Monday, July 30, 2018

If one starts blaming one’s parents, one would never stop/ Larkin - Letters to Monica (1954)

3 August 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[…] Dearest, what kind of a flight did you have? I thought of you, when I was eating my lunch, soaring through the large cloud-littered sky.
Now I have eaten most of the things you left, & the birds have discovered your crusts, & the cleaner has cleaned up my room (without finding your pen), so the holiday is fading rather horribly quickly, as far as outward show is concerned, but I was very dejected this morning when no rabbit came to my bedside to thump its drum! Slept badly, too.
As you see, I’m enclosing a copy of the churches poem [“Church Going” began to be written on 24 April 1954. Its final draft appears in notebook #4, dated 28 July 1954], & hope you’ll let me know what you think of it. I’m afraid it is not entirely effective, but you must judge for yourself and let me know. I could write plenty of ‘background’ stuff about it, but you had better read it unsupported first: do remember, however, that I write it partly to exhibit an attitude as well as to try to arouse an emotion - the attitude of the ‘young heathen’ of whom there are plenty about these days — the first line, for instance, is designed both as sincere statement of fact & also as heavy irony. [...]

10 August 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[...] Thanks for all the nice things you said abt my poetry, but I think you put your paw on the flaw in “Churchgoing”, a lack of strong continuity - it is dangerously like chat, 4th leader stuff. The most important emotion - the church as a place where people came to be serious, were always serious, & all their different forms of seriousness came to be intermingled, so that a christening reminded of a funeral & a funeral of a wedding: nowadays these things happen in different buildings & the marvellous ‘blent air’ of a church is growing rarer - this emotion I feel does not come out nearly strongly enough. However, I don’t know what can be done about it now.

16 August 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[…] Am getting on very well with “Bleak House” - I do like it. There is more to thrill, & less to irritate or bore, me than in any other I’ve read.

23 August 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[...] There was such an interesting programme on the radio tonight - some Canon giving a recital of street pianos, playing popular songs of the ’90s, & interspersing them with gossip & jokes of a sort of old-wag order. Very nice! It conjured up to me the sunsets, the mouldering brick streets, the open public-houses full of soldiers off to South Africa, the endless jingle & trot, the children playing with hoops & chalking the pavements, & the old people sitting at their doors on wooden kitchen chairs (a steel engraving of ‘The death of Nelson’ visible on the wall behind their heads), and from round the corner the sound of this twangling hymn, like the harping of Cockney angles. There’s a sentimental passage for you! But seriously I think you wd like this, & much that is on the radio: I do pity you, forced to attend to television night after night.
It was all rather silly really’, to use one of those classic phrases suitable for labelling almost any activity in retrospect. [...]

I suppose I like decisive people if they’ve decided what I’ve decided! not otherwise. But really you mustn’t keep thinking of me as clever by any real standards - I shdn’t be a librarian if I weren’t incapable of any kind of serious thought - I know nothing, read nothing but novels, think nothing - no, really! Prrrff! I always try to comfort myself with Keats’ remark about ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’, & the unsuitableness thereof, for a poet.
Handel, who is ‘This week’s composer’, is playing on the radio at present, & makes me wish you were here, covering the carpet with long alien golden hairs (I still find them, now again, in all sorts о places — shut in books, for instance). [...]

13 September 1954
21 York Road, Loughborough
[…] Depressed myself slightly tonight by reading some scrappy journal entries (all right, diary entries) for the first half of 1941 - I didn’t remember myself as such an awkward young fool, but there we are. A terrible time, just trying to cross from being a schoolboy to being a - well, I don’t know. The depression mainly came from the thought that all I have learnt to do since then is avoid ‘conflict situations’. Even that is something, I suppose. But I am no more master of my destiny than a tomcat is master of the ‘Queen Mary’. The only entry that made me genuinely laugh recounted how I unwrapped a Swiss roll and fitted it over someone’s door handle - can’t remember the man or what happened, but it wd be a queer thing to take hold of after dark.

[…] Journals - diaries - are two-edged weapons! I really must arrange for mine to be destroyed when I die. Nearly bought a will form in Cheltenham, but can’t think of anyone to make executor. Suppose it will have to be the bank. [...]

23 September 1954
30 Elmwood Avenue, Belfast
[…] The Librarianship of Hull is vacant: sounds not a bad place in many ways, but do I want a headship? Damned if I think I do. Member of senate... Committees... all that rubbish. Branch librarian of Bridport is more my line, really. I wonder if I shd ever have the courage to do anything like that? (Of course, I don’t mean the Hull job is mine for the asking: I’m sure it’s not: but one has to think such things over as if they were.)

Friday […] Talking about insufferable things, I found a foul article in “Punch” (15/9) by that poetic-play fool/swine Ronald Duncan called Fewer rabbits, more men. Written in the witless Wodehouse-and-water style of a naval station’s magazine, it celebrated the arrival of myxomatosis at the writer’s village (‘when the first bulging-eyed creature was discovered... it was drinks all round at the pub that night’). I read it very carefully to see if it could be intended satirically but I don’t see that it could be. I therefore wrote a protest to the editor, very mild really, pointing out how unamusing, disagreeable & shameful it was [Letter to “Punch”: evidently not published]. He is bound to have had others. And if I may - entirely without rancour - say so, it is this sort of thing that makes me look down on “Punch” (you remember you once scolded me for it). It may be the backbone of England, but the “New St.” wd never offend in that way, and I judge them accordingly. [...]

28 September 1954
30 Elmwood Avenue, Belfast
Ha, my bonny bun,
[…] I thought of you last night when I was finishing an 8-line poem [‘Myxomatosis’, completed 27 Sept. 1954, published “Spectator” 26 Nov. 1954]: it began as a furious diatribe in response to filthy Ronald Duncan, but it finished as a very casual little anecdote: I’ve sent it to the “Spectator” along with “Church going”. Larkin goes propagandist. I feel shy of showing it to you. I’m afraid it will seem vulgar, or melodramatic, or not savage enough - too much of a literary little ‘human’ verse; not rabbity enough... [...]

2 October 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[…] No word from ‘Spr’ about my deathless verse [The Spectator had been sent ‘Church Going’ and ‘Myxomatosis’ by L., both of which they were later to publish (‘Church Going’, 18 November 1955; ‘Myxomatosis’, 26 November 1954)]. I should say that “Churchgoing” should be worth a fiver to them at present, arguing as they are about churches & their decay, preservation, sale, etc. - see Betjeman’s poem this week? Lucky he doesn’t pitch on my subject: do you know, as I say I think he’s easily the best English poet today, except me, & we’re not after entirely the same game. I think much of “Chrysanthemums[Betjeman, “A Few Late Chrysanthemums” (1954), reviewed by L. in Q (literary magazine of QUB), Hilary term 1955. See “Further Requirements”], well, a bit trivial, but some of it is quite (i.e. absolutely) admirable – “House of rest”, this is a great favourite of mine; “I.M. Walter Ramsden” - this reminds me of a favourite picture I’ve long carried in my head & never quite formulated: it’s an old photograph, taken in a college (very dark archway) & there are some young men in straw boaters talking together, in the general costume of the S. African War period...

10 October 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[…] The situation in Dublin was to some extent embarrassing about my poems.
[Donald Davie, Thomas Kinsella and Liam Miller had been considering L.’s poems for publication by the ‘Dolmen Press’ in Dublin. They were turned down. ‘Triple Time’ (completed 3 October 1953), ‘Latest Face’ (February 1951), ‘Wires’ (4 November 1950) all appeared eventually in ‘The Less Deceived’. ‘To Fail’ (later called ‘Success Story’) was completed 11 March 1954, appeared in ‘The Grapevine’ (Durham University), February 1957, but did not appear in book form until the Collected Poems.] 

[…] 4 (out of 12) they all liked, but I can’t remember them now, except “Triple Time”. The one he praised most was “Latest face” (classes in T.C.D. have been analysing this); the one he liked least “Wires” - in fact he thought it ‘very feeble’! So there you are. I was disappointed at the time, but not now. O, another one that aroused general displeasure was “To fail”, but I think perhaps I made an error of judgment in including it. It really is very personal indeed. Somehow I don’t think I shall see a book of my poems published unless I pay for it myself.
The bells are ringing through the dark. It’s just half past six.
8.45 p.m. - Have just finished and typed a poem [‘Places, Loved Ones’, 10 October 1954], not good: slangy, unprofound. As a matter of fact I went a walk today & my head buzzed with ideas, ideas for short poems, that is. Pray the Good Rabbit that I succeed in doing so. [...]

22 October 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
Just now I really have little news to report: Kingsley doesn’t write to me, so I don’t write to him, nor that fat self-indulgent fool Bruce. The Spr. says nothing about my poems, which does not argue that they are very anxious to print them. I don’t myself feel any great spirit rushing in me like a wind. The only live subject of thought I have is this public humiliation in Hull, hypothetical humiliation I should say, since no one has replied to my fat envelope yet.
Monday. Ah! letter from you today. I’m not one of the save-it-to-read-in-the-apple-tree school. I tear it open instantly and walk slowly upstairs reading it, not taking off my scarf & raincoat till I’ve finished. Very nice! We both seem a bit drab at present, witness this letter to date, you with reason, me without. How dreary & depressing this room-hunt is! Everything looks its worst when seen in such circumstances. [...]

30 October 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[…] I do think that she [V. Woolf] is one of the few people (Hardy is another) who set things moving, swinging, quietly, harmoniously, inside one, as if some thaw was taking place. And again it makes you dreadfully miserable, since you apprehend life more keenly, and since you know (or I know) that she’s so far ahead in unselfish observation and transcription.
…actually, that exchange doesn’t really make my point about К.M. that she is enormously dedicated, from page 1 (‘I mean this year to try and be a different person...’) in 1904, to p. 334 (‘to be rooted in life...') in 1922, she was enormously aware of things unquestionably more pure, more significant, more beautiful than she was herself & of the problem of translating them by means of art, by catching hold of their tiny significant manifestations (‘Charles sat darning socks... When he took up the scissors, the cat squeezed up its eyes as if to say “That s quite right”, and when he put the scissors down it just put out its paw as if to straighten them...’). This seems to me to depend enormously on the fact that she did not distinguish between life and art. This is of first importance: no ‘stupid life at its bungling work’, as in H.J. Art is good insofar as it catches life, and, really, the opposite is true too, in KM.
These attitudes are not inclusive, but exclusive - a continual refining, a self-purification. She never said, as I’m afraid I do, well, this is bloody dull, but it’s life, life’s like that; nor, well, this is fine, splendid in fact, but of course it’s only a book, just imaginary. The first would be instantly discarded in favour of the second. And of course you have to think like that to be a writer, just as you have to believe your soap is the best in the world if you’re a soap-seller. If you don’t believe art is better than... no, wait a minute, that isn’t what KM thought. If you don't believe that good art is better than bad life, then bugger off, there’s plenty of room for your sort in the civil service. If you do believe it, then stay and try to convert the whole of life into art, until the smallest action is a ritual, an auto da fe, rejecting what you can't transmute. ‘And out of this... I want to be writing.’ This is leading me into raving, but I feel at present that the 2 things to consider about K.M. are the art-life business as sketched out above, & the question why (generallу speaking) are her stories so unsuccessful (‘a charming talent but not great! Why say great?’ D.H.L.)
It gave me a queer sensation to find that she wrote J.M.M. a letter ‘to be opened after her death’ on Aug. 8th 1922 - the day before I was born! I can’t see this letter has ever been published.

