properly be known by the title Larkin wanted, The Kingdom of Winter, and then changed at the publisher’s request. Both novels’ titles thus have a faint air of Soho about them; the first, Jill, is reported by Kingsley Amis to have been found located next to High-Heeled Yvonne, on a shelf of such works.

With some justification, for the fantasies about Jill Bradley at her school Willow Gables do come close to what Booth calls ‘an unusual kind of pornography, despite, or rather because of, their “complicated sexless” quality’. As Larkin explained in an introduction to the American edition, the original publisher divided his activity between poetry ‘and what then passed for pornography’. ‘Then’ is the significant word, for what is old-fashioned is important to Larkin in this context: the girl in his oddly moving poem ‘Broadcast’ has ‘slightly outmoded shoes’. Jill’s ‘super-soft porn undertones’, in Amis’s phrase quoted by Booth, are of course not at all what that phrase would lead one to expect, and yet the connection is clear: ‘All my kirbigrips have vanished for a start this morning (yes, and WHO took them?), so what with searching for them and trying to find a slide, I hadn’t time to get my hymn-book before prayers – and of course the Badger had to choose today to inspect them, as she said she’s seen too many girls sharing recently. I suppose she thinks I like sharing with Molly.’ In A Girl in Winter the technique has been taken much further and is far more artificially sophisticated, though the novelist was still only 21. As Booth crisply puts it, the Pygmalion myth ‘is repeated within the story with the gender roles reversed ... Katherine acts as the creative Pygmalion rather than the created statue.’ Robin – the youthful ‘hero’ – ‘is her work of art, her “Jill Bradley and Willow Gables” fantasy. She is no longer merely the object of male creative fantasy; she has become a subject in her own right, creating her own artistic object.’ In this masterly attempt at making a novel out of what he called ‘diffused poetry’, the young Larkin succeeded by imagining himself into the role of the girl who is doing the imagining: more important, all the properties in the story, those outside her imagination, are polarised by the process, as they will be in the poems he was to write later by the kinds of excitement in which they began. (In ‘Broadcast’ the girl at the concert excites his tenderness and desire as a result of her helplessness inside his imagination of it – ‘Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding’.)

‘Diffused poetry’ works so well here because it is so intimately attached to the high plane of fantasy: desire by means of poetical self-identification. This is far more effective than, say, Virginia Woolf’s fantasy in Orlando, which only seems poetic, because the sexual transposition is done with skittish amusement rather than the right true sexual devotion. Oddly enough, the novels of Barbara Pym, which struck an immediate chord with the older Larkin, have something of his own skill in creating sexual fantasy wholly devoid of overt sex, and in which characters excite themselves by creating each other in their heads. In A Girl in Winter Larkin can even achieve a perfect transposed ‘family’ fantasy – it is also marvellously funny – by means of a visit to the dentist. Katherine, the fantasy girl in the poet’s head who is also creating a young man in her own, becomes in the scene, as it were, the mother of a young colleague, Miss Green: the dentist who pulls the latter’s tooth becoming in the act a temporary fantasy father. For the author the scene clearly displaces the ‘unsatisfactory’ (a favourite word) nature of a real family relationship, adding a sexual dimension to it as well. Even the pink mouthwash tablet the dentist drops in a glass of water for his patient ‘sinks furiously to the bottom’ – a hilarious visual emblem of domestic tantrums and paternal frustration. When the tooth has been pulled, and Miss Green is still unconscious, Katherine and the dentist, who care nothing about her, involuntarily stand back for a moment and see her as if she were a little girl. Only in the displaced sex of fantasy can she be ‘a real girl in a real place’. Real, that is, in terms of the curious quality of Larkinian art. ‘The impulse to preserve,’ Larkin wrote to D.J. Enright in 1955, ‘lies at the bottom of all art.’ For Larkin the preservation of the moment itself involved a transposition of sex, as with the trilby hat in a snapshot of the girl from ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ – ‘(Faintly disturbing, that, in several ways)’. In A Girl in Winter winter itself becomes the groper and voyeur, as the girls leave the library where they work to go to the dentist, the time being carefully noted. ‘They stood for a second on the top of the steps, the cold rising up their skirts, and began to walk down as a clock struck ten-fifteen ... Katherine looked dis-proportionately strong and dark beside Miss Green.’ Viewpoint and selection of detail all enhance the slightly eerie nature of, as it were, transvestised fact. Katherine is strong and dark because she is not really a girl at all; or, alternatively, being inside the poet’s head, she is so much of a girl that she has a transposed sexual awareness no real girl would bother to have. She feels winter fingering her; and it is to winter and not to her tiresome young man that she gives herself at the novel’s conclusion, an ending which makes sex a tiresome triviality, like the ticking of a watch on your partner’s wrist, but the possession by sleep and winter, with its visions of bergs white and slow-approaching, a deeply satisfying artistic (or sexual) experience.

