Philip Larkin once told Philip Oakes – in a Sunday Times Magazine profile which remains one of the essential articles on its subject – how he was going to be a novelist, until the novels stopped coming. First there was Jill in 1946, and then there was A Girl in Winter in 1947, and after those there were to be several more. But they never arrived. So Philip Larkin became the leading poet who once wrote a brace of novels, just as his friend Kingsley Amis became the leading novelist who occasionally writes poems: the creative labour was divided with the customary English decorum, providing the kind of simplified career-structures with which literary history prefers to deal.
It verges on the unmannerly to raise the point, in Larkin’s case, that the novels were in no sense the work of someone who had still to find his vocation. Chronology insists that they were written at a time when his verse had not yet struck its tone – The North Ship, Larkin’s mesmerized submission to Yeats, had only recently been published, and of The Less Deceived, his first mature collection, barely half the constituent poems had as yet been written. But the novels had struck their tone straight away. It is only now, by hindsight, that they seem to point forward to the poetry. Taken in their chronology, they are impressively mature and self-sufficient. If Larkin had never written a line of verse, his place as a writer would still have been secure. It would have been a smaller place than he now occupies, but still more substantial than that of, say, Denton Welch, an equivalently precocious (though nowhere near as perceptive) writer of the same period.
The self-sufficient force of Larkin’s two novels is attested to by the fact that they have never quite gone away. People serious in their admiration of Larkin’s poetry have usually found themselves searching out at least one of them – most commonly Jill, to which Larkin prefixed, in the 1964 edition, an introduction that seductively evoked the austere but ambitious Oxford of his brilliant generation and in particular was creasingly funny about Amis. Unfortunately this preface (retained in the current paperback) implies, by its very retrospection, a status of obsolescence for the book itself. Yet the present reissue sufficiently proves that Jill needs no apologizing for. And A Girl in Winter is at least as good as Jill and in some departments conspicuously better. Either novel is guaranteed to jolt any reader who expects Larkin to look clumsy out of his bailiwick. There are times when Larkin does look that, but they usually happen when he tempts himself into offering a professional rule of thumb as an aesthetic principle – a practice which can lay him open to charges of cranky insularity. None of that here. In fact quite the other thing: the novels are at ease with a range of sympathies that the later poems, even the most magnificent ones, deal with only piecemeal, although with incomparably more telling effect.
Considering that Evelyn Waugh began a comic tradition in the modern novel which only lately seems in danger of dying out, and considering Larkin’s gift for sardonic comedy – a gift which by all accounts decisively influenced his contemporaries at Oxford – it is remarkable how non-comic his novels are, how completely they do not fit into the family of talents which includes Waugh and Powell and Amis. Jill employs many of the same properties as an Oxford novel by the young Waugh – the obscure young hero is casually destroyed by his socially superior contemporaries – but the treatment is unrelievedly sad. Larkin’s hero has none of the inner strength which Amis gave Jim Dixon. Nor is there any sign of the Atkinson figures who helped Jim through the tougher parts of the maze. Young John comes up to Oxford lost and stays lost: he is not a symbol of his social condition so much as an example of how his social condition can amplify a handicap – shy ordinariness – into tragedy. All the materials of farce are present and begging to be used, but tragedy is what Larkin aims for and what he largely achieves.
The crux of the matter is John’s love for Jill – a thousand dreams and one kiss. Jill is a clear forecast of the Larkin dream-girl in the poems. But if John is Larkin, he is hardly the Larkin we know to have dominated his generation at Oxford. He is someone much closer to the author’s central self, the wounded personality whose deprivation has since been so clearly established in the poems. What is remarkable, however, (and the same thing is remarkable about the poems, but rarely comes into question), is the way in which the hero’s desolation is viewed in its entirety by the author. The author sees the whole character from without. The novel does something which very few novels by 21-year old writers have ever done. It distances autobiographical material and sets events in the global view of mature personality.
As if to prove the point, A Girl in Winter is a similar story of callow love, but seen from the girl’s angle. The book perfectly captures the way a young woman’s emotional maturity outstrips a young man’s. Katherine, a young European grappling with England (an inversion of the Larkin-Amis nightmare in which the Englishman is obliged to grapple with Europe), is morally perceptive – sensitive would be the right word if it did not preclude robustness – to an unusual degree, yet Larkin is able to convince us that she is no freak. While still an adolescent she falls in love with her English pen-pal, Robin, without realizing that it is Robin’s sister, Jane, who is really interested in her. Time sorts out the tangle, but just when Katherine has fallen out of love Robin shows up on the off-chance of sleeping with her. Katherine quells his importunity with a few apposite remarks likely to make any male reader sweat from the palms, although finally she sleeps with him because its less trouble than not to. Yet Katherine is allowed small comfort in her new maturity. The book is as disconsolate as its predecessor, leaving the protagonist once again facing an unsatisfactory prime.
A contributory grace in both novels, but outstanding in A Girl in Winter, is the sheer quality of the writing. Larkin told Oakes that he wrote the books like poems, carefully eliminating repeated words. Fastidiousness is everywhere and flamboyance non-existent: the touch is unfaltering. Katherine ‘could sense his interest turning towards her, as a blind man might sense the switching on of an electric fire’. Figures of speech are invariably as quiet and effective as that. The last paragraphs of A Girl in Winter have something of the cadenced elegance you find at the close of The Great Gatsby.
Why, if Larkin could write novels like these, did he stop? To hindsight the answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin. In a fictional texture featuring a sore tooth and a fleeting kiss as important strands Zen diaphanousness always threatened. (What is the sound of one flower being arranged?) The master lyric poet, given time, will eventually reject the idea of writing any line not meant to be remembered. Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting. Chopin is not too far-fetched a parallel. Larkin’s two novels are like Chopin’s two concertos: good enough to promise not merely more of the same but a hitherto unheard-of distillation of their own lyrical essence.
(New Statesman, 21 March 1975)