I’m sure the envelope won’t hold all this. Good night; bless you, dear paws. S. [for Seal]

6 November 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
Have also bought the K.M. “Journal” - I was so interested in the things you said about her & it, though I forget much of what I said that you are replying to*. Do you see what struck me? The incessant harping on the conviction that the aperçus in which ‘life’ seemed most piercingly summarised (e.g. ‘On the wall of the kitchen there was a shadow, shaped like a little mask with two gold slits for eyes. It danced up and down’) put on her not only an artistic obligation to record them, but a moral obligation to ‘live up to’ them. This is stressed again & again & again.
I think (but of course I’ve never been a girl) you do her less than justice in implying that ‘wanting to be a different person’ was only self dramatisation. In its numerous contexts it reads to me more like the ordinary reaction of any person who sees anything beautiful - a wish to return thanks, or to - this is more like it - to struggle towards a state of mind in which such perceptions would be more common, and in which they wd be of some practical use. After all, that is what one feels about such things, if only one could rely on them for help, seriously! Of course, I only bother about this idea because her noticings (is that the English equivalent?) are so extraordinary. I am quite sure nobody has ever written to touch her, not even Lawrence. That sentence, or pair of sentences, about the shadow on the wall, seems to me to contain such a lot: the suggestion of a gaiety, sinister because heartless, at the very centre of life - yet only a mask! What looks through it is still a mystery.

Of course I don’t deny there is a lot about her I don’t care for. The childish racket, & its element in her marriage & in her writings (worse!). The fits of temperament - but of course she was ill. The self will - yes, but after all, she knew that if she could but get away she could do something, left to herself. One doesn’t get rid of one’s family by being a decent person.

Monday after lunch Light drifting skies, rain seeming to be wafted up from the ground, making an umbrella useless...

[*In a letter dated 3 November 1954, Monica wrote:
‘I’m touched and amused to see how, always, a little of KM shakes a letter out of you to me - it does, doesn’t it? [...] I do hope I’m not getting tired of her [...] I feel I know too much about that kind of writing-in-a-diary: naturally in those days I called it a “journal” too. I can smell it out in her absolutely - I know when she’s writing the truth & when she’s making it up, I’ve done it all myself... It seems awfully presumptuous to say this, when she did do something I never do & never will, that I wouldn’t say it to anyone else for anything [...]’]

14 November 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[...] I’m not keeping ‘the rabbit one’ from you: it’s only that in it I kill the rabbit, which makes it totally out of character & rather like a piece of journalism. I’ll transcribe it [Variants of “Myxomatosis”, which L. appeared to have completed in its final form on 28 Sept. 1954]:

Dear bun, I know what you mean about turning life into art - I sometimes have you with me for long stretches, noticing things together - actually that sounds horrible, but yesterday I walked up the Lisburn Road, a very dull road, for about 2 miles, a road nobody would ever walk along for pleasure - rather like, say, the Melton Road in Leicester, but I enjoyed it & so wd you, & I thought as much at the time. Simple pleasures!

23 November 1954
[1 Anti-seasickness tablets.
2 The blank is filled with a tiny self-sketch of L. as a seal.
3 L. was thirty-two.]

Wednesday Home again. Bright frosty morning. Feel very low, & as if I had agreed to command NATO forces in Europe. О bun! Hugs. Seal. [...]

28 November 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
My dear,
[...] Your letter helped me to dispel some of the misery that hung about me like indigestion in the middle of the week. I was absolutely rigid with terror all Wednesday. Graneek said he’d never seen anyone react to success like it. Success, forsooth! It has been a whirl of congratulations, & Ashby pulling off his glove to shake hands, & nothing-succeeds-like-success, & resigning (brrrr!), & noting various reactions. They all seem fairly friendly about it, except a fat fool of a law professor called Montrose - a Billy-Bunter Roman emperor - & I thought I detected signs of chagrin in Brian Tate. But this is accompanied by no word from Hull: it might all have been a dream, or a nightmare. Suppose it was? Should I mind? Well... in a way - with the strong sensible bit of my mind - I should.
But there’s a feeling strong upon me of penetrating further and further into the wrong kind of life. О to be a Controller of Stamps! [L. is thinking of a title given Wordsworth, and in effect a sinecure] I can’t reconcile this career stuff at all: perhaps it is Yeats’ ‘theatre business, management of men’, or my ‘mask’. Or perhaps I am blindly following a pattern laid down by my father. Or perhaps it’s just the way things happen: I want to move, & the only move is upwards. I’d sooner move sideways, like a crab!
Did you notice the rabbit poem, tucked away in “the Spr” on Friday? [‘Myxomatosis’ was published in the Spectator, 26 November 1954] Wonder if I shall receive any letters about it. I don’t like the broken line: the first half has insufficient carry-on from the first 3 lines; the second is rather stupidly enigmatic, suggesting a farcical interpretation, like a belch or something of the sort. But I like lines 5 & 6, & lines 7 & 8 are vitiated only by the unspoken ‘Yes, & you may not’ hanging about them I should have done better to choose something more incontrovertible for my finale, but the thing was written in such a tearing hurry I didn’t stop to consider such niceties. I do hope you find it respectful to the awful state of yr nation. I should hate it if you thought I was just earning a couple of guineas from their sufferings. [...]

Monday My hat, I felt bad today - couldn’t sleep last night, and cut the library after lunch till about 4.15 pm. I felt ghastly, also depressed and scared. What a hopeless character mine is. In 1950 I ran away from England & the problems it held, but really they’re still there unchanged & now I’m going back to them... Five years older, five years poorer, five years colder, five years... can’t think of a rhyme. Surer? Surer of what? Brrr. [...]

7 December 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[...] I feel be-etter now: of course your letters cheer me up, make me feel wherry full of beans! I am all right, scared about Hull of course, but ready to shorten my lines to almost any extent to meet it. Really, the fat salary is the only attraction.

Let me explain the family situation - last Christmas & Easter were hell at home: I don’t know what was wrong, possibly Mother was trying to bounce me into ‘doing something’ - anyway, I told myself ‘You must never come back to England till she is dead and gone if you want a quiet life.’
But my sister grumbled that things wd be better if I could come home oftener, & that she had it all the time, etc., which seemed reasonable to me, hence my return, at length. But M. now drops hints of ‘sharing a house’ or ‘dividing a house into 2 flats’ for herself & (hypothetical) companion, & for me. This was not what I had meant, at all. On the other hand I don’t want to hock my weekends so that I never get any peaceful recuperation, 10 hours’ travelling in 3 days, great stuff. But again I don’t imagine that any companion would ever be found so that I shd be tied as at Leicester, if the other course were followed.

At Christmas all this will no doubt be thrashed out. I’m not looking forward to it. Honestly, I don’t know what I want - but I do know what I don’t want! I find the presence or company of my mother largely depressing. It fills me full of a sense of guilt & motheaten pity & wormeaten fear of responsibility and age and death. These things are uncomfortable. Of course, they may also be justified and salutary. [...]

15 December 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[...] I am suffering pangs of conscience about buying my mother a pair of fur gloves. She asked for them. I ought to have refused, really.

[…] As for your strictures about my mother*, no, of course I’m not offended, but I think yr language rather turgid - John Middleton Bunny. I don’t know whether I agree with you or not, really; but, of course, if one starts blaming one’s parents, well, one would never stop! Butler said that anyone who was still worrying about his parents at 35 was a fool, but he certainly didn’t forget them himself, and I think the influence they exert is enormous. I’ve told you before that the only characteristic I can’t trace directly to one or other of them is hay fever! What one doesn’t learn from one’s parents one never learns, or learns awkwardly, like a mining M.P. taking lessons in table manners or the middle aged Arnold Bennett learning to dance. I never remember my parents making a single spontaneous gesture of affection towards each other, for instance.
Of the present situation, well, again I don’t really know what to say. Admitted, my mother is nervy, cowardly, obsessional, boring, grumbling, irritating, self pitying. It’s no use telling her to alter: you might as well tell a sieve to hold water. On the other hand, she’s kind, timid, unselfish, loving, and upset both by losing her husband rather early & by being seventy (next month) with both her children showing marked reluctance to live with her. Balanced intelligent people, I know, can adjust themselves and find compensations, but she isn’t balanced or intelligent. It seems to me a vicious circle. If she were more attractive she would have a more interesting life: on the other hand she won’t get it until she’s more attractive. Am I, ultimately, on her side? God knows! In my heart of hearts, I’m on no one’s side but my own.
You seem to suggest that I’ve yet to throw off my mother & grab myself primary emotional interest in a woman my own age. This may well be true - it sounds true - but it’s not a thing one can do by will power. It’s all too difficult for me to write about: I never got the hang of sex, anyway. If it were announced that all sex wd cease as from midnight on 31 December, my way of life wouldn’t change at all. I tremble to think what mafficking most people would throw themselves into! (Of course I don’t welcome this trait in myself!)
Think I’ll have a bath now. I always feel I need a bath more when I’m wearing my blue suit. Can’t explain this...
Later - Duly bathed. I don’t mean, of course, that I don’t like making love with you: that wd be inaccurate - I only mean I don’t take girls to dances or out or that kind of thing - Chwist naher - and I suppose that’s not healthy, i.e. not normal. Still, let’s drop all this, till we can talk about it. I feel much better since having the bath - much be-etter! […].

[*In a 20-sided letter dated 7 December 1954, from 8 Woodland Avenue Monica had written:
‘Forgive what may be a terrible page to read, but don’t be robbed! don’t be robbed of your soul! I don’t mean by that exactly, simply, don’t live with your Mother: if you could do it without being robbed, that would not count, but can you, can you even live at all without it; can you? I would say, make the effort, do it, but it isn’t a matter of effort. Anyway, forgive me, & say you do please...’]
[about Larkin’s Christmas 1954 poem] On 20 December 1954, Monica wrote to L.:
‘A Christmas poem for me! I love it. Don’t you, aren’t you very gravely pleased & proud? A secret present for me - for a secret reason. I can’t say how much I like it. It is better than “The Oxen” for Christmas; your little poems! they are being good ones, in the pretty cards, aren’t they, don’t you think so yourself?’

28 December 1954
21 York Road, Loughborough
[…] Like others of its kind it’s better at telling you things it knows than things you don’t know.
[…] On the other hand it was informative about bunny, & harrowing about cats - the awful barbarous cruelties practised on cats, all because they were connected in the popular mind with witches!

Philip Larkin - Letters to Monica

Monday, July 23, 2018

Will power can do nothing unless the impulse is there first/ Larkin - Letters to Monica (1953)

24 June 1953*
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

Now you will be wondering what I thought of ‘The secret garden’ [Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (1911)] which I read between 4 and 5-30 p.m. (all but the first 50 pages) on Tuesday morning when I couldn’t sleep. Well, I thought it astonishingly good. I can’t imagine how I’ve never come across it before.
[…] I remember you described it as exactly the sort of book we can share: I can’t remember your saying anything about the book itself, because I hadn’t read it, but you said it made you cry: I was more excited, I really did find it exciting, & any tears that came to my eyes were of excited happiness. But there’s more to say about it than I can well put down now.
[…] Thursday. […] Feel poor today, head like a peppered watermelon.

*This appears to be the first letter surviving since 21 December 1952

28 June 1953
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

Freed rabbit,
It’s lateish on Sunday evening, and I am collecting myself slowly after a very dispersed weekend - very hot here, yesterday & today the finest of days, and I’ve been moving round slowly, dazed by heat and hay-fever. […]
As I lay preparing for sleep I heard a bird beginning to sing in the garden below - o! how that does ravish me, I think I cd listen to it for a small eternity (who said that, of what ?): it’s one of the most wonderful moments of any day. If I hadn’t felt tired I’d have got up there & then & seen the dawn. I know you don’t like birds, but the cool shapely twitterings that rise before daybreak remind me of the dewy tents of leaves they are hidden among, the flowers folded in the darkness, the beady eyes glancing about - ‘sleep all night with open eye’ [Chaucer, 'Canterbury Tales', Prologue] - and the sense of running into a new day, adventurous and triumphant. I hope these purple passages don’t embarrass you.

1 July 1953
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

This is being written in the Reading Room, of all places, where I am filling a gap for 1/2 an hour. I’m sure my letters are too scrappy these days: the fine weather unsettles me, I go strolling round the avenues at night, sensing the vertiginous romance of other lives, when I should be writing to you, or at least attacking my ms. But the gorgeousness of the weather draws me out.

7 July 1953
30 Elmwood Avenue, Belfast

Dearest, […]
Did you see that ‘The Listener’ pointed out that springime or no springtime I (and some others) are in the early 30’s? This reminds me of a joke in the New Yorker: ‘I think its cruel to call anyone middle aged just because they’re not young any more’. Anyway, there’s nothing to look forward to now except the cheque for 8 gns. & the autumn number of ‘Essays in Criticism’, which is reputed to have a short jeering poem of mine in it [‘Fiction and the Reading Public’] - again written in 1950. And, of course, ‘Lucky Jim’. [...]

5 August 1953
Flat 13, 30 Elmwood Avenue, Belfast

[...] If we’d got as far as the birthplace, [L. and his mother on holiday in Dorset, in ‘Hardy country’] I was going to pick a flower or a piece of flowering grass for you to press, but I didn’t think you’d want anything from the churchyard. It’s the most hidden church & churchyard I ever saw, &, when approached from the road, almost invisible. It was utterly silent and withdrawn, as if belonging to the past, or as if its vicar was someone from T. F. Powys. I took a few photographs, but they haven’t yet been developed. You’ll be touched, too, by the extreme simplicity and even poverty of his belongings in the museum - the three horn & steel push-pens lying tumbled together on his desk […]

…the idea of my brooding and fretting over your political opinions is enough to make a Staffordshire cat laugh. You know I don’t care at all for politics, intelligently. I found that at school when we argued all we did was repeat the stuff we had, respectively, learnt from the “Worker”, the “Herald”, “Peace News”, the “Right Book Club” (that was me, incidentally: I knew these dictators, Marching Spain, I can remember them now) and as they all contradicted each other all we did was get annoyed. I came to the conclusion that an enormous amount of research was needed to form an opinion on anything, & therefore I abandoned politics altogether as a topic of conversation. It’s true that the writers I grew up to admire were either non-political or left-wing, & that I couldn’t find any right-wing writer worthy of respect, but of course most of the ones I admired were awful fools or somewhat fakey, so I don’t know if my prejudice for the left takes its origin there or not.

*”Days”. Line 7 later revised to ‘Ah, solving that question’. “Days” was not published until “Listen” (Summer/Autumn 1957), and then in “The Whitsun Weddings” (1964).
7 August 1953
30 Elmwood Avenue, Belfast

[…] I think Mother enjoyed it [above mentioned holiday in Dorset, in ‘Hardy country’]. I told you how I was variously estimated as her brother & her husband, didn’t I? We had a pleasant walk to ‘Mellstock’: Hardy played a part in my parents’ courtship, & it astonishes me to hear her repeat snatches of his poems she learnt simply to please my father – ‘We kissed at the barrier’, for instance (as apparently they always did). Of course my father was grabbing the books as they came from the press, in the nineteen-hundreds. О frigid inarticulate man! He met my mother on the beach at Rhyl. He was there for 3 days only, on a cycling tour, but before leaving he had a picture of them taken together & exchanged addresses (I agree this doesn’t sound especially fr. or inart.!), & despite a separation of several years his intentions didn’t alter. I find all that very strange & romantic, partly because unlike the father I knew. He must have been as intensely idealistic as a young man as he was nihilistically disillusioned in middle age.
Birthdays [9 August 1953: L.’s thirty-first birthday] are a time when one stocktakes, wch means, I suppose, a good spineless mope: I scan my horizon and can discern no sail of hope along my own particular ambition. I tell you what it is: I’m quite in accord with the people who enquire ‘What is the matter with the man?’ because I don’t seem to be producing anything as the years pass but rank self indulgence. You know that my sole ambition, officially at any rate, was to write poems & novels, an activity I never found any difficulty in fulfilling between the (dangerous) ages of 17-24; I can’t very well ignore the fact that this seems to have died a natural death. On the other hand I feel regretful that what talents I have in this direction are not being used. Then again, if I am not going to produce anything in the literary line, the justification for my selfish life is removed — but since I go on living it, the suspicion arises that the writing existed to produce the life, & not vice versa. And as a life it has very little to recommend it: I spend my days footling in a job I care nothing about, a curate among lady-clerks; I evade all responsibility, familial, professional, emotional, social, not even saving much money or helping my mother. I look around me & I see people getting on, or doing things, or bringing up children - and here I am in a kind of vacuum. If I were writing, I would even risk the fearful old age of the Henry-James hero: not fearful in circumstance but in realisation: because to me to catch, render, preserve, pickle, distil or otherwise secure life-as-it-seemed for the future seems to me infinitely worth doing; but as I’m not, the entire morality of it collapses. And when I ask why I’m not, well, I’m not because I don’t want to: every novel I attempt stops at a point where I awake from the impulse as one might awake from a particularly-sickening nightmare - I don't want to create character, I don’t want to be vivid or memorable or precise, I neither wish to bathe each scene in the lambency of the ‘love that accepts’ or be excoriatingly cruel, smart, vicious, ‘penetrating’ (ugh), or any of the other recoil qualities. In fact, like the man in “St Mawr” [By D. H. Lawrence], I want nothing. Nothing, I want. And so it becomes quite impossible for me to carry on.
This failure of impulse seems to me suspiciously like a failure of sexual impulse: people conceive novels and dash away at them & finish them in the same way as they fall in love & will not be satisfied till they’re married - another point on which I seem to be out of step. There’s something cold & heavy sitting on me somewhere, & until something budges it I am no good. I hope you don’t think me pompous for writing this paragraph. I felt I must explain why though I’m very touched by all the nice things you say of me I can’t do more than shake my head gently, and raise one paw in mild protest - not, I suppose, that you expect me to acknowledge them like a newly-crowned champ! Finally, don’t think I haven’t tried: I have tried. Will power can do nothing unless the impulse is there first. Enough! no more. [...]

14 August 1953
30 Elmwood Avenue, Belfast

[…] I don’t think you quite catch my meaning about what-is-the-matter: I agree I can keep out of jug & earn a living & enjoy myself - it’s only writing, or not writing, that irritates me. ‘You can’t do anything if you want to badly enough’ - my version of Butler’s dictum*. And, if you want to know, what I think the matter is is that I have no great opinion of my creative springs, since they appear to me to be corrupt and laughable. In fact you point it out, in a way, in your letter, over this past business. I do love the past. Anything more than 20 years back begins to breathe a luminous fascination for me: it starts my imagination working. Why? Because it is past, I suppose, & leaves my feelings free to get to work on it. Do you think I should trouble my head about a prostitute down in Amelia Street, and not safely tucked away in Mayhew? This is one example of one aspect of the ‘Working of the creative imagination’, which in my experience is generally contemptible and absurd, and forms a vast confidence-trick, an elaborate system of avoidances & compensations. Now any worthwhile writer never thinks of questioning his imaginative excitements. Do you see what I mean, О lop ears, О silky jacket? [...]

*Samuel Butler — 'You can do very little with faith, but you can do nothing without it.'

Christmas night, 1953
21 York Road, Loughborough

My dear,
Well, the worst of it is over now: it’s nearly bedtime and once again the professional uncles of the BBC and all the rest of it have driven away what Christmas feeling I had. However, in this short time between the nuts and mounting the stairs I feel like sending you a special greeting, allied to the sharp stars and dropping rime and curled-up animals and fires ageing into ash and the wind going quietly along the lanes as it’s accustomed to do and meeting no one - factors which every year are driven away by the spirit of Christmas presents - a ferret-faced man with a new corduroy cap on his head & a yellow muffler smoking a King Six. In short, thank you for your presents and I hope you did not have too bad a day. I wore my cat bow all day: oh, it’s obviously good, I think, & I like it tremendously. It really reminds me of the kind of thing one finds at the back of a drawer in a deserted room, in fact I could quite imagine a story about it, or a play. [...]
Saturday. Dreary day. Home, I think, might be defined as the place where one is bored and irritated - and, of course, embarrassed, too, sometimes - or perhaps the place where reality is strongest, which is very much the same thing. [...]

Sunday. Been to church, where the archdeacon had a stab at interpreting the beginning of St John’s gospel. It’s a fine day here, but I am revisited by fear concerning the feeling in my chest. I think, again, that home breeds fear as well as boredom and the rest. Can one cause cancer by thinking about it? Can one cure it by not thinking about it? How does one not think about it? [...]

30 December 1953*
21 York Road, Loughborough
[...] If I were a titled eccentric I should devote my life to writing a study of “Men and animals”: a history of the animal in society. As Food; As Property; As Game; As friends; As Gods (that should come earlier); As Philosophical concepts (pre- & post-Darwin). There’s six fat volumes! And I’d pack into 2 & 3 every monstrous outrage I could find authenticated, whale hunting, seal slaughtering, bullfighting, bear baiting & all the Bertram Mills* stuff**, lineal descendant of the ‘mad bull covered with fireworks & released in the market, 3 p.m.’
However, as I’m not a titled eccentric I suppose I shan’t. [...]

* Bertram Mills [(1873 – 1938), a British circus owner
** see, for example

Philip Larkin - Letters to Monica

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

невозможное при жизни совершенное соприкосновение с миром/ Nabokov - Perfection (1932)

...человеческий сон злопамятен.

По образованию он географ, но знания его неприменимы: мертвое богатство, великолепное поместье родовитого бедняка. Как прекрасны, например, старинные карты. Дорожные карты римлян, подобные змеиной коже, длинные и узорные, в продольных полосках каналообразных морей; александрийские, где Англия и Ирландия, как две колбаски; карты христианского средневековья, в пунцовых и травяных красках, с райским востоком наверху и с Иерусалимом — золотым пупом мира — посредине. Чудесные странствия: путешествующий игумен сравнивает Иордан с родной черниговской речкой, царский посланник заходит в страну, где люди гуляют под желтыми солнышниками, тверской купец пробирается через густой женгел [лес, чаща], полный обезьян, в знойный край, управляемый голым князем. Островок Вселенной растет: новые робкие очертания показываются из легендарных туманов, медленно раздевается земля,— и далеко за морем уже проступает плечо Южной Америки, и дуют с углов толстощекие ветры, из которых один в очках.

...глотая молодой воздух раннего лета...

