Friday, September 21, 2018

Honesty: the best policy for a biographer

Back in 2007, I wrote an admiring (and very long) review of Andrew Motion's biography Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life. Earlier this month, a new edition was published, and to mark the occasion the Times Literary Supplement reproduced an extract from the introduction in which Motion writes not so much about Larkin but about the nature of his relationship with him.

Some have accused Motion of popularising a damagingly negative portrait of the poet - see, for instance, Peter J. Conradi, who in a review of a rival biography branded A Writer's Life "a condescending performance" that "helped paint Larkin as a sterile, loveless, nationalist, racist, woman-hating bigot". But, as his introduction makes clear, this was no nasty hatchet job; on the contrary, Motion greatly respected and admired Larkin and adopted a warts-and-all approach out of respect to his subject, someone who (after all) "had believed very firmly in the value of plain speaking".

Motion continues: "I wanted him to appear as the occasionally salty, selfish, vulgar, intolerant, difficult and 'fucked up' person that he knew himself to be, as well as the brilliantly observant, truth-telling, romantic, tender and sometimes uproarious person that he was also capable of being." In truth, it's hard to see how he could have done anything else, given the source material available to him.

(Thanks to Adam for the link.)

No comments: