Book review: What W.H. Auden Can Do For You

By Alexander McCall Smith

What W.H. Auden Can Do For You

By Alexander McCall Smith

Over the past decades, the poetry of W.H. Auden has become a de rigueur accessory to contemporary grief. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, the reading of the heart-gutting “Funeral Blues” summoned cathartic tears. In the aftermath of 9/11, Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” was widely circulated to make sense of the horror; the nursery wisdom of “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return” provided a sort of logic amid chaos. Now the novelist 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.

The title is a self-conscious riff on Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, though Auden’s benefit to McCall Smith’s own life is clearly profound. The poet was his greatest literary discovery, he writes. Auden now breathes in McCall Smith’s work, figuratively speaking: his character Isabel Dalhousie, an amateur sleuth, solves dilemmas by asking what Auden would do. The poet’s literary executor even agreed to a be a fictional cameo role in one of his novels.

McCall Smith traces Auden’s personal and artistic evolution while overlaying his own observations on subjects ranging from Freud to dogs and landscape in Auden’s poems to explaining why it’s always better to be “the more loving one.” Thankfully, the appreciation never descends into hagiography; McCall Smith respects Auden too much for that. Their lives intersected only once from afar, at a poetry reading in the ’70s, he writes. The poet’s fly was undone; his face “a geological catastrophe of lines and crevices.”

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.

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