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What W. H. Auden Can Do for You (Writers on Writers) [Hardcover]

Alexander McCall Smith
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

29 Sep 2013 Writers on Writers

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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Product details

  • Hardcover: 152 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (29 Sep 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691144737
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691144733
  • Product Dimensions: 19 x 11.9 x 1.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 27,239 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Following a distinguished career as a Professor of Medical Law, Alexander McCall Smith has turned to writing full-time. He is the author of over sixty books on a wide array of subjects, and his books have been translated into forty-two languages. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife.

Product Description


"[T]he book comes alive when Smith connects his own moral and intellectual growth to his appreciation of the poet. . . . 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."--Regina Marler, New York Times Book Review

"[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 fans--even 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 image--both 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 do--to make the case that reading the poetry of W. H. Auden allows for the spontaneous combustion of the human intellect--then 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 poet--the 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

From the Inside Flap

"Alexander McCall Smith's voice in this splendid book is instantly recognizable as the calm, sympathetic, psychologically shrewd, and morally generous one that narrates his novels. This is not only a convincing account of W. H. Auden's poetry and life. It is also a self-portrait of McCall Smith himself and a testimony to the wisdom and courage he has found in Auden's poems. This is a valuable and memorable book."--Edward Mendelson, author of Early Auden and Later Auden

"The attraction of this charming book lies in its author as much as its subject. It will appeal both to readers interested in the novelist Alexander McCall Smith and to anyone who wants an introduction to the poet W. H. Auden. McCall Smith gives a vivid portrait of his personal encounters with Auden's poetry and, in the process, illuminates some of its key themes and traits."--Alan Jacobs, author of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Almost 20 years ago, Four Weddings and a Funeral introduced a new generation to the poetry of Wystan Hugh Auden by reciting his "Funeral Blues" in a memorable scene. The popularity of the film also brought Auden to the attention of a vast new international audience, but perhaps in a very superficial way. People who knew nothing of Auden could still, on the appropriate occasion, recite the timeless lines:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest.
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.

Now, in What W. H. Auden Can Do For You, Alexander McCall Smith (AMS), the Emeritus Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh and renowned author of fiction and non-fiction, has written a deeply personal account of Auden's poetry and its meaning in the author's life. AMS begins his introduction of Auden appropriately with a brief account of his life, his birth in 1907 to a middle class family in York, boarding school at Gresham, studying English literature at Christ Church, Oxford, on to Berlin, New York City (over 30 years), back to Oxford and his eventual passing in Vienna in 1973 and burial in Kirschstetten, Austria, where he used to spend his summers. Even this brief accounting is a pleasure to read and provides some choice observations. For instance, in recounting that Gresham was a tolerant school not given to the corporal punishment so popular at the time, AMS writes: "The English are unwittingly cruel to their children, which is something the Italians, to think of one example, have never been.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Delightful 18 Sep 2013
I got this book the day it came out in the US, where I'm currently staying. I've never read Alexander McCall Smith's fiction, but he grabbed my interest by writing about Auden. The book is short and sweet, as are its chapters, and it's refreshingly human and unpretentious. It's a mix of introduction to the poet, memoir about the author's discovery of him, and heartfelt reflection on Auden's genius and its prevailing relevance even as the world advances ever more into the future he feared. A great starting place for a newcomer to his poetry, and a lovely reminder of what is so great about WHA for those of us who've read him from a young age.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars McCall Smith on Auden 6 Jan 2014
Upon finding herself in a moral quandary, philosopher/investigator Isabel Dalhousie (of Scotland Street fame) likes to consult the work of insightful yet cantankerous poet W. H. Auden. After reading What W. H. Auden Can Do for You, the reasoning behind her faith in the wisdom of Auden is suddenly a great deal clearer - Alexander McCall Smith also believes that guidance (however vague) to just about every problem can be found in the life/work of Auden. What W. H. Auden Can Do for You is therefore a deeply personal account by McCall Smith of the impact that Auden's work has had on his own life as well as a guide for those looking to find out more about Auden's life and poems.

McCall Smith begins by providing a very interesting if abbreviated biography of Auden that guides the reader through the poet's schooling to his experiences living in Berlin, Civil War-era Spain and New York, and to his later years spent back in the UK teaching at Oxford before going into self-imposed exile near Vienna. Auden's life and experiences of course influenced his poetry and so McCall Smith's biography is particularly useful when it comes to trying to recognise the fact behind the fiction (or at least fictionalised accounts) in his poems. What W. H. Auden Can Do for You is however a very slim volume and so there is (I expect) a lot more that could be said about Auden's life if a more complete biography was being sought.

McCall Smith writes in the clear, conversational tone that will be familiar to readers of his novels and has a real gift for critiquing and (if this is the right word) popularising Auden's poetry.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thoughtful and inspirational book 20 Oct 2013
By Carole
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Alexander McCall Smith takes a new direction and produces a gem. For readers whose interest in W H Auden's poetry may have been inspired (or renewed) by the many references to his poems in the Isabel Dalhousie series, this book provides a wonderful opportunity to dig deeper into Auden's work and to be inspired by McCall Smith's love for and interpretation of his words:

"Auden lived in a large city........but combated loneliness by creating a community through friendships and intellectual exchange. That is what we, too, must do....."
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