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Books: Layers of Loneliness

2 minute read

A GIRL IN WINTER (248 pp.)—Philip Larkln—St. Martin’s ($4.50).

When he graduated from Oxford in 1943, Poet Philip Larkin dreamed of becoming a famous novelist and living on the Riviera “like Somerset Maugham.” But after two novels flopped in Britain, he decided he was better suited to poetry, confessing later: “It’s like moving to a much smaller house after finding you cannot afford to keep up the mansion of your dreams.” Larkin has become one of England’s finest poets, but he may have deserted his mansion too soon. The second novel, A Girl in Winter, has now been published in the U.S.; and while it is no sumptuous Versailles of literature, it is an elegant chateau that any writer could be proud to own.

Katherine, the novel’s shy and lonely heroine, leaves her unnamed European country one summer to visit a family in England. She falls in love with the son, Robin, but is put off by his flawless British manners, his utter imperturbability, “this sandpapering of every word and gesture until it exactly fits its place in the conversation.” Robin’s true emotions can not crack his polished exterior.

But if Robin has his defenses, so does Katherine. Afraid of being hurt, she thinks the worst of people—and herself—to avoid being let down. In solitude, she tries to perfect her selfishness so that her happiness, meager as it is, will depend on no one else. When Robin wants to show love, he instead shows indifference. When Katherine feels love, she becomes cruel.

Larkin has a poet’s reverence for the small detail that shapes a scene or character. Thrust into a dentist’s chair, a terrified girl imagines that the drill hovering above her has the “shape of a great hooded bird.” And his small scope is deceptive. His characters are afraid of life only because they are in need of love. Their peevishness, spitefulness and British reserve all mask an inner anguish, conceal layers of loneliness that Larkin peels off with precision.

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