Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

"What W.H. Auden can do for you" by Alexander McCall Smith (Princeton University Press, 2013)

McCall Smith gives us his personal reaction to the works of W.H. Auden. The book "does not purport to be a work of criticism". Also "It is not a hagiography - it recognises that Auden has been taken to task for trying to be too clever, for using words for effect and without real regard to their meaning, and for being juvenile" (p.3) though I didn't note any of that recognition later.

McCall Smith gives us some anecdotes - e.g. when he read "thrushes" in an Auden piece it reminded him of the 3 small birds that might be thrushes in the background of a painting of Heaney. He thinks that poets know what they're doing, and likes things to be evoked in a ne'er so well expressed way, haunting and poignant. -

  • "But this, although interesting, does not change the fact that Auden himself knew what he meant when he wrote those lines and disowned that meaning - the fact that the lines can be given an innocent interpretation is neither here nor there" (p.52)
  • "lines that demonstrate Auden's consummate ability to create arresting imagery that proves unexpectedly difficult to interpret. We read the line and it seems so easy, so true" (p.63)
  • "the appreciation of sublime music or gazing upon a great painting can charge and inspire us somehow to be better than we currently are" (p.89)

The most interesting section was at the end where he writes about how people find meaning in life -

  • "Choice and responsibility are in fact two of the great themes in Auden's earlier work" (p.55)
  • "We should not see Auden's adoption of a Christian position as a retreat into the comfort of a sheltering creed" (p.128)
  • "His particular insight was that we need to be at home ... This insight was evident in the early Auden but became stronger and more clearly expressed with the passage of time ... His nightmare was an absence of belonging - the life of the anonymous city in which we are all strangers ... It is very difficult to protect ourselves from fast-food chains or standardized coffee bars" (p.134-5)
  • "By helping us to understand our choices, by illuminating our life and encouraging us to feel grateful for it, Auden assists the cause of freedom" (p.137)

If you're a McCall Smith fan, maybe this book's worth reading. It's short (though could still benefit from editing to remove repetition), and introduces general readers to a few of Auden's pieces.

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