What W. H. Auden Can Do For You by Alexander McCall Smith is the latest in the Princeton University Press series Writers on Writers, which have included On Doyle by Michael Dirda, On Whitman by C.K. Williams, and Notes on Sontag by Philip Lopate. Hooking up a well known writer with an even more well known writer is a sellable enough idea which in this case delivers.
The Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith known for his various mystery series (No 1. Ladies Detective, Sunday Philosophy Club, 44 Scotland Street) has a definite passion for W. H. Auden and his poetic legacy. I was mostly interested in reading this for two reasons, one is Smith has been on my radar for awhile and of the little I've read of him, he has this effortless style that always entertains, and second, Auden is one of the modern poets that I've simply have not read much. With the title such as it is, I am reminded of books such as How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. I'm skeptical about these types of books that promise will “do” something for you or “change” your life. Seems more like a marketing scheme simply to sell the title – literary criticism as self help, and well who isn't attracted to a little self help? Which is not to say books can't change lives, they do all the time, though in likely less numbers than I suspect is to be believed. It's just the simplified marketing that can be irksome. Literature is more than just what I can get out of it to help mend my personal problems. Fortunately, Smith addresses this aspect of the book early:
“The title of this book is in a way a lighthearted homage to de Botton's remarkable book. But something that is lighthearted can be very serious in its intention. I believe that reading the work of W. H. Auden may make a difference to one's life. Of course we can be changed by reading or listening to something that moves us deeply, that makes us see ourselves or the world in a different light. It may be a poem that has this effect, or it may even be the great Proustian novel itself. In any event the work of art we are confronted with unlocks within us the recognition of something that had escaped us before. We are changed because we now understand something that we did not understand before.” (3-4)
So certainly in the case of Alexander McCall Smith, Auden has done something for him and this infectious book is simply an enthusiastic sharing of what Auden might be able to do for you as well. The majority of the book Smith explores his own life intertwined with Auden's life along with how several poems have enlightened him throughout his literary journey, including “New Year Letter,” “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” “The Fall of Rome,” “If I Could Tell You,” “Musee des Beaux Arts,” “Funeral Blues,” “Lullaby,” “In Praise of Limestone,” and of course “September 1, 1939.” Of these, only two I recongnized, “Musee” and “September,” both which I have really liked over the years, especially “Musee.” Others I'm sure I've come across before but don't remember. And then there were the ones I've read for the first time, such as “In Praise of Limestone,” which I'm going to spend some time with figuring out it's turns and crevices.
Sometimes all it takes is a good introduction to help me navigate through an oeuvre and start reaping the benefits of new stuff to explore. A highlight for me was the chapter “If I Could Tell You I Would Let You Know” which explored themes of determinism, free will, and blame in Auden's work, leading me down some thought paths that was unexpected. Another thing I appreciated about the book is that Smith doesn't avoid criticisms that Auden has received over the years. This balance is refreshing and strengthen's Smith's insights, which are neither saccharine or blind.
In finishing this book, I'm not sure if Auden has done anything for me in particular. But my interest is up and I've already been browsing through the Auden collection that's been sitting on my shelf for longer than I remember. In looking up one of the poems that Smith talks about I found another poem on the next page that I found even more striking, “Leap Before You Look,” which begins:
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
If all this book did for me was to lead me to this poem then I have no complaints.