As quite a few of you seemed to enjoy my last round-up of ‘recent reads’ back in August, I’ve decided to do another one – this time focusing on novels by Philip Larkin and Richard Yates.
Jill by Philip Larkin (1946)
A couple of years ago, I read and really loved Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter. While Jill – his debut novel – isn’t quite as good as Winter, it still makes for very interesting reading, particularly given its depiction of student life in the early years of WW2.
In essence, the novel focuses on John Kemp, a socially awkward young man from a Northern, working-class background who wins a scholarship to Oxford University to study English in 1940. Struggling to fit in with his rather arrogant upper-class roommate, Christopher, and the public-school set who surround him, John invents an imaginary sister, Jill, in order to embellish his own life in the face of others. However, things get complicated for John when he meets, Gillian, the fifteen-year-old cousin of one of Christopher’s friends, and the boundaries between the imaginary Jill and the real-life Gillian begin to blur.
While Jill starts very strongly, it loses a bit of momentum in the middle and then fizzles out a little towards the end leaving one of two questions hanging in the air. Nevertheless, these are relatively minor criticisms in the scheme of things – the novel is beautifully written and very sensitively conveyed. Where it really excels is in the portrayal of a shy, isolated young man who finds himself in a totally unfamiliar environment, one in which all his peers seem so confident, socially comfortable and self-assured.
A dismal melancholy was beginning to expand inside him, a great loneliness. It was the knowledge that he had nowhere to go more friendly, more intimate than this room that depressed him so, and particularly because the room was not his alone. He could not fortify himself inside it against the rest of the strangeness, for at any moment Christopher Warner and Patrick might come in and make coffee in his coffee-pot or break one of his plates through trying some balancing trick. He had hoped that at least there would always be his own room, with a fire and the curtains drawn, where he could arrange his few books neatly, fill a drawer with his notes and essays (in black ink with red corrections, held together by brass pins), and live undisturbed through the autumn into the winter. This was apparently not to be. (p. 17)
There is some excellent characterisation here, particularly in the creation of the rowdy, egotistical Christopher and his snobbish friends. Moreover, the novel is full of marvellous details and observations about the minutiae of student life in Oxford at the time: the inevitable tensions that arise when mismatched boys have to room together; the cribbing and last-minute preparations that ensue when essays are due; and the pilfering of items from other boys’ cupboards, especially when there is cake to be sourced for afternoon tea. (The scene where John arrives at his room in Oxford features a terrific set piece.) While the War remains mostly in the background, there is one major interruption which serves to demonstrate that the horrors of death and destruction are never far away.
Overall, this is a moving, sympathetic novel of a boy for whom certain aspects of life remain largely out of reach. Definitely recommended.
A Special Providence by Richard Yates (1969)
No other writer captures the pain of loneliness and disillusionment quite like Richard Yates. It seems to me that he understands his characters’ self-delusions, portraying the cruelty of their false hopes and dashed dreams with real insight and humanity.
In this, his second novel, Yates explores the lives of a single mother, Alice Prentice, and her only son, Bobby, as they try to eke out some kind of existence for themselves in 1930-40s America. The book itself is split into three main sections, the middle one focusing on Alice, a rather sad, delusional woman who toils away needlessly at her sculptures in the hope of becoming a famous artist, perpetually just a few months away from having sufficient material for a one-woman show or a something good enough for submission to the Witney. As the years slip by, Alice and Bobby continue to live hopelessly beyond their means, desperately moving from one place to another as the unpaid bills threaten to catch up with them.
Natalie Crawford was her neighbour on Charles Street, a twice-divorced, childless woman who had some sort of job with an advertising agency, who burned incense in her apartment and believed in her Ouija board and liked to use words like “simpatico,” and who habitually found respite from her own state of single blessedness with any man she could get her hands on. Alice didn’t like her very much, or at least didn’t wholly approve of her, but for lack of other friends she had come to rely on her – to spend excessive amounts of time with her and attend her frantic parties, and even to borrow money from her at times when she couldn’t make her income stretch through the month. (pp. 129-130)
Alice’s rather tragic story is bookended by two sections which together give an account of Bobby’s time as a soldier at the end of WW2. As an unworldly, inexperienced eighteen-year-old, Bobby is somewhat lost in the midst of his platoon as he makes his way across the battlefields of Europe, trying as best he can to survive the various challenges of war. However, there are precious few chances for heroics or atonement for Bobby as the campaign plays out somewhat differently to his expectations. Meanwhile, Alice waits patiently in New York, hoping for a fresh start once her beloved son returns home – convinced as she is that ‘a special providence’ will always shine on them.
There are almost certainly autobiographical influences in this beautifully-written novel: the somewhat tragic sculptor mother who relies heavily on drink; the young boy who sees his mother for everything she really is; the absent father who has a strained relationship with his family; and the young man who is thrown into the realities of war.
While A Special Providence isn’t my favourite Yates, it is still very much worth reading, particularly for its portrayal of the complexities of the relationship between mother and son as the balance of reliance between these two individuals begins to shift. Moreover, there is the novel’s quietly devastating ending, a poignant coda which feels like quintessential Yates.
You can read my other posts on Richard Yates’ work here:
Jill is published by Faber & Faber, A Special Providence by Vintage Books; personal copies.
Both books sound good. Jill sounds particularly interesting. I know someone who makes up stories to embellish thier life. This person actually made up an imaginary brother. I think that it is such an odd psychological thing to behold. A fiction writer can do so much with it..
You’re right, it is a great concept for fiction, with plenty of opportunities to develop the storyline in various different directions. I think that why I felt the novel fizzled out somewhat towards the end, it could have been more focused or dramatic. Nevertheless, I really loved the opening section of the novel when John was trying to get to grips with his new environment.
Great post Jacqui. I really loved “A Girl in Winter” but never got very far when I tried “Jill”. But since I love Larkin so much I’ll have to give it another try. A shame he only wrote two novels, really, as he was such a genius of an author.
Thanks, Karen. It’s interesting to hear that you tried this and couldn’t get very far with it as I loved the opening sections! If anything, I wanted more of those scenes with Christopher and his snobbish pals, but there we go. As you say, it’s worth giving it another try at some point, especially as you loved A Girl in Winter so much.
I can’t actually recall why I stalled now, but I certainly *will* revisit it, just become I love Larkin! :D
Maybe if you approach it with moderate expectations, you might be alright?
Larkin the novelist is, I’m afraid, a foreign country to me. Likewise Yates, although your earlier exhortations have put him firmly in my sites as someone to try when I can get to him. I suppose I ought to make a bit more of an effort to do that — get to him — but, y’know, too many books . . .
Oh, I know, I know. Re: Yates, I would suggest you try Revolutionary Road. It’s probably his most compelling novel and a great introduction to his style – some come consider it to be his best book, although The Easter Parade is right up there too.
I shall be reading Jill soon because I have put it aside for 1946 in my A Century of Books. Really loved A Girl in Winter too. I really must read more by Richard Yates.
Oh, great. I’ll be very interested to see what you think of Jill. It’s not as accomplished as Winter, but there’s still much to enjoy. I really loved all the scenes between John and Christopher, and the portrayal of University life too (very Evelyn Waugh in places). I just felt it lost its way a bit as the story progresses…
I adored A Girl in Winter but have yet to read Jill – you’ve just made me want to sort through my bookcases to find my copy so I can make sure to read it soon.
Great stuff! I really hope you like Jill. I went into it knowing that it might not be as strong as Winter, so my expectations were fairly well set from the start.
Are we talking Larkin the poet? If so, I’ve learned something new today since I had no idea he had written novels as well as poetry.
Yes, we are. As far as I know, there were just the two novels: Jill (published in 1946) and A Girl in Winter (a year later). Definitely worth checking out, especially the latter.
thanks for the recommendation Jacqui. I shall investigate further
I’ve never read any of Larkin’s prose – you’ve reminded me that I really must!
Larkin and Yates are not the cheeriest of writers but you capture so wonderfully their appeal and gorgeous writing 🙂
Thank you! Yes, they definitely have something in common these two. I find myself strangely drawn to writers who capture so effectively these lonely, isolated characters – often flawed or damaged in some way, particularly with Yates.
If it’s any encouragement, I think you’d really like A Girl in Winter. It’s still a very underappreciated novel in spite of Larkin’s reputation as a poet. Plus it has that post-WW2 vibe that I think you tend to appreciate.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned in response to another Richard Yates post here my difficulty in warming to him, but Larkin has been on my radar for some time as a writer I want to read. Sounds like I should start with A Girl in Winter – in the hope that, despite the title, I’m warm a bit more to him.
Yes, I think you may have. I know Yates isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but his work seems to speak to me in a way that really resonates.
A Girl in Winter is definitely the one to try if you’re interested in reading Larkin’s fiction. It’s more accomplished than Jill, more poetic too in certain respects. There’s even a whole section that takes place during the summer, so it isn’t all dark days and frosty nights!
Lovely reviews Jacqui; I remember your enjoyment of the other Larkin book (and my astonishment that he wrote more than poetry!) and of course your love of Yates shines through. Interesting that both books frame around WWII; is that an era which you’re particularly drawn to or just coincidence that the books were both framed with a similar backdrop?
I’ve definitely got a thing for this era, no doubt about it. I’m not sure why it fascinates me so much. Maybe it’s the social changes that the war heralded as opposed to the actual conflict itself – the sense that people had to find new ways to live both during and after WWII as so many of the old customs and traditions were swept away.
