What W. H. Auden Can Do for Youby Alexander McCall Smith
When facing a moral dilemma, Isabel DalhousieEdinburgh philosopher, amateur detective, and title character of a series of novels by best-selling author Alexander McCall Smithoften refers to the great twentieth-century poet W. H. Auden. This is no accident: McCall Smith has long been fascinated by Auden. Indeed, the novelist, best known for his No. 1
When facing a moral dilemma, Isabel DalhousieEdinburgh philosopher, amateur detective, and title character of a series of novels by best-selling author Alexander McCall Smithoften refers to the great twentieth-century poet W. H. Auden. This is no accident: McCall Smith has long been fascinated by Auden. Indeed, the novelist, best known for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, calls the poet not only the greatest literary discovery of his life but also the best of guides on how to live. In this book, McCall Smith has written a charming personal account about what Auden has done for himand what he just might do for you.
Part self-portrait, part literary appreciation, the book tells how McCall Smith first came across the poet's work in the 1970s, while teaching law in Belfast, a violently divided city where Auden's "September 1, 1939," a poem about the outbreak of World War II, strongly resonated. McCall Smith goes on to reveal how his life has related to and been inspired by other Auden poems ever since. For example, he describes how he has found an invaluable reflection on life's transience in "As I Walked Out One Evening," while "The More Loving One" has provided an instructive meditation on unrequited love. McCall Smith shows how Auden can speak to us throughout life, suggesting how, despite difficulties and change, we can celebrate understanding, acceptance, and love for others.
An enchanting story about how art can help us live, this book will appeal to McCall Smith's fans and anyone curious about Auden.
"Poets need readers who aren't poets, and it is delightful to see an established novelist answer the call."Lachlan MacKinnon,Times Literary Supplement
"[McCall Smith's] little book, part of Princeton's Writers on Writers series, is a joy, start to finish."Philadelphia Inquirer
"Mystery scribe Alexander McCall Smith explains to us What W.H. Auden Can Do For You, an appreciation of the poet that should appeal even to those only familiar with his work via 'Four Weddings and a Funeral.'"Eugenia Williamson, Boston Globe
"Alexander McCall Smith plumbs the British poet's modern resonance in this charming, quirky, slim volume, a deft weave of biography, textual analysis and memoir. It's a must-read for Auden fanseven more for those who know his work only from a British rom-com. . . . That there's only kindness in the telling marks the moral generosity McCall Smith says the great poet has taught him. He's learned a bunch of other stuff as well. And if you read his quietly wise book, you'll learn it, too."Anne Kingston, Maclean's
"McCall Smith traces the trajectory, both of [Auden's] travels and the resultant poems . . . in a pitch-perfect conversational tone. . . . His is a gift of charm, and of clarity of imageboth of which he uses to the best of his ability here, in the creation of a book that is both the perfect jumping-on point for those coming late (forty-odd years after his death) to Auden and the perfect celebration for those who, like Mr. McCall Smith and this reader, have long revered and loved this odd little man and his teeth-rattlingly good poetry. . . . What W. H. Auden Can Do for You speaks to each of the poet's major works with equal aplomb and gives each its proper niche in the man's life, and, in doing so, presents a thumbnail for each of the Seven Ages of this man, from the Voyager to 'the mature Auden, the Auden of settled views, the religious Auden; and finally the cantankerous and complaining Auden of late middle-age,' each lovingly wrought. . . . What W. H. Auden Can Do for You is a wonderful work, one that more than holds its own with the other authors canonized in Princeton's series, Walt Whitman, Susan Sontag, and Arthur Conan Doyle. And if it accomplishes what it sets out to doto make the case that reading the poetry of W. H. Auden allows for the spontaneous combustion of the human intellectthen Alexander McCall Smith will have done something pretty great for us all as well."Vinton Rafe McCabe, New York Journal of Books
"This book shows us many Audens, not least the cantankerous, carpet-slippered panacea the bulk of us know and love. . . . [B]eautifully put together. For those of us who have waded through a morass of arduous criticism on Auden, it is nice to be reminded why this poet means so much for so many. For those who have not, McCall Smith's book is a great place to start."Neilson MacKay, NewCriterion.com
"[O]f all the volumes I've read about him, and all the tributes paid, the most remarkable and in a sense the most lovable is a highly personal, 137-page book by Alexander McCall Smith, What W.H. Auden Can Do For You."Robert Fulford, National Post
"[M]aybe the name of this book is the most radical, insightful thing about it: the notion that Auden is, as McCall Smith writes, 'a healer,' and that this is healing is collective. It's not just what Auden can do for you alone, but for all of us."Alex Nazaryan, Newsweek
"[A] charming, insightful, personal look at one of the 20th century's great poets."Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times
"Not only does What W.H. Auden Can Do for You express Smith's deep admiration of Auden's poetry, but his paean to the messy maestro also makes for a charming, honest look at Auden's failings. . . . Still, Smith's passion for the poet cannot help but inspire us. . . . [He] wisely counsels us to turn to the poems themselves to assess how much light they shed on our lives and loves. We won't be disappointed. For as Isabel Dalhousie knows so well, reading poetry may put us on the right track, after all."Arlice Davenport, Wichita Eagle
