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What W. H. Auden Can Do for You

by Alexander McCall Smith Princeton University Press
Pub Date:
Hbk 152 pages
AU$53.99 NZ$54.77
Product Status: Not Our Publication - we no longer distribute
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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.

Author's Note vii

1. Love Illuminates Again . . . 1

2. Who Was He? 7

3. A Discovery of Auden 19

4. Choice and Quest 33

5. The Poet as Voyager 39

6. Politics and Sex 45

7. If I Could Tell You I Would Let You Know 55

8. What Freud Meant 65

9. A Vision of Agape 75

10. That We May Have Dreams and Visions 91

11. And Then There Is Nature 99

12. Auden as a Guide to the Living of One's Life 123

' 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 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. . . . 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, '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 '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
Alexander McCall Smith is the internationally best-selling author of numerous novels, including the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, and the 44 Scotland Street series. His books have been translated into forty-six languages. Formerly a professor of medical law, he now devotes himself to writing. He lives in Scotland.