I think that’s a really good point, it was a pivotal period not just because of the conflict but because how it spurred on social change and changes for women in particular (good and bad; I’m thinking of all those old maids a’la Barbara Pym). Perhaps there’s some parallel with our own times and the changes brought about by social media and an over-burdened planet. It certainly feels like the end times at times (though isn’t, obvs!). It’s interesting, because in Japanese fiction and movies, particularly Kurosawa, there’s a definite focus on that period between the old way of thinking and being (the pre-war generation) and the new social order, influenced by the US occupation, post war. Certainly both Kawabata and Soseki focus heavily on those themes. I hadn’t thought about it too much until now. Interesting. I’m glad there’s such a lot of material around that era to keep us all reading :) Thanks Jacqui.
That’s a really interesting point about the reflection of these shifts in Japanese film and literature. I still need to work my way through several of Kurosawa’s films, but your comments have reminded me of why I enjoyed Ozu’s Tokyo Story so much. Time for a re-watch (and more Kurosawa), I think.
On the subject of J-Lit, have you read anything by Yasushi Inoue? If not, you might be interested in his novellas, Bullfight (which isn’t really about bulls at all) and The Hunting Gun. He seems to be in a similar vein to Kawabata and Soseki with a focus on the complexity of familial relationships in a changing world.
I haven’t read Inuoe, I’ll have to look him up when I can borrow books again. Thanks. Tokyo Story is a lovely movie, I’ll have to watch that again soon. I’d like to watch more by Ozu. Have you ever watched Tarkovsky? I’d be interested in your views. I’ve been hovering over a box set for weeks now!
You’re welcome. I think you’d really like Inoue as his style is beautifully quiet and contemplative.
On the film front, I’ve seen a couple of Tarkovsky’s films (Solaris and Stalker), but nowhere near enough to give a proper view. A box set sounds like a good investment though, a great way to immerse yourself in his world. :)
I became quite a Larkin obsessive at Uni ( maybe because he worked in the library at Queens, Belfast) and I read this back then. I’d forgotten much of it but your review is a nice reminder.
Oh, wow. I didn’t know that he’d spent some time at Queens. No wonder you read so much of his work. I’m glad my review revived a few memories for you, Cathy.
Yes, five years between 1950 and 1955 – he was, by all accounts, very happy there.
You learn something new every day. :)
On the Yates front it does sound like minor Yates, but that may bump it up my pile actually as I’ve started with his major works and I don’t want to find that I read all those first then leaving myself only the lesser ones still to come.
Besides, even lesser Yates is better than most.
Yes, exactly. There’s still a lot to enjoy here, particularly in the portrayal of the mother character as she’s classic Yates.
Actually, I’m sort of doing the same myself, reading a few of the lesser ones in order to keep something special in reserve (I’m hoping Cold Spring Harbour might have a similar feel to The Easter Parade). We’ll see…
I meant to say that I’ll be particularly interested to hear what you think of A Special Providence as I couldn’t help but feel that the novel as a whole fell a little short of the sum of its individual parts – almost as though it was two different novels bolted together. I could sort of see what he was trying to do by drawing out the shifts in reliance between mother and son (and the impact of her behaviour on him), but even so, it didn’t quite come off for me. I’m very curious to discover whether you see it in a different way.
It’ll probably be my next Yates after your review, though not sure quite when that will be.
Cool. I shall look forward to that.
I was interested in your comments above about WW2 as a time of change. It must have been particularily shocking when the prime minister who won the war was voted out and replaced by a socialist government – people had learned form the aftermath of WW1! This is, of course, largely ignored now as it doesn’t suit the narrative of contemporary Britain.
Yes, indeed. I often wonder how difficult it must have been for people to adapt at that time. My father, who would have been sixteen in 1945, was very much a Labour man from the word go. My mother, on the other hand, was more conservative in terms of her views, coming as she did from a rather traditional family. I suspect she found British life a bit of a culture shock when she moved over here to get married!
I read half of A Girl in Winter and felt that too fizzled out from the middle on. That said, it’s still excellent writing.
I really like the sound of the Yates. It would probably not be my favourite either, but it’s Yates. I don’t think he’s written anything that’s not good.
You’re right about Yates. I doubt he ever wrote a bad sentence in his life. Even when his storylines start to meander somewhat, there’s always the beauty of the writing to pull you through.
As for Larkin, I wouldn’t recommend you try Jill as it’s definitely a weaker novel than A Girl in Winter. At first, I wondered what he was doing in Winter with that flashback to Katherine’s past, but it all becomes much clearer towards the end of that second section. You begin to understand why she seems so fragile and repressed in the ‘present-day’ section of the narrative.
Good to know about A Girl in Winter. I actually didn’t stop because ai didn’t get along with it, I put it aside because if some urgent other reading project and found it very hard to get back into. Possibly, it’s one of those cases where it’s better to restart.
Ah, I get you. Yes, probably best the start afresh with it. There’s only so much one can remember after a bit of a gap. To be fair, the middle section of the book is probably a tad too long, but worth persevering with till the end. :)
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