Порою, глядя на трубочиста, равнодушного носителя чужого счастья, которого трогали суеверной рукой мимо проходившие женщины, или на аэроплан, обгонявший облако, он принимался думать о вещах, которых никогда не узнает ближе, о профессиях, которыми никогда не будет заниматься, — о парашюте, распускающемся как исполинский цветок, о беглом и рябом мире автомобильных гонщиков, о различных образах счастья, об удовольствиях очень богатых людей среди очень живописной природы. Его мысль трепетала и ползла вверх и вниз по стеклу, отделяющему ее от невозможного при жизни совершенного соприкосновения с миром. Страстно хотелось все испытать, до всего добраться, пропустить сквозь себя пятнистую музыку, пестрые голоса, крики птиц, и на минуту войти в душу прохожего, как входишь в свежую тень дерева.

Когда, через четверть часа ходьбы, они спустились к морю, Иванов мгновенно почувствовал сильнейшее сердечное недомогание. В груди было то тесно, то пусто, и среди плоского, сизого моря в ужасном одиночестве чернела маленькая лодка. Ее отпечаток стал появляться на всяком предмете, а потом растворился в воздухе. Оттого что все было подернуто пылью сумерек, ему казалось, что у него помутилось зрение, а ноги странно ослабели от мягкого прикосновения песка. Где-то глухо играл оркестр, каждый звук был как бы закупорен, трудно дышалось.

Луна ощупью добралась до умывальника и там облюбовала один из фацетов стакана, а потом поползла по стене.

Войдя до поджилок в воду, он сначала смочил голову, пошел дальше, раскинув руки, и чем выше поднималась вода, тем смертельнее сжималось сердце. Наконец, набрав воздуху, заткнув уши большими пальцами, а остальными прикрыв глаза, он присел, окунулся. Ему сделалось так плохо, что пришлось спешно из воды выбраться. Он лег на песок, дрожа от холода, и весь полный какой-то страшной, ничем не разрешающейся тоски. Его согрело солнце, он слегка отошел, но зарекся купаться. Было лень одеваться, он жмурился, по красному фону скользили оптические пятнышки, скрещивались марсовы каналы, а стоило чуть разжать веки, и влажным серебром переливалось между ресниц солнце.
Случилось неизбежное. Все, что было у него обнажено, превратилось к вечеру в симметричный архипелаг огненной боли.

«Любуясь природой данной местности, я всегда думаю о тех странах, которых не увижу никогда. Представь себе, Давид, что мы сейчас не в Померании, а в Малайском лесу. Смотри, сейчас пролетит редчайшая птица птеридофора с парой длинных, из голубых фестонов состоящих, антенн на голове».
«Ах, кватч»,— уныло сказал Давид.
«По-русски надо сказать "ерунда" или "чушь". Конечно, это ерунда. Но в том-то и дело, что при известном воображении... Если когда-нибудь ты, не дай Бог, ослепнешь или попадешь в тюрьму, или просто в страшной нищете будешь заниматься гнусной, беспросветной работой, ты вспомнишь об этой нашей прогулке в обыкновенном лесу, как — знаешь — о сказочном блаженстве».

На закате распушились темно-розовые тучи, которые рыжели по мере угасания неба, и рыбак сказал, что завтра будет дождь,— однако, утро выдалось дивное, безоблачное, и Давид торопил Иванова, которому немоглось, хотелось валяться в постели и думать о каких-то далеких, неясных полусобытиях, освещенных воспоминанием только с одного бока, о каких-то дымчатых, приятных вещах,— быть может, когда-то случившихся, или близко проплывших когда-то в поле жизни, или еще в эту ночь явившихся ему во сне. Но невозможно было сосредоточить мысль на них,— все ускользало куда-то в сторону, полуоборотясь с приветливым и таинственным лукавством,— ускользало неудержимо, как те прозрачные узелки, которые наискось плывут в глазах, если прищуриться. [// Марк в рассказе Катастрофа] Увы, надо было вставать, надо было натягивать носки, столь дырявые, что напоминали митенки. Прежде, чем выйти из дому, он надел давидовы желтые очки, и солнце упало в обморок среди умершего смертью бирюзы неба, и утренний свет на ступенях крыльца принял закатный оттенок.
Пологая улица сонно спускалась к морю. Понемногу глаза привыкли к стеклам, и он перестал удивляться защитному цвету солнечного дня. На повороте улицы что-то вдруг наполовину вспомнилось,— необыкновенно отрадное и странное,— но оно сразу зашло, и сжалась грудь от тревожного морского воздуха. Смуглые флаги возбужденно хлопали и указывали все в одну сторону, но там еще не происходило ничего. Вот песок, вот глухой плеск моря. В ушах заложено, и если потянуть носом, — гром в голове, и что-то ударяется в перепончатый тупик. «Я прожил не очень долго и не очень хорошо, — мельком подумал Иванов, — а все-таки жаловаться грех, этот чужой мир прекрасен, и я сейчас был бы счастлив, только бы вспомнилось то удивительное, такое удивительное, — но что?»

В желто-синих волнах, далеко от берега мелькнуло лицо Давида с темным кружком разинутого рта. Раздался захлебывающийся рев, и все исчезло. Появилась на миг рука и исчезла тоже. Иванов скинул пиджак. «Я иду, — крикнул он, — я иду, держись!» Он зашлепал по воде, упал, ледяные штаны прилипли к голеням, ему показалось, что голова Давида мелькнула опять, в это мгновение хлынула волна, сбила шляпу, он ослеп, хотел снять очки, но от волнения, от холода, от томительной слабости во всем теле, не мог с ними справиться, почувствовал, что волна, отступив, оттянула его на большое расстояние от берега; и поплыл, стараясь высмотреть Давида. Тело было в тесном, мучительно-холодном мешке, нечем было дышать, сердце напрягалось невероятно. Внезапно, сквозь него что-то прошло, как молниевидный перебор пальцев по клавишам,— и это было как раз то, что все утро он силился вспомнить. Он вышел на песок. Песок, море и воздух окрашены были в странный цвет, вялый, матовый, и все было очень тихо. Ему смутно подумалось, что наступили сумерки, — и что теперь Давид давно погиб, и он ощутил знакомый по прошлой жизни острый жар рыданий. Дрожа и склоняясь к пепельному песку, он кутался в черный плащ со змеевидной застежкой, который видел некогда на приятеле-студенте, в осенний день, давным-давно, — и так жаль было матери Давида,— и что ей сказать: я не виноват, я сделал все, чтобы его спасти,— но я дурно плаваю, у меня слабое сердце, и он утонул... Что-то однако было не так в этих мыслях, — и осмотревшись, увидя только пустынную муть, увидя, что он один, что нет рядом Давида, он вдруг понял, что, раз Давида с ним нет, значит, Давид не умер.
Только тогда были сняты тусклые очки. Ровный, матовый туман сразу прорвался, дивно расцвел, грянули разнообразные звуки — шум волн, хлопание ветра, человеческие крики,— и Давид стоял по щиколке в яркой воде, не знал, что делать, трясся от страха и не смел объяснить, что он барахтался в шутку, а поодаль люди ныряли, ощупывали до дна воду, смотрели друг на друга выпученными глазами и ныряли опять, и возвращались ни с чем, и другие кричали им с берега, советовали искать левее, и бежал человек с краснокрестной повязкой на рукаве, и трое в фуфайках сталкивали в воду скрежещущую лодку, и растерянного Давида уводила полная женщина в пенсне, жена ветеринара, который должен был приехать в пятницу, но задержался, и Балтийское море искрилось от края до края, и поперек зеленой дороги в поредевшем лесу лежали, еще дыша, срубленные осины, и черный от сажи юноша, постепенно белея, мылся под краном на кухне, и над вечным снегом Новозеландских гор порхали черные попугайчики, и, щурясь от солнца, рыбак важно говорил, что только на девятый день волны выдадут тело.

Владимир Набоков, «Совершенство»

Второе издание, вместе с рассказами, — сб. «Соглядатай», Париж, 1938 год

Monday, July 16, 2018

I don’t think death can be fitly compared to anything in life/ Larkin - Letters to Monica (1952)

11 January 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

I think one of my hells would be to sit through a two-part play, enacted by Esme Percy and Robert Newton. Groo. My throat constricts with an involuntary motion at the thought, at the very thought.
Shaw pleases me inordinately on his day.

4 February 1952,
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

I feel full of brightness now, having read J. Isaacs’ Twentieth century literature tonight — he calls himself the Counsel for the Defence; God! reading him is like having a great dog come bounding up &, putting its paws on your shoulders, lick you all over. Everyone is very, very fine & wonderful. Everything is going to be all right. […] I have only read it very sketchily & even patchily.

[…] he [Llewellyn Powys – see Letters, 1951] is far from insincere: he has always in mind the great touchstone of ‘Death’, & consequently life is always judged as how far it fits us, or compensates us, for ultimately dying.

Tuesday. Toothache, curse it. I went to my dentist yesterday & he again dressed my 2 bad teeth, a little more permanently, but one has taken it badly and has ached all today. I can see myself losing it — necrosis — sepsis — infection — poisoned while he slept, etc. There’s no nerve left in it so I don’t quite know what can be hurting. But it augurs ill. If my teeth hurt I always have to lose them. This one started by aching, a year ago nearly.

Also I have a cold starting, gibber gibber gibber. But this savours of Sam. Butler’s letters to Miss Savage, him giving her details of his mild asthma & she refraining from mentioning her incurable tumour. I hereby banish all complaints.

15 February 1952,
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

[about funeral of George VI, who died on Feb. 6]
…the Coldstream Guards playing Handel’s ‘Largo’ slowly & extendedly. Proud though I was that dear Handel should appear at such a time I did not know where to look & was thankful I wasn’t there in any responsible position. Then the train departed to the Funeral March, & the commentator. Who had been giving. A very slow. And not very well-phrased. Commentary. At about this speed. Said unexpectedly something like ‘And so. The Royal Train. Leaves the station. Bearing away from London. For ever. King George VI’ The sudden simplicity of the last three phrases can only be appreciated if you had chafed earlier at the many cushion-words & kennings which littered his descriptions.

12 March 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

Dearest Loppit,
[...] Set-back! No berths from Dublin — Liverpool on the Saturday! I think we had better stay here. I’ll try to get berths back to L’pool from Belfast. After all, there is plenty to see in N. Ireland. And we can always rest! like Vanya & Sonya, is it, at the end of ‘Uncle Vanya’.

Dear, though I feel sure I wrote between 19/2 & 5/3 I have been remiss enough since. It is partly getting over Jimmy’s visit [Following James Sutton’s visit on this occasion, L.’s letters to Sutton almost ceased, after a friendship that began when they were at school together in Coventry in the 1930s and continued regularly by letter until this point] — how I do agree about time to oneself: it is necessary, you are quite right: if I am deprived of solitude, I become fatigued, famished, tense, like a man deprived of an essential element of diet. I dislike saying so, because it sounds like a ‘line’ — ‘Man can live 3 days without bread, but not one without poetry’ — gibber gibber gibber, gobble gobble gobble.
Recently I have not had time even to go shopping. Also my novel has broken down, & is finished in the kaput sense, & this causes me the usual depression. My writing has nothing to do with literature. It is a perfect instance of a mental mania, a private raree-show of humiliation & despair.

