The suggestion of unfathomable pain lurking behind Gunn’s ‘donned impersonality’ is, as Michael Nott writes in his shrewd introduction to this book, one of the most seductive qualities of his work. But the final impression that these letters make is of a life so skewed towards self-protectiveness that — however varied its experiences and intense its pleasures — it can’t truly be said to have been lived to the full.
He and Mike bought a fine house with a big garden where they grew hollyhocks, poppies and foxgloves, as well as fruit and veg, and had an endless stream of mostly male friends to stay: a domestic paradise of friends and gardening, with a side-order of drugs. Lots of his letters are full of all this — the simple pleasures of his daily life. As he wrote to his brother: ‘When I was little I hoped to have a really dramatic life, but Mother’s suicide changed all that.’ He can be hilariously rude about other writers. Auden is ‘a flabby dilettante, complacent and trite’. Lawrence Durrell’s poems are ‘a ghastly pretentious mess’. T.S. Eliot is ‘a bit dull most of the time’. A.S. Byatt’s Possession is ‘inconceivably awful’.