The fact that I’ve written a fair amount about both Christopher Hitchens and Philip Larkin alone would be a sufficient reason for me to direct readers to “Philip Larkin, the Impossible Man,” Hitchens’s review of Larkin’s Letters to Monica in the May 2011 issue of The Atlantic. Both authors factor in “Dedicated Writers,” for instance, an essay included in my Fighters & Writers. In passing, Hitchens notes that Larkin’s uneasy affection for jazz “helps furnish a key to his muse,” an idea I examine closely in “Ugly on Purpose.”
But a more substantive explanation also exists. Hitchens echoes points I’ve tried repeatedly to make, and I welcome the amplification. He argues that individuals with repellent characters can still produce exceptional art. Perhaps it’s inevitable that some readers will look to writers’ lives to make sense of their work. “It is inescapable that we should wonder how and why poetry manages to transmute the dross of existence into magic or gold, and the contrast in Larkin’s case is a specially acute one,” Hitchens writes. Still, biography can’t explain literary alchemy any more than it should be used to condemn or dismiss the fine work of wretched men. One can be a loutish bungler and still be a great writer – a point I stress in another Fighters & Writers piece, one about George Orwell (whom Hitchens invokes in the Atlantic article).