8 July 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

Slowly life returns to normal. Slowly fatigue passes from the bones & sinews. The lungs breathe normally again. The light goes off at 11.55 p.m. Meals are taken at customary times. I can even consider mending & cleaning again.

24 July 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[...] Seriously, I think it is a grave fault in life that so much time is wasted in social matters, because it not only takes up time when you might be doing individual private things, but it prevents you storing up the psychic energy that can then be released to create art or whatever it is. It’s terrible the way we scotch silence & solitude at every turn, quite suicidal. I can’t see how to avoid it, without being very rich or very unpopular, & it does worry me, for time is slipping by, and nothing is done. It isn’t as if anything was gained by this social frivolity. It isn't: it’s just a waste. [...]

14 September 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

[…] Monday. End of a hard day’s work. Book slinging most of the time, with short spasms of being directing intelligence to six or seven Ulster labourers. I’m glad, by the way, that you are fighting the cause of animals in your circle of life. I talked to Kingsley about the animals Hilly keeps, & she promised not to keep anything that cannot fend for itself, but I don’t know. So many of their things just DIE, & I’m sure they shouldn’t. Hilly is an ass, too.

9 October 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

Dear, I must seem very pompous & huffy, with my portentous hints and veiled criticisms of you, & I wonder you are so patient. It’s nothing very frightful, but I feel so loth to arrogate the superiority to the thing criticised that every critic, even temporarily, assumes, that I'm always too shy or ashamed to say what I think. …It’s simply that in my view you would do much better to revise, drastically, the amount you say and the intensity with which you say it. You are vaguely aware of this already, aren’t you? You say you ‘chatter like a jay' — do you remember saying that, standing on a corner of Clarendon Park Road, after closing time, before catching your bus? — and that you talk ‘tediously & unnecessarily’: I don’t say that exactly: what I do feel is that you’ve no idea of the exhausting quality of yourself in full voice. Perhaps I am unduly (morbidly?) sensitive, but it does affect me just in that way — I feel quite unable to answer, just that I want to go and be quiet somewhere. No doubt you can recall times when I seemed a bit grumpy at Grasmere! Well, this sounds very nasty in cold blood, but it’s not meant nastily: I mention it only because I’m getting to the point where... well, where my refusal to say that I do feel this very strongly is constituting a major falsity. I know you don’t mean it (whatever it means) - I thought for years that you did - & I think you’ve never emerged from the time when you either talked all the time or sat dumb; I also think that you may come from a noisier house than mine. But for all that, I do want to urge you, with all love & kindness, to think about how much you say & how you say it. I’d even go so far as to make 3 rules: One, Never say more than two sentences, or very rarely three, without waiting for an answer or comment from whoever you're talking to; Two, abandon altogether your harsh didactic voice, & use only the soft musical one (except in special cases); & Three don’t do more than glance at your interlocutor (wrong word?) once or twice while speaking. You’re getting a habit of boring your face up or round into the features of your listener – don’t do it! It’s most trying.

[L. and Monica had been on holiday in the Lake District, visiting Sawrey, Beatrix Potter’s village, full of pleasant Peter Rabbit and other associations for them.]

16 October 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

My dear,
[…] Do my friends talk more than I do? I suppose they do. No, it’s not talking I mind at bottom: it was the sort of laying-down-the-law tone with never a chance to reply that grated on my nerves, coupled with a feeling that what you were saying with such exaggerated insistence wasn’t worth the effort you were putting into it […]

5 November 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

[…] Evening. Ah, more peace now. I have finished up some curry & eaten bread & cheese. Today I spent mostly lettering a large notice - very badly - but it was an enjoyable change. (Just at present I am listening to the recorded voices of Stevenson & Eisenhower. Interesting. It’s a somatonic victory, a cerebrotonic defeat - or, cutting out the jargon, a victory for the short fat noisy men over the tall thin brainy ones - & confirms my forecast that U.S.A. is tired of trying to be civilised, & is due for a period of barbarity. I must say I think war is a bit more likely on account of it all.) [...]

8 November 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

[…] Sunday night - No: it wasn’t that I couldn’t have written, but it wouldn’t have been much of a letter. Now it is twenty five to eleven, & I am by accident listening to a recital of poems of bereavement by Margaret Rawlings - О dear! she is reciting C. Rossetti’s ‘Echo’ […] Do you think that even C. Rossetti, even Hardy, should be read over the radio at times like this? What good does it do? […] Do you think such orgies are cathartic? Or just a tearing of the sutures? To me, since death is the most important thing about life (because it puts an end to life and extinguishes further hope of restitution or recompense, as well as any more experience), so the expression of death & the effects of death are the highest planes of literature (now ‘Death be not proud’) and should not be lightly loosed upon the populace. (Now ‘I think continually...’) I know it might be said that death is about as important as the final whistle in a football match: that (finish with Vaughan — ‘sweet peas sits crowned with smiles’ - & our Lord Jesus Christ) it is what happens before that matters. True, but after a football match there are other football matches; after death there’s nothing. I don’t think death can be fitly compared to anything in life, since it is by its nature entirely unlike. [...]

16 November 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

Dear one,
A quarter to 11. Have spent the evening in from about 7, listening first of all to an I. Compton-Burnett novel adapted for radio (and, for once in my life, I thought it a darned good idea, a resounding success, & worth repeating & exploring), then toiling away at my own nonsense. You, I expect, in free England, have been tossing away the ale, opening your mouth unnecessarily wide, in some smoky little bar parlour in the depths of the country, with the great grey Mr Collins, who, despite all tales to the contrary, had rather a fondness for children. Jolly good show, jolly good show. ‘Carpe diem. Nox est una perpetua dormienda’. Etc.
I called myself a rhino because I feel daily thicker-skinned than you, & indeed (as in the drinking-writing phrase) seem thicker-skinned towards you, and towards my mother, while maintaining a Stiggins-like veneer of exquisite remoteness. This is a trick I’d like to pillory in a novel one day.

29 November 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

[…] I had a sort of difference of opinion with P. Strang about the Potter books: she condemned them as ‘anthropomorphist’: further, she accused me of not liking animals at all, only Potter ones & ones on my mantelpiece. I was somewhat at a loss. I do sometimes feel ashamed of liking these sweet little bunnies, but the emotion is there & she touches it. I know that by ‘animals’ she means Twinkle, their stupid obstreperous sheepdog, & that in a sense it’s true, but of course I’ve had no chance. I was never the intimate of cats like you!
Thanks for the other books: I’ll be delighted to read them. I have a good deal of reading piled up at present: at present St John Irvine’s ‘Oscar Wilde’, a fantastic book, full of the ramblings & outbursts of this old ‘character’ - my God, surely nationalism is the surest mark of mediocrity! By p.200 we’ve been twice told that Pelagius was an Ulsterman. ‘Pelagius’!
[…] But the Wilde book is quite readable. You know, his story IS a remarkable one: it is one of THE stories: it is almost a parable. Compared with his life the lives of Shaw Wells Bennett Chesterton DHL - bah, nothing. Wilde’s life will be read till the end of reading, don’t you think? And not only by his ‘camp’, either. I must buy that ‘De profundis’. [...]

3 December 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

[…] The thing that matters is talent: form matters only secondarily.

[…] Later. Back from scribbling & my evening drink. Feel a bit queer - think it is pesky cold out & it may have affected me.
Thanks for your ps about liking, or not liking, animals. I feel, though, that with the question of things being attractive in books that are not so in reality we are on dubious ground - ground I am always unhappy on (like a rugger ground!).

13 December 1952
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

Dearest of burrow-dwellers,
I feel a bit better now. My hands feel queer still, but the sensation of being about to collapse has departed. I’ve spent an enormous lot of money today on food and drink: a hock is boiling in the kitchen, & a pork fillet waiting for the morning. This afternoon also I bought 1/- worth of mistletoe & have hung it over my door - the golden bough!
Isn’t the world full of interest? I should never have thought of doing that a year ago. Walking home I noticed everyone looking at me as if I might be expected to break out into priapic licence immediately, & grinning, & I grinned inwardly, & felt very jolly & like the reformed Scrooge. It’s nice to think that the druids’ branch, the slow moongrowth of sluggish waxy berries, guards my door. Do you think it will keep away unwelcome guests? [...]

Philip Larkin - Letters to Monica

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Waves of sadness occur, like the fine breath of a garden/ Larkin - Letters to Monica (1951)

6 January 1951
As for the sea-horse [about the crest], I don’t know: perhaps symbolising the impossibility of getting fresh fish in Belfast.
I feel so strongly that when you agree with my complaints & say that life is hard & that I shd read the Rambler that you are too indulgent: life is hard: disease, disappointment & the big snuffer of death hold all the cards: but what I rail against is my sense that for want of — what? courage? initiative? love? — I am losing the few chances of happiness it does offer. And that the cure for this is probably to be put to work in a Lyons, or be struck a few shrewd blows about the health, or run by the slack of my pants into the Army. Your comfort & agreement are for people who have had real misfortune, not a tail chasing impostor like myself. Or at least that is what I feel when I have been reading about the Brontёs.
Now it’s Bach’s Christmas Oratorio Part 5: my kind of music - o the oboes, harpsichord, cello, & shrieking emotionalism, as Kingsley calls it!
I have spent ages producing the following two lines:
Always too eager for the future, we
Pick out the festivals ten weeks away
— which now seem aimlessly undistinguished.

13 January 1951
Queen’s Chambers, Belfast

Dearest Monica,
Well, what a blow [Monica has been asked to leave her lodgings in Carisbrooke Road], what a mean job — heavens, I do sympathise with you: talk about being shaken down like a cobweb! It’s quite the most unpleasant thing I have heard of for a long time: the thought of you NOT in the White House is not really conceivable, and to lose that splendid room where you are able to live your own life and be relatively private and comfortable is a tragedy. To be ejected from filthy lodgings is never wholly unpleasant — one thinks of being free of the old fool’s cooking or conversation — but to lose a room I always felt you’d made a part of yourself (apart from its initial advantages) seems too much to be borne. Is there no redress? Is there no alternative?
You say that the prospect of action prevents you from feeling the full diapason of horror: ah, to my mind it’s the unsettledness that’s so upsetting. The first notification is like the first blow of an axe at a tree. All savour is gone from life until the ground has stopped quaking from under one’s feet, which isn’t till one’s setteled again, with fire & reading lamp — my two essentials.
I think there were one or two misapprehensions of my last: certainly I don’t want to be bucked up with little talks on the Duty of Happiness. I was just saying that most of my miseries didn’t deserve the solicitude you show for them. And my poem was really an attempt to capture my feeling on returning here: a sense of amazement that what we wait for so long & therefore seems so long in coming shouldn’t take a proportionally long time to pass — instead of zipping away at the same speed as everything else:
No sooner present than it turns to past

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long:
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long:
But we are wrong.

Only one ship is seeking us, black-
This afternoon I had afternoon tea in a sombre silent lounge of the Grand Central Hotel - 3/-. The silence could have been cut up & weighed on scales. […]
No happy ending, no good ending happily & wicked ending unhappily — what is fiction coming to?

