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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What W. H. Auden Can Do For You by Alexander McCall Smith
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...
Published 18 months ago by Saamir Nizam

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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Alexander McCall Smith on the poet who inspires him
Alexander McCall Smith has long been fascinated by the poetry - and life - of W H Auden. One of his main characters, Isabel Dalhousie, is a devotee of the poet, while another, Mma Ramotswe, also shares his views on life. As McCall Smith explains, he has "learned so much from this poet. I have bathed in the richness of his language. I have wept over some of his lines...
Published 19 months ago by Julia Flyte


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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What W. H. Auden Can Do For You by Alexander McCall Smith, 3 Nov. 2013
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."

The author crossed paths with his subject only once, in the early 1970s, when attending a reading in Edinburgh by Auden while "the fly-buttons of his trousers were undone". Soon after the reading, AMS returned to his teaching post in Belfast, and one day read a on a front page `Auden Dies'. Of his response, he writes:

"I walked the rest of the way home feeling that curious emptiness that can sometimes come after receiving the news of a death. This emptiness can sometimes seem all the greater when you did not know the person who has died, but you admired him or her. ... I felt that a great humane voice had been silenced."

What W. H. Auden Can Do For You is a short (152 pages), almost pocket-sized work, written in crystal clear language, which lucidly reflects the author's engagement with his subject's poetry, in different ways and at different times of his life. While analysing the meaning of Auden's lines to him, AMS does not shy away from the significant criticism Auden attracted during and after his lifetime. AMS leaves the larger arguments to Prof. Edward Mendelson, the Auden expert at Columbia University and the literary executor of the Auden Estate; this work is not the appropriate venue for those discussions. This work succeeds at two different levels: it introduces the reader to Auden and his poetry, and more importantly (and as the title suggests), it gives guidance to the reader on how to live a more meaningful life. AMS writes at the culmination of his introspection of Auden's works:

"I have learned so much from this poet. I have been transported by his words. My life has been enriched by his language. I have stopped and thought, and thought, over so many of his lines. He can be with us in every part of our lives, showing us how rich life can be, and how precious. For that, I am more grateful to him than I can ever say."

It would seem that if AMS was speaking at Auden's funeral in Kirschstetten, these are the words he would say. Auden wrote `In As I Walked Out One Evening' that "In headaches and in worry, Vaguely life leaks away". This reviewer would suggest that one read this book earlier in your life, so you have the time to learn of Auden, read his poetry, and then perhaps re-read those lines as your life unfolds. Like Sufi tales of old, the meaning of Auden's lines will change as you age.

Saamir K. Nizam
Scottish Parliamentary Review
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Delightful, 18 Sept. 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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thoughtful and inspirational book, 20 Oct. 2013
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This review is from: What W. H. Auden Can Do for You (Writers on Writers) (Kindle Edition)
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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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Alexander McCall Smith on the poet who inspires him, 22 Sept. 2013
By 
Julia Flyte - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
Alexander McCall Smith has long been fascinated by the poetry - and life - of W H Auden. One of his main characters, Isabel Dalhousie, is a devotee of the poet, while another, Mma Ramotswe, also shares his views on life. As McCall Smith explains, he has "learned so much from this poet. I have bathed in the richness of his language. I have wept over some of his lines. He can be with us in every part of our lives, showing us how rich life can be, and how precious". In this short book, McCall Smith talks about Auden's life and also explains the themes in his poetry which resonates with him.

Prior to reading this book I didn't know much about Auden, other than the fact that he was an English poet and that he was homosexual. In his 20s he travelled widely, living for a time in Berlin and also in Spain (where he had intended to drive an ambulance in the Civil War). At this time, he was close friends with Christopher Isherwood. In 1939 he moved to the US where he lived the majority of his life until his death in 1973.

Many of the themes in Auden's poetry reflect his sexuality, his interest in psychology and politics and his religious beliefs. McCall Smith talks about all of these things as well as picking up on common techniques that Auden used (for example inverting sentences for greater impact, the use of archaic words and personalising inanimate objects). McCall Smith has a conversational writing style which makes this book feel very personal, as if you're sitting down for a chat with him. One of the things that I like about his novels is the way that he seems to think a lot about how to live a better life and that also comes through in this book. I was particularly touched by the way that he talks about spiritual purpose and that religion can be an illogical but moral choice, making a determined commitment to pursue good.

Despite my comparative lack of interest in Auden going in, I enjoyed this book. And I now understand that the cover illustration is a reference to the poem "Musee des Beaux-Arts", where "the dogs go on with their doggy life" while Icarus falls unnoticed into the water behind them.

I received an ARC of this book from Net Galley and the publisher in return for an honest review.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nectar, 12 Dec. 2013
By 
R. H. Ervine (Gateshead U K) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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An author worth reading and always purchase his latest books- he is a maestro with the words! Keep the words rolling
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6 of 8 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. While many of the poems that McCall Smith discusses are familiar, he does also include some of Auden's more obscure works and so there is a good chance that even long-time fans of the poet may well discover something new here. Saying that, McCall Smith's poetic analyses are often rather brief - this is after all more a tribute to Auden than a deep academic study of his work - and so can sometimes seem a bit superficial despite the author's obvious earnestness.

As well as providing insight into the meaning behind Auden's poetry, with What W. H. Auden Can Do for You McCall Smith also argues for the wisdom of readers using the poems as inspiration for living a philosophical, more introspective life. McCall Smith energetically discusses the impact that Auden has had on his own life and how different poems have impacted on him at different points in time. The book is clearly a deeply personal affair for McCall Smith and one that has been almost a lifetime in the making - while Auden may not have the same impact on the lives of all readers it is still heartening and illuminating to read about the effect that his work has had on McCall Smith.

What W. H. Auden Can Do for You is a short, heartfelt tribute to a great poet and a complex character. Alexander McCall Smith's book serves well as both an introduction to Auden's work for those just discovering the poet and a neat history of the life behind the words for those already familiar with Auden's many great poems as well as offering insight into McCall Smith's own life and philosophy.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Watery stuff., 31 Oct. 2014
By 
JAW "JAW" (Surrey, England.) - See all my reviews
The literary equivalent of a very very very very very very (you get my drift...) milky cup of Earl Grey tea.

Fey Scottish (and therefore apparently intrinsically better) Earl Grey tea.

If this is representative of Auden I don't think I'll bother...

Postscript - despite the omens I did check out Auden - and I think Orwell got him about right - `a gutless Kipling.'
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5.0 out of 5 stars For Auden fans, 20 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: What W. H. Auden Can Do for You (Writers on Writers) (Kindle Edition)
Absorbing. If Auden speaks to you this book is a find. McCall Smith doing homage to the 20th century's greatest poet
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5.0 out of 5 stars I love Alexander McCall Smith's books, 19 Oct. 2014
I love Alexander McCall Smith's books, especially the 44 Scotland Street series, and I love W H Auden' poetry, and getting a tiny bit inside McCall Smith's mind was a joy.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars, 23 Aug. 2014
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An interesting and provocative read
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