Jan 3, 2011

Notes on Philip Larkin’s Letters to Monica

Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I’d be poring over this book at the beginning of the year. I was well into Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed ‘Corrections’ when fate dropped Letters to Monica (LTM) on my lap and I was hooked. Read it non-stop for two days & here I am trying to key my thoughts.

I can’t say it’s very enjoyable reading; that’s chiefly because I’m a fiction digger. I rarely enjoy non-fiction as much. Also, there are traces of the arrogance, callousness and male disregard for feminine sensibilities that footnotes most love stories. Yet, this is an important book. It is important not only for a better understanding of the sense of failure that runs through most of Larkin’s poetry, as also a deeper understanding of what constitutes meaningful companionship.

Theirs was an unusual affair, with occasional animosity (chiefly from his side) and humdrum sex – yet one which lasted until 35 years or till ‘death do us apart’. Philip Larkin took up with Monica Jones, a lecturer in English who wore tartan and velvet finish pants, low-cut tops and large pieces of jewellery, in autumn 1946, when they were both 24. She also had a loud voice that grated and offended Larkin’s courtly laid-back sensibilities. In one of the letters in October, 1952  he writes, “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 . . . 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."’’

I found this particular letter disturbing for despite my attempts to assign the most benign intentions to Larkin, one cant help but notice the air of trying patience and embarrassment that he harbours every time she opens her mouth. Though he is not exactly malicious or snide, you can tell that he wants to change something vital and essential about her; he is intolerant of something that is (though unpleasant) as much a part of her as was his tremendous inertia and resistance of any decisive action. That he was dating someone he was embarrassed about, kind of upsets the sacred cart of love. It is also no secret that Larkin openly corresponded and discussed with Kingsley Amis about Monica in a most unflattering way. Yet, she stuck to him.

Perhaps the most important facet of any longstanding relationship has to be the state of comfort with which we can exhibit our most unflattering sides to the other. Put our worst foot forward so to speak. As I read the 12-odd letters full of whining, misery, endless complaints ("No, I really can't do anything at all – it really is disgusting, I feel tearful with rage – why must [the landlady] leave her door open so that her filthy radio floods the whole house?), I felt Larkin stayed with Jones because in her he found someone who accepted him without expressing any overt desire to change him or make him adapt to the ways of the world. She was the perfect foil to his Hamlet-like fear of action and did not resent his deep melancholia & misanthropy. Perhaps it helped that they lived apart!

While the book covers Larkin’s side of the correspondence, we do make out that Jones was no doormat to be crushed underfoot by this whiny, self-centred man. Some parts of her correspondence have been included as well to shed light on particular incidents. Despite her formidable academic credentials and obvious emotional independence, you can’t fail to notice some of that emotional fragility that haunts all women. She seeks assurance from this commitmentphobe and he replies. “I don't mean, of course, that I don't like making love with you.” I smiled as I read this for it is so typically male. In another letter she accuses him of turning chilly after a successful tryst with her as if to re-establish distance once again. Nevertheless, she accepted the man for the way he was, but was a lot more demanding of the poet and didn’t hand over empty platitudes.

One also suspects that for a man of Larkin’s emotional fragility, she played another important role – she kept the demons at bay. Larkin knew that he was a failure in life and this sense of failure, of lost ways and opportunities, bereft of the hope of new beginnings,  forms the core of some of his best poetry. To put it simply, this was not a forward-looking man and needed a woman of extraordinary intuitiveness and gentleness. He wasn’t particularly good company and he knew it, yet this was the company that he bestowed on Jones uninhibitedly, holding back nothing.

In a really moving extract of 1962 she writes, “I accept, don't I, and without private reservation or grudge that you don't like me enough to marry me." I don’t know why but I was aware of a deep anger welling within me as I read this line. Soon anger gave way to sadness. The idea that life can sometimes take a turn when you are happy with so little, that you’re willing to make do with such meagre offerings, was deeply unsettling. I’m afraid my reading of LTM is not particularly unbiased & I couldn’t help judging the relationship outside the prism of archetypal male-female roles.

If you’re the kind of wordy person like me, this book will appeal to you. The thing is – Larkin loved writing to her. For this odd, reclusive man, this was the only way of meaningfully connecting with his soulmate. Probably this gave him the opportunity to be himself because this was essentially a one-way medium and didn’t encourage immediate interactivity. I don’t think he’d have enjoyed writing to Jones as much if gmail or FB were around. In 1982 after suffering a nasty fall, Jones moved in with him. There is again something poignant about their eventual, forced union after years of voluntary separation. He laments that he hadn’t written to her since they have been together and the anguish is apparent. It is as if the only true connection between them had been severed. Strangely though, this made sense -the ache of separation is sometimes more appealing than the comfort of forced intimacy.

Finally, it is gratifying to see how this matronly, verbose and forceful woman managed to anchor this deeply insecure and self-doubting man. Even genius needs assurance and that is what she provided, “I am sure you are the one of this generation. I like your poetry better than any that I ever see – oh, I am sure you will make yr name! yr mark, do I mean – really be a real poet, I feel more sure of it than ever before, it is you who are the one.”


ramblings said...

seems like a good nibbling sort of book you tuck under your pillow! sigh! miss those. one that keeps you hankering for more; come to think of it its been a while since i read a good one..sad!

Shoumitro said...

Both of them have come very alive in your writing -- so much so that I can even see a shadow of myself in Larkin!

drift wood said...


As i wrote, it isnt quite as engrossing as i'd like my books to be, but once started, it keeps you going.

Thanks. A shadow definitely. Hamlet-like..hmm? :))

stonetemplepilot said...

poor larkin !:) it must have been the grating voice that stopped him from being otherwise !

drift wood said...


How convenient.

Read the bk, it's interesting in the way it sheds light on the dynamics b/w 2 adults, their occasional conflicts, and their enduring bond. That's a rare story.

p.s. Larkin was notorious for his melancholy and inertia among his contemporaries and other women.