16 January 1951
Queen’s Chambers, Queen’s University, Belfast

Clever Little Lamb,
I am keeping my eyes diligently away from the sales, & trying to build up my current account to print the poems. But now I can’t think of a title: originally I’d thought of 20 poems for nothing, but Kingsley shuddered at it: said it was like Roy Campbell. Now I can’t think of another: do you think that is so bad? Apart from all the impossible kinds of title, I don’t like the drab kind (Poems), or the self-denigrating kind (Stammerings), or the clever kind (Stasis). There’ll be about 22 now, or even 23: I want something unaffected & unpretentious — for Lord knows there are few to pretend anything about. ‘Speaking from Experience’? — sounds like ‘Twelve broadcast talks by the Radio Padre’.
No, it defeats me. And I don’t ask for advice because in such matters I should be extremely unlikely to take it.
Rain again! I love hearing it against my newly-cleaned windows.
If my agents succeed in screwing some £30 out of Albatross Books, I’ll get my booklet done, even if I have to call it ‘Poetical Pieces’.

18 April 1951
However, he [Kingsley] also intensified my predominant sensation of being a non-contiguous triangle in a circle — [diagram of triangle within circle] the inner life making no contact with the outer.
How horrible, relatives & television! I do sympathise. Perhaps to some extent they’ll cancel each other out.

23 May 1951
Queen’s Chambers, Leicester [sic]
Dearest Monica —
I can neither stand, sit nor lie, think, feel or intuit — the toothache with which I closed my last letter has blossomed & this is the morning of the second day looked at through the red spectacles of pain. Like dockers’ unions other teeth are coming out in sympathy. This morning I went to a pleasant but ineffectual young dentist, a friend of Piggott’s, who has taken the filling out & put a dressing in — ass! As if that will do any good! If I like I can go back this afternoon & he will kill the nerve — ha! X-rays at the Royal are also spoken of: but I know my teeth: if I get toothache it means an extraction. I shall look odd without it.
All this is extremely disorganising. I sat miserably in the cinema last night watching an awful film about racing cars, then tried dousing myself with drink with the idea that alcohol is anaesthetic (vide 18th century surgery), but it didn’t work.
More found. I forgot to say that after I left the dentist I went to buy some painkiller at a chemist’s, & on emerging saw the dentist slipping out of his door with a dog. That shook my faith in him terribly: not that I had much anyway. He had also seen me to the door, another bad touch. Oh for my old Coventry dentist, with his Ronald Coleman smile, tank of fish to look at, expensive equipment, and overflowing appointments book!
I’m afraid teeth, & dentists, & white coats, & canines, & nerves, will play a largeish part in this letter. They bulk incredibly large with me at present. Do you ever go to the dentist? I seem to remember your going once or twice, but not unless driven.
I’m sorry you felt low when you wrote, and think you have every right to be: sorry too I omitted to say how much I enjoyed your visit and how pleased I was that you should come at all, knowing your hatred of travel & ships & water.

[…] Thursday evening Thank you for reminding me about Empire Day. Queen’s flew a flag & I was nice to a nigger. The dentist changed the dressing & I am much better off now, though the x-ray tomorrow still holds good — that will be an expense of spirit in a waste of time. Now I sit at peace between my two windows, seeing the brand-new shift of the trees in the sun. Peace at last, and welcome.
I think what I did mean about not having talked much was that I felt we were not making much contact — plenty of talk, in fact, but almost an increasing strangeness. I feel I am not good at making contacts anyway. Not that I’m awkward or reserved ...You’d understand better what I mean if I could describe the progress of my misengagement [to Ruth Bowman]not that I want to describe it — but I found I was able to develop simultaneously what would pass for friendship & love along with a more definite detachment than ever before. Not that I acted insincerely: it was the first time I have had anyone to please and I found I enjoyed it, but the affair — or my side of it — moved if I pushed it, so to speak; if I made no effort it didn’t move. I thought that a point would come when the partition between myself and the whole situation would break down and I should be carried away by it, seeing the point of everything. It didn’t; all I felt was that I’d irretrievably committed myself to the other side of the glass while being forced to remain separate. That wd have been dreadful, a kind of waking death, so I had to uncommit myself, which wasn’t pleasant either, except that fundamentally I was getting what I wanted, despite all my crocodile tears & poems ...Of course, all this is commonplace and might be described in simpler terms: it did leave me feeling, though, that I was a monster of egotism, a psychic cripple, etc., etc.

[…] At any rate, I feel very much back in my shell. My nature, perhaps, is rather like a spring — it can be stretched out straight, but when released leaps back into a coil. Well, this has wandered a bit from making contact, but something like that I felt like saying — I mean, do you know it already? have you made up your mind about it? Or have you just thrust it out of mind? It is quite the most important thing about me, or part of it. You surely can’t regard my sealed-off ineffectualities as anything but failure, or think that I regard them as anything but failure.
Brrr! Comes that chilly backwash that always succeeds talking about oneself. Like Pernod, it has the quickest lift, but it drops you as far. Let’s talk about something else.

[…] О by the way — ‘sicken inclusively outwards’ means to spread outwards, like a spot of disease growing, taking m more and more of the surrounding surface. ‘Meaning’s rebuttal’ really is clumsy: I mean (in my simple way) that each of the technical terms intoned by reality (terms that seem denotative not connotative, scientific not emotive) in fact for all their seeming precision are Janus faced & mean also the opposite of what they mean. This was an attempt to describe my own bewilderment whenever I try to think clearly. A wish for instance may be a simple wish — I want bread. Or it may be a cover wish to conceal the wish for chocolate. Or it may be a direct expression of the hatred of bread, which for some reason can’t be confessed. I know this will sound all nonsense, but if you can conceive ‘wish’ treble-yolked with three meanings like that you will see what I ‘mean’.
О dear I did feel sorry for you waiting for a night of high wind — please don’t feel like that. Your life is awfully hard, I do realise — much harder than mine. Lord knows how you manage, doing everything alone & single-handed, but you do it well. I mean you always look nice & don’t breakfast off pilchards-in-tomato or live among Scottie nightdress cases. Is that any consolation?

7 June 1951
Dear graminivore,
[…] I am feeling very June-like tonight, that is, a pulp of my ordinary self. Hay fever has opened an offensive without throwing all its troops into battle but quite nastily enough to keep me busy.
There is quite enough drawing here already. Enough!
Seriously I felt very dead today, slept at lunchtime & dragged about all afternoon. Yesterday however I had the morning off, & after completing a few commissions in town & being unluckily collared by Bradley for coffee, I got my bike out and rode up the Lagan tow-path. The weather was hot and splendid, & the river-side deserted except for a horse-drawn barge. It’s almost entirely unspoilt, no houses anywhere, only lock gates & occasional refreshment-stalls (shut). I saw something I imagined to be a magpie, heard waterrats clopping in & out of the shallows, & hardly sneezed at all, being free to wonder at the unbroken blue sky, cliffs of wood shadow descending to the water, & the thick anonymous dust that softly powdered my pedalling shoes. After going some miles, I came up onto the road, & stopped at a small licensed house near Ballyskeagh I’d noticed before.
After that I proceeded to Lisburn, a small town, & failing to find anywhere to eat bought bread, cheese, onions & an apple, & sat in the gardens, reading ‘I leap over the wall’. [by Monica Baldwin, 1950] The tar was oozing on the roads, & altogether it was a happy few hours. It is surprising how one’s whole attitude changes on being released from work. My step was firm, my eye buoyant, my voice unfaltering; I wasn’t thinking about the grave, or how miserable my lot was; no, I got up early, embracing the day eagerly like a groom his bride, and sang like Toad to the noise of my wheels — & all because I had a few hours to myself. I very soon found out in my life how I resented Ringmaster Work putting his jackbooted foot through each fragile paper hoop of time! God we shall not live for ever! as LI. Powys wd say*. Jim Sutton is the man, living on bread &c tea in his cottage sooner than indulge in such grim farce: at the thought of work his broad keen good humoured face takes on a look of overpowering disgust. ‘I couldn’t...’
I have just read that John Brett’s painting ‘The stone breaker’** [it was one of Larkin’s favourite paintings] is in Liverpool City Art Gallery: I must go & see it. Do you know it? I’m sure you do. It’s probably in Gaunt’s PreRaphaelite Tragedy [William Gaunt, The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy (1942)]. I’ve never seen it in colour but it looks to me like a perfect picture, utterly timeless. The next time I’m in Liverpool I’ll go & see it.
[*Llewelyn Powys (13 August 1884 – 2 December 1939) was a British essayist, novelist.

Larkin’s – Letters Home (1955): “Oh dear, the future now seems very bleak and difficult - I really don’t know what I’m doing in this job at all! Still. I shall try to bear in mind the words of Ll. Powys: “Nothing matters but physical pain and death: all else is experience, enviable enough to those lying under the churchyard sod.”
This exact quotation seems not to appear in any work by Llewelyn Powys, nor in his letters. Anthony Head and Peter Foss suggest that Larkin may be misremembering his source, or paraphrasing a sentiment frequently expressed in Powys's work. In Impassioned Clay (1931), for instance, he writes (98): ‘It should be an open secret that nothing really matters, that once in a graveyard all is at quits.’]

[** John Brett (8 December 1831 – 7 January 1902) was an artist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
This painting shows a young boy breaking stones for road mending. This was an unskilled job often given to paupers. The landscape is Box Hill near Dorking, Surrey. The painting seems to reflect the critic John Ruskin's (1819-1900) ideal of truth to nature as well as the artist’s interest in geology. Plants, trees and rock formations are painted with scientific accuracy. The stones are flints. The plants, all botanically identifiable, tell us that Brett was working in August or September. Brett may have had a symbolic meaning in mind for this painting: the bullfinch, included on the tree branch, traditionally symbolises the soul.
The painting was it exhibited at the Liverpool Academy in 1856. When it was later exhibited at London's Royal Academy, in 1858, it was admired for its accurate detail and the delicacy of its finish. Ruskin commented: "This after Lewis's is simply the most perfect piece of painting with respect to touch, in the Academy this year; in some points of precision it goes beyond anything the Pre-Raphaelites have done yet. I know of no such thistledown, no such chalk hills and elm trees, no such natural pieces of far away cloud in any of their works." - source]

19 June 1951
Queen’s Chambers, Belfast

Dearest Monica,
A word. I sit at nearly 10.30 pm, reading lamp perched on my side-ended travelling-trunk, looking out of my west-facing window, where the redness of the sky has subsided to grey — the low meandering solid grey of the hills, and the watercolour streaky grey of the sky. An evening spent adding a page to a dull little article my conscience is bullying me to write, followed by the Ganniss and the reading of '12th night' & some scorching hot chips, mouth-blistering. Hay fever hovers around. Waves of sadness occur, like the fine breath of a garden. A tablet of Goya ‘Blue moss’ is perfuming the room. Why has it so strange a name? ‘Blue’ moss? What blue moss?

[…] He (like all self centred people) is slightly deaf

[…] Have you ever understood the line that a poem does not exist until it is read? It has always seemed illogical to me. If a man writes a poem it exists whether anyone sees it or not, the same as Gauguin’s pictures round his Pacific shack. Will it exist any more if a thousand W.E.A. [Workers Educational Assosiation] classes chant it every Friday night?

27 June 1951
Queen’s Chambers, Belfast

[...] Thursday night. Slowly my room is reaching a climax of untidiness — I ‘move’ to this ghastly Presbyterian hostel on Sunday. I looked in there today — noise of a wireless came bellowing out of a door marked ‘Quiet Room’. My room is about 71 x 7' x 7'. ‘Roughing it’. Still, it’ll be cheap — about 50/- a week. This house is full of Dublin tennis players & American athletes — the Yale & Harvard boys who got pasted by Oxford & Cambridge. I have an ulcer or sore place inside my lower lip — radium needles! social diseases! Most painful.