It is certainly a remarkably intense one. Katherine, as Booth says, becomes ‘a resigned subject of the kingdom of winter’, and the author at the time wrote to a friend that ‘it is a deathly book and has for theme the relinquishing of live response to life.’ For Larkin, as he was no doubt gloomily but also satisfyingly aware, that is what sex was all about. One cannot help being struck by the ways in which Larkin quietly turns his hero-author Lawrence inside out, adapting Lawrence’s vivid perception of things but displacing them to the spirit of something more like the Fin de Siècle. Where Gerald at the end of Women in Love is condemned for not being ‘on the side of life’ to a death in snow and ice, Katherine welcomes her seduction by winter, and the whole novel endorses her doing so. Lawrence detested preservation, but for Larkin it is the essence of sex in art (even the plural ‘skirts’ in those sentences from the novel is a subtle reminder of this sex’s old-fashionedness, ‘as if all summer settled there and died’). Perhaps the only point on which Larkin intensifies instead of reversing Lawrence is in his tacit emphasis on the absolute difference between the sexes, a difference further emphasised by the artistic feat of realising sex – ‘the wonderful feel of girls’ – and in preserving such a moment by becoming a girl himself.

Desire to preserve is not, no doubt, a novelist’s ideal frame of mind. Larkin, whistling in the dark, assured a friend that his third novel ‘will pick up where Katherine left off and develop logically back to life again’. As Booth remarks, that ‘logically’ rather gives the game away. Larkin was no Lawrentian phoenix, and the resurrection of Katherine or of himself in novel form was naturally not to be. The two pieces of fiction, like many of the later poems, end in the comfort of snow and ice, in eloquent emptiness, however much Larkin professed to hope that ‘the north ship will come back instead of being bogged up there in a glacier.’ What you desire is not yourself, because your self is still haplessly if hopelessly alive and ongoing, but the absence which mysteriously becomes sex itself, preserved in Katherine who is all the more female for being foreign, a foreignness suggested by Larkin with an extraordinary and unobtrusive skill. Perhaps, when one comes to think of it, that is one more positive bond with Lawrence, who always fancied foreign females himself. And yet his females really were foreign, whereas Katherine is only foreign by imaginative suggestion, by the peculiar sexual intensity of Larkin/winter.

Probably the purely negative aspect of Larkin’s imagination can be dwelt on too heavily. Even his intensities have a light touch; and though his wry modesty about himself is as unconvincing as that of any other artist, it can still be convincing enough, as when he writes that the last line of the brief poem about sea and sky, ‘Absences’ (‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’), ‘sounds like a slightly-unconvincing translation from a French symbolist. I wish I could write like this more often.’ Booth appositely comments that like Shelley’s Mont Blanc Larkin’s seascape is ‘sublimely unobserved’; and the poet wrote that he was ‘always thrilled by the thought of what places look like when I am not there’. The word ‘thrilled’ is again significant: Larkinian pornography is an affair of absences, the arts of imagining without being there.

This relish for negativism is balanced by the odd ways in which Larkin is none the less ‘on the side of life’. Like the poems that came later, A Girl in Winter is unobtrusively full of human feelings for the troubles, regrets and rewards of human beings. Even the poet’s misogyny, which has nothing hard about it, is a kind of wistfulness. As Booth shrewdly observes, Larkin is quite capable of ‘coming near to launching a female attack on his own misogyny’. Hardy the novelist could do that too, but with less sense of the basic untenability of his own fantasies: Larkin is always sardonically aware that the idea of a ‘girl’ (like Hardy’s ‘pure woman’) can only exist in the male imagination. Our General Theory of the Pornographic in Art would probably have to stipulate that the artist exciting himself by means of whatever he fancies must – to qualify for the definition – be doing so consciously. The pornographer has few if any illusions about his techniques, and yet if he is as good an artist as Larkin he cannot end-stop them: they meet and mingle with the whole interest of life, and as Henry James so passionately declared, ‘art makes life, makes interest.’ So of course does sex.