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From the Stacks: “A Girl in Winter”

November 20, 1976

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Philip Larkin would have been 91 today. In his honor, Joyce Carol Oates's review of his second novel, as originally published in The New Republic.

Along with Ted Hughes—whom he in no significant way resembles—Philip Larkin is generally considered the finest practicing poet in England today. He has written very little: about four poems a year, he has said, of which one is "no good" in his own estimation. Admittedly, Larkin's laconic, scaled-down, wryly pessimistic poems are not to everyone's liking, and there are times when his determinedly plain style comes to seem rather forced; but the achievement of such collections as The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974) is incontestable. I know people who can quote passages from "Church Going" and "The Whitsun Weddings" with a zest that would have astonished Dylan Thomas, and must now astonish those who believe that poetry, in order to be loved, must celebrate rather than condemn, and must strive to approximate music rather than to give us back, with very few distracting flourishes, the rhythms and nuances of "ordinary" speech. 

The praise Larkin has won from English critics and from his fellow poets may appear at times to be puzzling, especially for North American readers, if one fails to attend closely to the craftsmanship of the poems and to the minute, ironic revelations they make. Willing himself to be unexceptional, taking for his own a provincial English landscape writ painfully small, Larkin has created a number of nearly perfect poems and two very interesting novels which address themselves to the question of what to make of a "diminished thing" (to use Frost's helpful terminology). Larkin might say that the "diminished thing" is life itself—

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to he happy in:
Where can we live but days?

—but an impartial observer might speculate that the true subject of Larkin's poetry is England: the waning of English civilization: the paralysis of the spirit when it is confronted by historical changes beyond its ability to gauge. In his preface to Jill (1946), Larkin's first novel, he has said: "At an age when self-importance would have been normal, events cut us ruthlessly down to size." Though he is speaking of wartime England in this case, his sentiment holds true for present-day England, and both Jill and A Girl in Winter will strike readers as absolutely contemporary—perhaps even prophetic.

A Girl in Winter was originally published in Great Britain in 1947, and in the United States in 1962 by St. Martin's Press. It soon went out of print and has now been reissued, along with Jill, by Overlook Press of Woodstock, New York, a publisher new to me. It is a highly sensitive, rather meditative and slowly moving novel, a work of deliberately modest proportions reminiscent of Virginia Woolf and the early Elizabeth Bowen: a poet's novel, one might be inclined to say, in which a not-extraordinary provincial town in the depths of winter is lovingly reconstructed. Perhaps not lovingly: Larkin is never sentimental. But there is an unmistakable pleasure in his descriptions of ugly old buildings and wan, joyless people and crowded buses and insufferable dentists' offices and the futile, hopeful, and ultimately doomed gestures people make toward one another. His heroine, a young woman named Katherine Lind, shares with the Larkin of the poems a readiness to accept limitations and even to welcome the frustration of desire—a perverse eagerness to celebrate the failure of the world's enchantment. It is not other people, after all, who disappoint us, but rather our own foolish expectations: and so we are better off when, like Katherine, we turn resolutely aside from the entanglements of human emotion. We should make of the deadening winter an ally, and see in its relentless chill our own icy souls.

The main action of the novel takes place in less than 12 hours. Katherine, a war refugee with a poorly-paid job in a library, is called upon to escort a fellow worker home on account of illness. Resting briefly at her flat, she discovers that a telegram has been sent to her: it is from Robin Fennel, one of the very few people she knows in England. She panics and hurries out of her flat, fearing he will arrive shortly, returns to her dreary job (where she is scolded by a most obnoxious head librarian named Anstey), and contemplates her relationship with Robin and the Fennels in a lengthy, rather too leisurely, middle section that takes us back to Katherine at the age of 16, At this time she began a pen-pal relationship with the English boy Robin, a stranger, and accepted an invitation to visit with him and his family for several weeks. The visit is a fairly eventless one, Katherine falls in love with Robin though she hardly knows him, and considers him rather dull; the climax of their early relationship is a clumsy, unexpected kiss shortly before she leaves for home. Not long afterward she and Robin cease their correspondence and, until the outbreak of war and her forced removal to England, she does not give him another thought.

When she returns home from the library, however, she finds Robin awaiting her. He is much altered; he is drunk; though he appears to desire her—he kisses her, and asks if he might spend the night with her—one has the impression that he knows her as slightly as she knows him. In her detached, rather emotionless way Katherine agrees to sleep with him, though she warns him that it will mean nothing. She has hardened herself against the hope of Robin early in the day, and this resolution will not be abandoned. The two make love, evidently, though Larkin does not suggest any real physical relationship, and the novel comes to a chilling conclusion as Katherine interrupts Robin's incoherent, sleepy talk of their possible marriage by telling him to be quiet: she wants to sleep. 

