Author: Alexander McCall Smith

Publisher: Princeton University Press

ISBN-13: 978-0-691-14473-3

Sheer delight in the written and spoken word beams forth from Alexander McCall Smith’s overview of the life of the one of the greatest 20th century poets, the Anglo-American poet, W. H. Auden, and his work in What W.H. Auden Can Do for You. The fluency and vigor of McCall Smith’s writing gives a strength and momentum to the text that encourages one to read the whole book through without pause. The accessible way in which the author introduces even some of the most complex topics that are covered in Auden’s poetry makes this a gem for non-academics and scholars alike.

The relatively informal nature of McCall Smith’s descriptions of the great poet is to be expected if one considers what other earthy, and yet ethically well grounded, texts the author has produced over the years, including his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and his Isabel Dalhousie series. Unlike with his fictional writings, and no doubt partly because of Auden’s homosexual leanings, the work tends to be male dominated throughout. In contrast to the rapidity of relationship turnover that is thought by some to characterise the male gay lifestyle, Auden’s respect for the longevity of true friendship comes across strongly, in McCall Smith’s revelation of the nature of Auden’s close and long-lasting relationships with both Christopher Isherwood and Louis MacNeice. Indeed, McCall Smith appears as loyal in his devotion to the work of Auden as Auden was to his own close group of fellow writers and poets. Not that Auden’s association with the so-called literary elite of the day in any way sequestered him from the company of his fellow man, upon which he thrived—his compassion and empathy for others sounds loudly throughout his work, as it does throughout the work of McCall Smith. In short, if you already appreciate the work of either of these writers, What W. H. Auden Can Do for You is, most eminently, the book for you.

And be aware that there is no buddy-buddy system in place here, the absence of which can be seen in McCall Smith’s exploration of some of Auden’s key poems, including “Spain” (which he describes as “[a]t one level…not much more than a piece of political propaganda”) and “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” (in relation to which he emphasises Auden’s fallacy, by stating “He said that poetry had nothing to teach us, but he was wrong about that…”). McCall Smith is also not afraid to criticise the occasional non-sense of Auden’s wording, showing that the latter was, at times, so fond of the lyricism of his writing that he surrendered the importance of meaning to the seductiveness of sound, as he explains in some depth in relation to a poem appearing in Letters from Iceland (to which he refers as “one of Auden’s oddest books”).

The lilting nature of What W. H. Auden Can Do for You radiates the sincere and well-intentioned approach that McCall Smith takes in all his work, fictional and otherwise. Remembering Auden’s contribution to his own formation of self provides invaluable insights into both writers’ work, with the former being remembered with a sense of gentle humor and quiet pathos that clearly resonates throughout McCall Smith’s work as well. Clearly, this is a most worthy addition to the Writers on Writers series so lovingly produced by Princeton University Press.

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