[…] I’m afraid this is not going to be the proper letter I promised after all. Really I haven’t the generosity of spirit at present to write a proper letter…

12 July 1951
As for the Lodges [Orange Day] themselves ...I said afterwards that it reminded me of a parade of the 70,000 Deadly Sins. Take a standard football crowd (soccer), cut a fringed orange antimacassar in two and hang one round the neck of each man: give him large false orange cuffs & white gloves to emphasise the tawdry ugliness of his blue Sunday suit, & clap a bowler hat on his head — then you have a Lodger ready for marching.

[…] The dominant impression from this endless tramping file of faces was of really-depressing ugliness. Slack, sloppy, sly, drivelling, daft, narrow, knobby, vacant, vicious, vulpine, vulturous — every kind of ugliness was represented not once but tenfold — for you’ve no idea how long it was.

[…] It was a parade of staggering dullness (every face wore the same ‘taking-himself-seriously’ expression) & stupefying hypocrisy (‘Civil and religious liberty’ was a catchphrase much repeated, like Ridley & Latimer). Having seen it, I shall not see it again. But the drums go beating about the town all day.
I do hope that hasn’t bored you! It WAS boring, of course, but interesting, in a macabre & sordid way. Much more thrilling was Sandy Row, the Protestant Quarter, on Wednesday night - bonfires at every street corner blazing up house-high. I strolled down about half past eleven (drizzle coming down as usual) & was fascinated by the cardboard arches across the streets, the thick waves of Guinness, War Horse tobacco, & vinegared chips, the dancing crowds, & the pairs & trios of gum-chewing young girls roaming about wearing paper hats stamped ‘No surrender’, ‘Not an inch’, & various Unionist catchwords. Police stood uneasily about in their raincapes...

[…] Dear, I sympathise really deeply about your burrow problem: but, without whimsy, it certainly is the devil. Still, don’t do anything hasty! Better a week or so in Cravenhurst than a cycle of a house where someone is learning the accordion. No, noise doesn’t hurt me, but it introduces a spasm of claustrophobic rage: also I can’t relax as long as noise is going on. Half my muscles remain automatically tensed.

11 August 1951
7, College Park East, Belfast

[… Now we are up on the clouds & I expect will shortly emerge into the sun. Dense cloud. Visibility nil. People lighting cigarettes – not yrs truly!

[…] 12.45. Crossing Irish coast. Visibility good. Churches surrounded by white specks - gravestones. Much woolly drift. Bumps. We are probably losing altitude now. Goodbye till terra firma...
3.50. And now I’m sitting in Q.C., having dumped my bags into 7 College Park E. & disliked the look of it intensely. Belfast doesn’t look very nice to me: a good thing tomorrow is Sunday and there is no work. At such points in life a holiday becomes like a hallucination: I hardly feel I have had one. We did walk to Fingle Bridge, didn’t we? Yes, of course. But what a straw in the scalepan against months of boring work! The right sort of straw, but only one.

26 August 1951
7 College Park East, Belfast

Dearest Monica,
A putty-coloured fit of torpor on me this weekend — the sinful sort, the deadly sin. Truth is that my holiday lasts just about a fortnight, then I fall backwards ...So any hint of spinelessness will be due to that. I sit in my room like Miss Havisham, about whom I have been reading this week. Better the Dickens you know than the Dickens you don’t know — on the whole I enjoyed it. But I should like to say something about this ‘irrepressible vitality’, this ‘throwing a fresh handful of characters on the fire when it burns low’, in fact the whole Dickens method — it strikes me as being less ebullient, creative, vital, than hectic, nervy, panic-stricken. If he were a person I should say ‘You don’t have to entertain me, you know. I’m quite happy just sitting here’. This jerking of your attention, with queer names, queer characters, aggressive rhythms, piling on adjectives — seems to me to betray basic insecurity in his relation with the reader. How serenely Trollope, for instance, compares. I say in all seriousness that, say what you like about Dickens as an entertainer, he cannot be considered as a real writer at all; not a real novelist. His is the garish gaslit melodramatic barn (writing that phrase makes me wonder if I’m right!) where the yokels gape: outside is the calm measureless world, where the characters of Eliot, Trollope, Austen, Hardy (most of them) and Lawrence (some of them) have their being. However, as I say, I enjoyed much of G.E. & may try another soon.
Since starting this letter I’ve begun to read 'Bleak House', with pleasure, again. More like a real book. 'Punch' have not acknowledged my poems.
It seems extraordinary to think this is still August — it feels like late September to me. If I had nothing to do but sit about & write poetry I’d do a series of impressionistic poems on the months of the year, but being a working man I can’t afford the time. To not work! Have you ever thought how delightful? ‘Do? Oh I’m afraid I don’t do anything.’ Better £300 unearned than £1000 earned! [...]

1 September 1951
7 College Park East, Belfast

Dearest Monica,
Saturday afternoon. Stupid with a huge unhealthy lunch. Reginald Foort has just rendered Handel’s Largo on the B.B.C. cinema organ, leading me to reconsecrate my life for the 100th time — how I do love Handel, and how very English I feel he is…

[…] I see what you mean about marrying all other married folk, but that isn’t what puts me off marriage — or at least what lies at the bottom of my frothy denunciations of that state — I rarely see myself as behaving like everybody else: or if I do it’s only as a trick to throw what I consider extraordinary features into better relief, or as a means of storing up energy by living the easier way. I find it more puzzling to know what people think they are doing who get married. To me the strain would be the constant lack of solitude, the never-being able-to-relax, not at midnight, or 3 a.m. or any time of day at all. But the single life of course has its demerits. Is it better to die of disintegration or of continual watchfulness?

[…] Tonight I believe I accompany the Strangs to the Graneeks: social life is better than private disintegration, but not than private creation.

6 September 1951
7 College Park East, Belfast

Dearest Forepaws,
The Strangs have gone now, after getting a house. I quite genuinely enjoyed their visit. In a sense I’d sooner have them here than the Amises: Kingsley is closer to me, but he takes a lot out of me that I’d sooner were left in (as he would say himself). They made a great hit with the Graneek-Strangeways group: ‘so alive’.

15 September 1951
Florence Nightingale Hall, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire

Dearest Monica,

[…] Well, after arriving at Liverpool yesterday I hung about until the Art Gallery was open, then I rushed in shrieking ‘The stonebreaker! the stonebreaker!’ [painting by John Brett, Pre-Raphaelite] & was shunted into a room containing the heaviest PreRaphaelite fancies — ‘The finding of Jesus’, ‘Isabella and Lorenzo’, ‘Dante’s first sight of Beatrice’ & hundreds of others, and there was the picture I was looking for in a corner. The reproduction gives no idea of the exquisiteness of it. Everything is glowing & thrilling with most sensitively-rendered light & with that almost surreal sharpness of detail they were so good at. This card I sent you is merely a pale washed-out greenish memory.

[…] Just as two years ago at Birmingham my comfort & stay is K.M.’s letters — her effect on me at Birmingham was visionary: the world glowed with imparted radiance, but this time the letters are not so striking — they are similar to each other in a way that the extracts were not. The fact about them (how nasty my writing is this morning) is that they’re love letters — ‘all I write or ever will write will be the fruit of our love’ — and so instead of a series of brilliant ‘sketches’ you have the whole plant, roots, stalk & flowers. In a way the ‘love’ doesn’t get over to me - inhibited, I suppose, by knowing that it’s J.M.M. who’s the recipient — but alas there is something suspect about it — it’s perfect, & therefore untrue, of the imagination only — but I long to know what you think of them: you may see them more clearly than I. But being given the whole plant makes me critical — or is it just that it’s Murry at the bottom of it? If the recipient were the young Hardy, or Edward Thomas (for a good writhe one day you should read Helen Thomas’s books about him), I should perhaps take it easier. I don’t know. [...]

19 September 1951
Further North than I have ever been dans ma vie – i.e. The Dunelm Hotel, Durham

[…] Walking back from the post I picked up a pair of acorns for my buttonhole.

[…] I like the house [L.’s mother was about to buy], but the act of really pushing mother out on her own gnaws at my conscience. My life is so entirely selfish that mirages of unselfishness torment me. I long to abandon myself entirely to someone else. The peculiarity of my character is that I never feel that there is any mingling — either I don’t ‘abdicate’, & the other person loses, or I do, and I lose myself. A monstrous infantile shell of egotism, inside which I quietly asphyxiate. To read K.M.’s dreams of a shared life with Murry — this perturbs me greatly. He who shall save his life shall — or the other way round, anyway. To live quietly and complementarity with another would be extraordinary — almost impossible — I don’t know, it’s only the fact that I do nothing for anybody that promotes these self-searchings.

6 October 1951
49 Malone Road, Belfast

Dearest Ears,
[…] I’m glad the Letters [of Katherine Mansfield] arrived safely. […]

And I don’t think I really agree about the stories v. the personalia — I don’t know, perhaps I do: but I wd sooner read her journals etc than many of the stories. However just at present I wouldn’t criticise anybody who had succeeded in writing & finishing anything. I have a perfectly good novel in my head, divided into 4 parts: one told by a pushing intriguing university wife, one by a Welsh rogue on the run for helping to peddle obscene books; one by a holy fool, sister to the first; and one by an exasperated cerebrotonic Professor, husband to no. 1. The background shd not be beyond me. But I simply can’t write. When I say ‘told by’ I mean more seen from the standpoint of. Perhaps I ought to say told by: perhaps that wd be better. ‘It all began one afternoon in the Michaelmas term. Alec was in his study: I was writing out invitation cards ...’ But my primary trouble is that above all that kind of writing SICKENS me: anything I produce seems awful magazine mediocrity: I begin to long for any eccentricities of style or vision. I’ve always thought that expression was easy, but ‘inspiration’ hard, but really they’re just the same.
Above all I detest any kind of cooperation with the reader, the ‘you-know-what-I-mean’ attitude, knowingness whether about the world or food or travel or housekeeping or sex or business. Yet the contrast of fausse simplicite is as bad: ‘A woman with yellow hair came into the room and sat down in a blue chair’ — no, everything has been done, and only a blind high-threshold charging insensitivity can find new ground, and that I shall never possess.

[…] Your remark about footworn stones made me want to dig out and quote that not very original but heartwarming sentence of Hardy’s about a worn stone step meaning more to him than scenery. What a miracle of feeling Hardy was — in a sense much rarer than a genius of expression, a particular set of responses that can never be repeated. You’ve no idea how it irks me to be failing to write — not only on my own account (I mean egotistic reasons) but it is so galling to be forbidden to express what these people like Hardy have shown — to be denied the privilege of saying ‘Don’t read me, read Hardy’ or ‘Read Lawrence’ — the feeling that I was in the smallest way in the same line of business. God knows I’ve no desire to be in the same company as Dewey or Edward Edwards.
Oh & yr mention of Kipling reminded me that at Durham they showed me many Kipling mss., among them “The wish house”, a story I think good. Do you know it? And lookee here, do you really like Kipling? All Kipling? ‘The makin’s of a bloomin’ soul’? Really I am not quarrelling with his opinions but the ‘texture’, the ‘feel’ of his verse is as efficient & insensitive as linoleum to my nose & ears, refreshing though it initially is.

