Richard Bradford, professor of English at the University of Ulster, has already written biographies of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. So you might think this account of what the sub-title calls “the curious friendship” between the two writers is scraping an already well-scraped barrel. Not so.
The Odd Couple
BY Richard Bradford
The Robson Press, 373pp, £20
Though Bradford inevitably repeats some of what he has already written, he has discovered previously unpublished material in the Bodleian Library, while his concentration on the relationship between Larkin and Amis sheds a different light on both writers. The result is a book which is always interesting, and often perceptive.
Its first sentence is challenging: “During a thirty-year period between the mid-1950s and the 1980s, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin produced, respectively, the finest fiction and poetry of the era.” Not everyone, perhaps not many, would agree, but at least this means that Bradford is writing as an admirer and not about to engage in a demolition job. His admiration may be founded in his hostility to Modernism and impatience with his fellow academics. He claims that academics “loathe” Larkin’s work, surely an exaggeration, and thinks that Amis is “too often second-graded as a novelist because he knew what was funny”. He praises both for their reluctance to experiment, though I would say that Amis was a more experimental novelist than his own stated disdain for “experiment” would have us think.
They came from comparable middle-class backgrounds, Larkin more at ease with his father, Coventry City treasurer and admirer of DH Lawrence and Hitler, than Amis with his less intellectually adventurous one. Scholarship boys, they became friends at Oxford, both suspicious of the dons, both enthusiasts for jazz, jokes and girls – where they were concerned, Amis in energetic practice, Larkin more often in theory. Both liked booze, and would be lifelong heavy drinkers.. They exchanged high-spirited letters , full of smut, ribaldry and sexual fantasies. Some of these read sadly now, others dilating on the idea of sexy schoolgirls, deplorably by today’s standards. Both from an early age were committed to literature, and, like many writers, were utterly selfish in their commitment to their craft. They influenced each other, and Amis’s early novels owe a great deal to Larkin, as Bradford demonstrates convincingly.
Their friendship cooled in the Sixties, especially on Larkin’s side. He resented the use Amis made of his letters as a quarry for his work – though he doesn’t seem to have resented the nasty portrait of his girlfriend Monica Jones in Amis’s first novel Lucky Jim. He came to disapprove of Amis’s promiscuous sex-life, partly because he was fond of Kingsley’s first wife, Hilly, partly, I think, because he was jealous. He looked at soft porn magazines; Amis bedded any attractive woman he could. Most of all however he was simply jealous of Amis’s success and celebrity. It was only when his own reputation as a poet master-craftsman and the authentic voice of Middle England- took off, that friendly relations, and their correspondence, were resumed. Bradford gives the impression that Amis had never really noticed the breach in their friendship or suspected Larkin’s disapproval; he always spoke of him as his best and closest friend. But then, though both were sensitive where their own feelings were concerned, neither – to put it mildly – went out of his way to avoid hurting others.
Bradford treats Larkin’s poetry acutely, showing how he tried to resolve his own complicated feelings in his verse, how he made poems from emotional perplexities; Larkin was always much more sure of his opinions than of his feelings. Bradford’s portrait of him is sympathetic, even indulgent. He is harsher on Amis, partly because he thinks he treated Larkin with insufficient consideration. He treated his wives with a good deal less; all the same I think Amis the nicer man, and a man who became nicer as he grew older. The young Amis seems to me pretty ghastly, the older one, whom I knew slightly, was likeable.
While the book suffers from the assumption that pretty well everything in a novel can be related to the author’s life, Bradford intelligently probes two remarkable writers. There are a few irritating mistakes, such as having John Betjeman married to the wrong woman, and getting dates and the name of at least one of Amis’s characters wrong, but this is a good book, and will admirers of either writer will want to have it.