Why such hardness of heart, why such a celebration of the static economy of the closed, insular, self-sufficient soul? Katherine is prematurely old; aged; broken. Her isolation can be attributed to the fact that she is a foreigner, a refugee, but in reality Larkin makes little use of this, as if shying away from melodrama or emotion. (Indeed the novel is curiously without action; even conversations are muted and disjointed, always disappointing,) Before meeting Robin at the of the day Katherine has reached out to a fellow worker and has been rebuffed, and we are told that she has lived in England for two years without having made a single friend or acquaintance, and without having written to the Fennels. By the time she does meet Robin once again—and their meeting is postponed by the novelist for more than 200 pages—she has sternly cautioned herself against the illusions of human love:

In the past she thought she had found happiness through the interplay of herself and other people. The most important thing had been to please them, to love them, to learn them so fully that their personalities were as distinct as the taste of different fruits. Now this brought happiness no longer: she no longer felt that she was exalted or made more worthy if she could spin her friendships to incredible subtlety and fineness. It was something she had tired of doing. And what had replaced it? Here she was at a loss. She was not sure if anything had replaced it.

Though we should assume it anyway, Larkin tells us that the winter of Katherine's experience is not "romantic or picturesque," for the snow that is graceful in the country is old and soiled in town. Having feared Robin's arrival all day Katherine discovers herself suppressing a yawn while he talks to her of his plans (he is a soldier, his future is uncertain), and it is with indifference that she agrees to sleep with him. Imagination is fired by absence, Larkin seems to be suggesting, and dulled by presence: the real Robin is banal and disappointing, just as reality is always banal and disappointing, "Life is first boredom, then fear"—we are told in the poem "Dockery and Son," and the line might serve as an epigraph for A Girl in Winter. 

The novel's central weakness lies in its characters, who are so without motivation and purpose that one finds it difficult to care very much for them. Katherine Lind is shadowy and vaporous, lacking distinctive features. We come to know, minutely, certain of her sense impressions, and we share her distaste for the English people she meets, but we never know what she looks like. And why does she never once think of her home, her family, her war-besieged country? (Larkin is coy about identifying her background: we never learn exactly where she is from, though the issue of her speaking a different language from Robin's is symbolically important.) Is she a virgin? If not, surely her thoughts would stray to her former lover or lovers, during this long day? If she is a virgin, how is it possible that she will give herself so casually to a man she can barely tolerate? (And how is it possible that her sexual experience with Robin, which occurs between paragraph breaks, has no effect upon her whatsoever? Unless the young woman is a zombie, or a near-catatonic, her failure to think or feel anything is quite improbable.)

It is possible, of course, to read A Girl in Winter as a prose-poem in which nothing happens, and to insubstantial people, because such is the nature of life in the 20th century in England. Larkin has the ability to evoke, in a few bleak images, a sense of waste and disillusion and emptiness that is as profound as the similarly barren vision of Beckett; but one might argue that so minimal a vision is perhaps best rendered in non-naturalistic terms, in parody or absurdist drama or in brief poems. The fleshing-out of a novel requires human blood and warmth, the interplay of personalities, the possibility of change and surprise. At the conclusion of "Church Going" the poet concludes that "the place was not worth stopping for" and—whether this cynical observation strikes the reader as true or not—a place not worth stopping for is best investigated, if investigated at all, as quickly as possible.

The negation of feeling so brilliantly dramatized in Larkin's poetry stimulates the reader to believe that here, at last, in these drab merciless terms, is life driven into a corner and justly assessed: less is not more, surely, but it is at least more truthful…? Yet the conviction is a false one. Larkin's studied nihilism is as florid in its way as the too-generous affirmation of a Whitman, and there is no reason to think that there is more "truth" in diminished things than there is in inflated things: for the poet expresses his interior landscape primarily. Though we should be grateful for Overlook Press' re-issuing of Larkin's two novels, it does not seem surprising that Larkin himself never attempted another work of fiction. "Novels are about other people," he has said, "and poetry is about yourself." One might amend that to allow for the probability of his poetry being about his nation, his culture, his heritage: which accounts for the enthusiasm with which his poetry is always received in an England ready to believe that it has been at last cut down "ruthlessly" to size.