26 March, 2012

Jill - Philip Larkin

So, I hear you cry, what is Jakeshaker reading!? Well I'll tell you - Larkin. I'm a fairly big fan of Larkin's work, but hadn't read any of his fiction. So I set to it.

'Jill' centres on John Kemp, an undergraduate at Oxford during Wartime Britain. Whilst Larkin later described the book as juvenile, it is considered, according to the book jacket, as 'a classic of its kind', and is possibly one of the first in the Campus novel genre. Larkin wrote the book when he himself was at Oxford in 1943/44, at the age of twenty-one, and so the book can be seen as, to a large extent, autobiographical.

What struck me about the brilliance of the novel, even on what I remember was the second or third page, was the ease with which Larkin encapsulates the nervousness and anxiety of being young. For the very first time in literature, somebody has captured the social inexperience of youth, which pretty much imposes itself on most of us and restricts us from being the 'adults' we crave to be. Through humour, pathos and very concise prose, Larkin creates situations around Kemp that occur naturally, but with which he cannot cope and falls apart.

The divide in this novel, which was probably rife during Wartime Britain, is the separation between those who fight and those at home, and the difference between each social class' contribution to the war effort. The idea of contrast between the strongly working-class Coventry-based Kemp, versus the London-bred Walker and his friends is intrinsic to the novel's tone. The social awkwardness surrounding the boys' servant is palpable, and Larkin exhibits the point that conscription can put a halt to some peoples' lives, whilst others continue as they were. There is a sense that not everybody is cutting back in the War period - Walker seems to live a life of luxury. Whilst not truly a 'war book', the backdrop of war contrasts to the privileged few - Walker, Elizabeth - who go about as they like, whilst Kemp struggles to luxuriate at such an important point in history, in which others are enduring much worse.

What a hunk.
 'Jill' is considered to be about the art of writing, about 'discovering a literary personality' but to me, the theme is more universal. The novel presents itself as a sort of manifesto (well, not a manifesto because I hate that word in relation to Literature) for hard work, achievement and dedication. In so much as it can be considered a coming-of-age novel, it is also about maturity in the strictest dictionary-definition sense of the word. Larkin explores just what maturity actually entails - the importance of choosing a career, being strong and honing your craft by dedication and effort. In the Kemp/Walker conflict, Larkin presents 'old money' (Walker) in a war with hard work (Kemp), siding favourably with Kemp. In the way that Walker has had money passed on to him, Kemp has had knowledge passed to him by Mr Crouch, his ex-teacher. Despite his inherent social awkwardness, Kemp ultimately gets a better deal of it, Larkin seems to suggest.

Along with 'Lolita' and 'Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit', this is another of the books I have read in March and which have become firm all-time favourites. Larkin's heart and his memory may belong to his poetry, but give the novels a try - you'll be very pleasantly surprised, and sorrowed there are but three in existence.

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