'How,' asked Dr Leavis, vaulting into his review of T. S. Eliot's On Poetry and Poets, 'can a book of criticism be at once so distinguished and so unimportant?' Of Philip Larkin's comparable and incomparable 'miscellaneous pieces', it might be asked: How can a book of criticism be at once so un-'distinguished' and so important? But then how can this Faber book of groans be so exhilarating? The open unsecret is: by being unremittingly attentive and diversely funny. Asked in an interview about his 'secret flaws' as a writer, Larkin levels his reply: 'My secret flaw is just not being very good, like everyone else.' Asked whether he consciously uses humour to achieve a particular effect, he obligingly particularises while generalising: 'One uses humour to make people laugh.' Deprecating untruth, he is a master at combining the Retort Courteous and the Quip Modest. You didn't mention a schedule for writing ... 'Yes, I was afraid you'd ask about writing.' Sometimes things are such that he does have to press on to give the Reply Churlish ('Who's Jorge Luis Borges?'), and the Reproof Valiant (What do you think about Mrs Thatcher? 'Oh, I adore Mrs Thatcher'), and even the Countercheck Quarrelsome ('Oh, for Christ's sake, one doesn't study poets!'). But like Touchstone, he is not cut out for giving the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct. Like Touchstone, he is independent of mind, prepared to tell people when they are feigning; and, playing the Fool, he is of course licensed by all the authorities whom he banters, cajoles and outwits, countenanced and honest the while.
LRB 1 March 1984 | PDF Download