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Bestselling novelist Alexander McCall Smith's charming account of how the poet W. H. Auden has helped guide his life - and how he might guide yours too
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.
'[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
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Book DetailsISBN: 9780691144733
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Book Review: What W. H. Auden Can Do for You by Alexander McCall Smith - Reviewed by CloggieA (25 Jan 2019)
“I have learned so much from this poet. I have been transported b 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.”
What WH Auden Can Do For You is a non-fiction book by popular Scottish author, Alexander McCall Smith. Anyone familiar with Alexander McCall Smith’s writing will be aware of his love of this poet’s work. His characters quote Auden and often refer to him in their conversations. In this little book (and it is little: a pocket-sized hardback of a mere 137 pages), McCall Smith shares what he loves about Auden, a bare minimum of historical facts about the poet, his own journey with Auden’s works, and commentary on various of Auden’s works, their background and their relevance, even in today’s world.
He makes observations on Auden’s controversial works, and on how his work developed. There are plenty of wise words: “We are what we are because we are who we are, and who we are is usually the result of factors outside our control.”
On Auden’s Freud poem: “Both throw light on dark corners – the dark furniture of the mind – and show us that the shapes are threatening only because we allow them to be; and after all, they are only shapes.”
On Auden’s Lullaby: “he puts into words the universal human experience, something that we all will have had but may never have been able to articulate ourselves”
McCall Smith says that “Auden reminds us to be grateful, and that is something that we increasingly need to be reminded of in a culture of expectation and entitlement. Consumerist culture has encouraged us to complain – we have become good at that – but it does not encourage us to say thank you.”
For readers who have not knowingly read Auden, but are fans of McCall Smith, the highlight will be his own experiences, told in little anecdotes: how he came to buy a book on the history of psychoanalysis in Morocco, in a tiny, dusty book shop in Casablanca; the one occasion he heard Auden recite in person; the “life imitates art” occasion when a scene he wrote in an Isabel Dalhousie book essentially later happened in real life.
Of course there are quotes and some gentle advice and, because this is Alexander McCall Smith, there is humour. This book may spur the reader on to try some Auden; it may even reveal that they have, unwittingly, read some already; but just for the personal bits, this is a worthwhile read.
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.
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