What W. H. Auden Can Do for You

Overview

When facing a moral dilemma, Isabel Dalhousie--Edinburgh philosopher, amateur detective, and title character of a series of novels by best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith--often 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, ...

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Overview

When facing a moral dilemma, Isabel Dalhousie--Edinburgh philosopher, amateur detective, and title character of a series of novels by best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith--often 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 him--and 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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Regina Marler
Anyone interested in the intellectual underpinnings of Smith's warm and humane novels should read this book, which would also make a good introduction to Auden for serious younger readers.
From the Publisher
"[A] charming little book."—Robert Fulford, National Post
Kirkus Reviews
2013-08-15
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691144733
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 9/29/2013
  • Series: Writers on Writers
  • Pages: 152
  • Sales rank: 148,599
  • Product dimensions: 4.40 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith is the internationally bestselling 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.

Biography

Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and went to school in Bulawayo, near the Botswana border. Although he moved to Scotland to attend college and eventually settled in Edinburgh, he always felt drawn to southern Africa and taught law for a while at the University of Botswana. He has written a book on the criminal law of Botswana, and among his successful children's books is a collection of African folk tales, Children of Wax.

Eventually, Smith had an urge to write a novel about a woman who would embody the qualities he admired in the people of Botswana, and the result, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, was a surprise hit, receiving two special Booker citations and a place on the Times Literary Supplement's International Books of the Year and the Millennium list. "The author's prose has the merits of simplicity, euphony and precision," Anthony Daniels wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. "His descriptions leave one as if standing in the Botswanan landscape. This is art that conceals art. I haven't read anything with such unalloyed pleasure for a long time."

Despite the book's success in the U.K., American publishers were slow to take an interest, and by the time The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was picked up by Pantheon Books, Smith had already written two sequels. The books went from underground hits to national phenomena in the United States, spawning fan clubs and inspiring celebratory reviews. Smith is also the author of a detective series featuring the insatiably curious philosopher Isabel Dalhousie and the 44 Scotland Street novels, which present a witty portrait of Edinburgh society

In an interview on the publisher's web site, Smith says he thinks the country of Botswana "particularly chimes with many of the values which Americans feel very strongly about -- respect for the rule of law and for individual freedom. I hope that readers will also see in these portrayals of Botswana some of the great traditional virtues in Africa -- in particular, courtesy and a striking natural dignity."

Good To Know

As a professor at Edinburgh Law School, Smith specializes in criminal law and medical law, and has written about the legal and ethical aspects of euthanasia, medical research, and medical practice.

When he isn't writing books or teaching, Smith finds time to play the bassoon in the candidly named amateur ensemble he co-founded, The Really Terrible Orchestra.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note vii
1. Love Illuminates Again . . . 1
2. Who Was He? 7
3. A Discovery of Auden 19
4. Choice and Quest 33
5. The Poet as Voyager 39
6. Politics and Sex 45
7. If I Could Tell You I Would Let You Know 55
8. What Freud Meant 65
9. A Vision of Agape 75
10. That We May Have Dreams and Visions 91
11. And Then There Is Nature 99
12. Auden as a Guide to the Living of One's Life 123

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