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What W. H. Auden Can Do for You (Writers on Writers) Hardcover – September 29, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

If you’re a fan of McCall Smith’s,you know that he’s a fan of W. H. Auden. His two series set in Edinburgh—Scotland Street and the Isabel Dalhousie novels—have characters who frequently quote Auden. In this installment of the Writers on Writers series, McCall Smith, with a wink to Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (1998), sets out to speak directly about what Auden has meant to him and how readers who have never read the poet can be enriched by his work. McCall Smith is marvelous in describing scenes from his own life that were made radiant or understandable by Auden’s poetry. He is less successful, except in a general poetry can change your life way, in relating Auden to new readers. This book wanders quite a bit, and it certainly won’t generate Auden converts, but it will help both Auden and McCall Smith fans understand the themes and values of both. --Connie Fletcher

Review

"[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

"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

"Entertainingly dense yet poetically informative, I found What W.H. Auden Can Do For You a more than inspiring read, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in poetics and the sometimes shameful ways of the world."--David Marx
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Product Details

  • Series: Writers on Writers
  • Hardcover: 152 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (September 29, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691144737
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691144733
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 4 x 6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #175,559 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Alexander McCall Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana. He is now Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh. He has written more than fifty books, including a number of specialist titles, but is best known for The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, which has achieved bestseller status on four continents. In 2004 he was awarded British Book Awards Author of the Year and Booksellers Association Author of the Year. He lives in Scotland, where in his spare time he is a bassoonist in the RTO (Really Terrible Orchestra).

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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To start with, I also love Auden; perhaps that was one reason I found the book so enjoyable. Many of the poems he discusses I've read and loved for years. He also discussed a couple I wasn't familiar with: a new treat.

I especially loved his reading of Auden's poem on Freud. I always believed I got my best understanding of Freud from Auden's poem, and now that is enriched. I also loved his reading of "Septembe 1, 1939", and was surprised to learn that Auden later somewhat disowned that poem. I wish Mr. McCall Smith had talked more about Auden's poem on Yeats, which is also about World War 2: "In the nightmare of the dark. . . "

I wonder, Mr. McCall Smith, if you've read Poetic Justice by Amanda Cross (Carolyn Heilbrun). It is also full of the most wonderful Auden quotes.

At any rate, thanks so much for such an enjoyable book. I see Auden's belief in the wonder of the ordinary, everyday details of life in Mr. Mcall's Ladies Detective books--also some of my favorite reads.
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Format: Kindle Edition
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.
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Format: Kindle Edition
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

My association with W.H. Auden and his literary output has been restricted to the occasional browsing through poets.org which gave rise to a somewhat fickle love for Lullaby (which I couldn't help but read more than once) and As I walked Out One Evening. But somehow the lines faded away from memory as soon as I closed the browser window, sometimes mere beautiful words and perfect cadence aren't sufficient to stimulate further intellectual curiosity. But Alexander McCall Smith's near fanboyish enthusiasm for one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century has forced me to reconsider my views on Auden and maybe even provided the much needed push to delve into his oeuvre further.

This is not literary criticism per se, but rather a mixed bag of Smith's views on the poet's personal life, his body of work and the way his worldviews figured in his poetry. It goes without saying, literature students may find this book vastly redundant as it contains nothing that hasn't already been recorded by academicians who have analyzed and dissected Auden's poetry from all probable angles. And Smith acknowledges this right at the beginning, very clearly stating that his intention behind writing this has been to offer a tribute to Auden who was, in a way, his personal literary icon.
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This book acts as a good introduction to Auden, and gives some background and discussion to a few poems, but is rather thin otherwise. I enjoyed it, as I've enjoyed most of McCall Smith's books, but by the end you don't feel as though you've had much of a. meal.
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A thought provoking quick read that one can glide through with ease. I enjoyed this book as it explained some of the Auden written lines in McCall-Smith's novels from time to time. I have now an appreciation for Auden and for the author's use of the poet's work.
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