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What W. H. Auden Can Do for You (Writers on Writers) Hardcover – 29 Sep 2013
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"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"
"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"
""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"
"[A] charming little book."--Robert Fulford, "National Post"
"[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
"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 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
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 ofEarly 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 ofThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionSee all Product description
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"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....."
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 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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