Sunday. After lunch. This morning was beautiful, bland benevolent sun, the dying leaves rustling, the sky a soft blue sheet dabbled with chalky fingermarks (I mean very high clouds): I wrote home, & read "The end of the affair" (Grum Grin) [Graham Green, 1951] which Bruce says marks the end of GG and Kingsley says marks his final advance beyond mortal criticism. Me, I think it’s good, better than "The H of the m" [The Heart of the Matter, 1948], but spoilt & I don’t mean marred — by an entire lack of proportion concerning religious matters. The novel to me is the artform in which we show what happens in human life. ‘Miracles’ do not happen; ‘belief’ does not happen; or if they do all we are interested in is how they affect the non-miraculous non-believing world & its characters. This book entirely breaks up into a lot of rubbishy ‘miracles’ that turn it all to nonsense.

[…] And talking of nonsense what a poor review of KM in the NS & N.6 Quite inarticulate with incomprehension. All this stuff about hate & rancour makes me wonder if they’ve got hold of the same book as I. Haven’t they ever been cross? Haven’t they ever let off steam? If KM is hate whatever is DHL? The review made me quite angry: surely KM was only a simple case of passionate imaginative energy & love, damaged by a typical disease & by ‘loving’ (not to enquire into that word more than necessary) a slippery emotional character like Murry, who played up to all her all-for-love two-children-holding-hands line of talk but was quite content to live apart from her & indeed found actual cohabitation with her a bit of a strain. It takes her a long time to realize this discrepancy but when she does she immediately starts to shorten her lines, to be independent, & this entails curing herself. Murry is a little obtuse about her desire for complete cure. As long as she is ill she will be dependent & dependence must be banished: therefore she must be quite well. Something along these lines wd have been better than all that stuff about Mrs Thrale, and ‘sensitivity’.
More paws.

[…] I didn't really finish telling you that I enjoyed your previous long letter. I was struck again by the genuine quality of your pessimism: I play at pessimism but you really are a pessimist, or if that seems an unkind word — hell! shuffling through the letter I believe I have the wrong one. I mean I moan & groan but I believe everyone else is having a good time, & that there’s a good time to be had, boys, if only you aren’t cursed at birth — this is the Byronic or psychoanalytic fallacy. In my case it is shot through with periods of insensate elation such as I feel tonight.

[…] A new place is always disastrous, I’ve come to accept that as almost axiomatic, but I do hope that when some of the first shock has worn off you’ll be able to spread yr wings a little, and find that the dogs don’t look so lost. What can one say in such circumstances! Of course I sympathise with the mattress & the swindling & old Bunface. Such things strike at the very root of life, of daily living & peace of mind. All I can say is that if it doesn’t seem better by end of term think about changing for the better. I know mother would certainly house you for the interim. It’s not so bad at L’boro except in the evening, getting back. That is tiring.

15 October 1951
c/o The Library, Queen’s University, Belfast

[...] Reflections on cooking: what can I do with a Pyrex dish & top? Can I cook meat in it? It seems to get dry when I grill it. Why do my potatoes come to pieces? No, what I think you should do is send me a simple recipe every week suitable for an evening meal that won’t take more than 90 mins to prepare, eat, & wash up.

[…] I’ve read Ezra Pound’s “Letters”, that Leavis was so nasty about, & find them not so bad as I expected, but still bad, especially the nearer you get to the present day. He amuses me by calling Robert Bridges Rabbit Britches but perhaps I am easily amused.

1 November 1951
[…] How much stronger my friends are than I am! sheer stamina that absorbs double gins, late hours, fat cigars, and so on and so on. ‘Par delicatesse, J’ai perdu та vie’ (‘By delicacy, I have lost my life’) — Verlaine. On the whole, I most resemble Patsy Strang, who ‘bores easy’ and is terribly mercilessly clear sighted about whether she is enjoying herself or not, relapsing into yawns & slumber very easily.
The sex boys are cut down to a very short ration this week, eh? Only divorce. Not very interesting. I don’t know about ‘morning sickness’, naturally; so much is said these days about the concomitants of pregnancy & child-birth being entirely unnecessary figments of the modern imagination that ignorant laymen no longer believe or disbelieve, anything. I think — though of course I am all for free love, advanced schools, & so on — someone might do a little research on some of the inherent qualities of sex — its cruelty, its bullyingness, for instance. It seems to me that bending someone else to your will is the very stuff of sex, by force or neglect if you are male, by spitefulness or nagging or scenes if you are female. And what’s more, both sides would sooner have it that way than not at all. I wouldn’t. And I suspect that means not that I can enjoy sex in my own quiet way but that I can’t enjoy it at all.
Cleaning I like. Cooking (so far) I don’t much like because the results are so disappointing. …I nurse stews like a candidate nursing a constituency.
My 15 pages are so much waste paper. Dear, I can’t write, it’s all a fantasy: a kind of circling obsession. I believe in inspiration. If I am not inspired, nothing will ever be done. If I am inspired it’s all as easy as running downhill. I know, I’ve never written anything it wasn’t a pleasure to work at. All this 500 words a day stuff is so much bilge. I feel full of blackest disappointment. Sort of, anyway. [...]

12 November 1951
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast NI

Dearest Monica,
At present half my attention is bent upon a reading of R. Graves new poems on the 3rd progr., but they will soon be over.
Now it is over: Graves I am always prepared to like — his ideas, his practices (except all this White Goddess stuff) — but I can’t stand his words, his images & properties. These were no change, except for one or two poems, ‘The cordwainer’ & another one that might have been called ‘The portrait’: they sounded good, but the BBC have a habit of putting the women’s speeches into women’s voices, wch I don’t much like. It’s like having been changed suddenly to cider while you’re swallowing.

[…] It is entirely opposed to my conception of the poet. I feel that however sincere his emotions they can all be found in the leaders of the Daily Mail: that further they are ‘literary’ ideas in that (I’d say the same of Henry James) they are not real situations he has experienced but things he has heard about or thought about & thought exciting. I am not arguing, or despising him — what I’ve said goes for a great many writers after all — but I cannot like any writer who hunts with the pack like Kipling. To me in time of war one had better shut up. (There is nothing to be said of war as war, unless in the Owen way — ‘But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns’.) No, I feel about Kipling as I feel about many writers: they are not sensitive enough, their windows aren’t clean, they are yarn-spinners, Wide World magazine readers and writers, the club inkslinger, the school verse cobbler who circulates poems about the unpopular masters. I know Kipling sensitive personally, but he belies it in his general persona.

I’m glad you like — or think well of — LI. Powys [L. published an introduction to Llewellyn Powys, ‘Earth Memories’, in a 1983 reissue]. He is irritating — they all are — and frequently I catch myself wondering what I see in his Rationalist Press-John o’London attitudinising, but then I fall under the influence once more of his self-dramatising tricky honesty — awfully hard to pin down — his literary eye — and intensely literary humour, in a way, or at least my enjoyment of it is ‘literary’ (cf. R. Kipling) I always have a special liking for Letter 320 — did you notice that someone said recently that LI. Powys’ ‘Advice to a young poet’ was a darn sight more sensible than Rilke’s ‘Letter to a young poet’?

Yesterday Piggott lent me ‘The well of l.[Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (1928)] which I’ve just finished. ‘Interesting’, but rather windy & hysterical. I’d never read it before. [...]

22 November 1951
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

Dearest Furry-Face,
If Shaw embeds his plums in such cake as this, then they must stay there. I cannot trouble to pick them out’ — G. K. Chesterton? Robert Bridges? Thomas Hardy? Samuel Butler! Yes, indeed. I’m just reading the new ‘Selections’ from his notebooks, & enjoying them no end. You know, for all that I am hard to please, the things I do enjoy I feed on like a grub feeding on a leaf.

27 November 1951
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

I reel onwards, day in day out, living entirely off the surface of my reactions, spending too long chattering & so on, immersed entirely in the present — then when I am at last alone, I rake about among the ashes of the day and find a very meagre personality left. You are nothing like this, & in contrast I feel myself superficial, insensitive, somewhat vulgar, somewhat even, well, I won’t say cruel, but inconsiderate. And as well — which takes away any sub-Byronic halo — self-deceiving in the sense that all this fine social gaiety & independence depends on not being ill, or not taking on any responsibilities material or emotional, or doing any real work, or being genuinely good to anyone at the definite expense of myself. This is all hard to describe, but true: I am cowardly, fleeing not only others but myself too. It’s not a question of tender snailhood — would that it were.
[drawing of snail]
No, stepping back to feeling for a moment, often I experience moments of violent feeling of I suppose a rather mawkish pitying sort but instead of grappling with them as a real writer wd I avoid them, averting my eyes, thinking if anything that they are too awful to be written about: I couldn’t bear to stir them up or peg them out for investigation. If I think of certain aspects of my mother’s life, for instance, or of my father when he was ill, a sort of roman candle of anguish goes off in me & from which I hurry away as soon as I can. They are moments mixed with guilt at my own selfishness, and with horror because I feel they are true. (‘Suffering is exact’ — ‘Tragedy is true guise’.) I feel rather as K.M. felt when she heard of her father’s being robbed of his wallet — 'I hope to God people don’t suffer as we think they do: if so, it’s not to be borne.’

2 December 1951
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast

[...] The third thing to remind me of you is D. Wordsworth’s ‘Journal’ which I was moved to look into tonight (do you hate the phrase ‘dip into’? Sheep dip. I never use it myself: if anyone from Desmond MacCarthy downwards says a book is good for ‘dipping into’ I know (1) the book is no good (2) the speaker is a fool (3) the speaker never reads the book. ‘Browse’ I’ll speak of some other time); I think it’s hard to read such things without being shamed by the observation and quickness of spirit. To my mind K.M. is right about her. If I have any wish in life it would be to ‘express’ or ‘render’ life as I have known it, but it is such an enormous task I admire more & more people who achieve the smallest success in that line.

I suppose I could express my day in similar terms, but it has not felt a very ‘holy’ day — I missed shaving and changing my sheets, but I wrote home, did my laundry, made lunch (macaroni cheese & cauliflower). In the afternoon I went out to the Strangs’ house to fetch my bicycle where it has been nearly all this term: they were out, but the garage was open & I cleaned my bike & rode it home. The air was chilly, growing misty, & the sun was setting about four in a great orange mass. Well-wrapped-up children tottered home clutching little hymnbooks. After coming in & having tea I cleaned the kitchen, wch tired me rather, even though I didn’t polish the floor, cleaning the stove instead. Then I fell asleep after hearing a Mozart symphony — the ‘Haffner’: good for once, I thought — scorching in front, freezing behind. The draught in this room is shocking!
[…] I had better let this lie till tomorrow, beastly Monday.

[…] How hard it is, to be forced to the conclusion that people should be, nine tenths of the time, left alone! – when there is that in me that longs for absolute commitment. One of the poem-ideas I had was that one could respect only the people who knew that cups had to be washed up and put away after drinking, and knew that a Monday of work follows a Sunday in the water meadows, and that old age with its distorting-mirror memories follows youth and its raw pleasures, but that it’s quite impossible to love such people, for what we want in love is release from our beliefs, not confirmation in them. That is where the ‘courage of love’ comes in — to have the courage to commit yourself to something you don't believe, because it is what — for the moment, anyway — thrills you by its audacity. (Some of the phrasing of this is odd, but it would make a good poem if it had any words ...)

Philip Larkin - Letters to Monica

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