"Novelist Alexander McCall Smith has written a short, personal book about another abiding poet: Wystan Hugh Auden, dead these 40 years. . . . McCall Smith feels enormous gratitude to Auden, and he is a keen proselytiser for poetry: its unique force and moral necessity. . . . With poems like Lullaby and Musé´e des Beaux Arts, Auden transcended his obscure vocabulary and arcane interests to become that rarest of creatures, a necessary poetthe creator of works that people chant to themselves on beaches and read to the bereaved or the newly married. Again and again we return to this strange, weathered scholar poet because he helps us to live."Peter Rose, Sydney Morning Herald
"For some people The Art of War is a touchstone. A guide to living and to life. For others it is Tao Te Ching or even The Tao of Pooh. In his latest book, number one detective Alexander McCall Smith has an admission to make: his own personal touchstone is Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden. . . . If you are a fan of Auden's work, this is a must-read."Jones Atwater, January Magazine
"McCall Smith makes an excellent case for a young generation to get acquainted with the life trajectory of Auden as poet and as struggling human."Barbara Berman, TheRumpus.net
"[C]harming, and easily told. . . . [B]eautifully produced."Fiona Sampson, New Humanist
"[A] thoughtful and generous guide to more than the selected poems of W.H. Auden. An uplifting, pocket-sized vade mecum it made me rethink how I read, why poetry can be relevant both to everyday life and great events and it was refreshingly illuminating on the ways we age."Caroline Jackson, Tablet
"Any interested in literature and poetry will find this a memorable, insightful analysis!"James A. Cox, California Bookwatch
"McCall Smith restores the link between poetry and life, a link that encourages us to linger and reflect on every line or couplet. He demonstrates that Auden was capable of compressing a great deal of thought allusively into a few words, and suggests a technique that we can then apply ourselves. . . . The main point about this little book is that it will attract readers to Auden, and furthermore suggest what is now almost a subversive idea, at least among intellectuals, that literature is not primarily the fodder for unreadable treatises and suety theories, but a way of finding or deepening the meaning of our lives."Anthony Daniels, New Criterion
"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."Lois Henderson, Bookpleasures.com
"What W. H. Auden Can Do for You is a graceful and personal response of gratitude for Auden, celebrating the resonance, reverence, and rebellion of the man who believed 'truth is catholic, but the search for it is protestant.'"Mark Oakley, Church Times
"The main point about this little book is that it will attract readers to Auden, and furthermore suggest what is now almost a subversive idea, at least among intellectuals, that literature is not primarily the fodder for unreadable treatises and suety theories, but a way of finding or deepening the meaning of our lives."Anthony Daniels, New Criterion
"[A] charming little book."Robert Fulford, National Post
"Entertainingly dense yet poetically informative, I found What W.H. Auden Can Do For You a more than inspiring read, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in poetics and the sometimes shameful ways of the world."David Marx
A beloved author waxes poetic on an unlikely muse: the poet W.H. Auden. Poetry probably isn't the first word to come to mind when thinking about McCall Smith's work. A lawyer by training (and the author of Botswana's only published legal text), he is best known for his wildly popular commercial mystery series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. However, as he reveals in this slim, category-defying volume, Auden has had a profound impact not only on McCall Smith's work, but his life as a whole. His succinct ode to the celebrated British poet is not a memoir, though he includes a few moments from his own life--e.g., how he discovered Auden as a student in Belfast and how he began to understand him reading Bucolics on the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. Nor is the book a biography, though there are some charming details about Auden's life as well--one particular story about his atrocious housekeeping skills is impossible to forget. McCall Smith is adamant that the book should not be read as criticism, as Auden's body of work has been analyzed in detail by countless literary scholars, though he spends much of the text taking readers (rather haphazardly) through some of the major themes of Auden's poetry. If anything, though, the book could best be called an argument for Auden, a defense of his work, and a simple case for people to continue to pay attention to this particular writer. As McCall Smith writes early on, "I believe that reading the work of W.H. Auden may make a difference to one's life." A lovely yet overstretched article or essay topic; there's earnest enthusiasm aplenty but not enough else to support a full book.
Meet the Author
Alexander McCall Smith is the internationally best-selling author of numerous novels, including the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, and the 44 Scotland Street series. His books have been translated into forty-six languages. Formerly a professor of medical law, he now devotes himself to writing. He lives in Scotland.
- Edinburgh, Scotland
- Date of Birth:
- August 24, 1948
- Place of Birth:
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