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WHAT W.H. AUDEN CAN DO FOR YOU by Alexander McCall Smith


by Alexander McCall Smith

Pub Date: Oct. 22nd, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-691-14473-3
Publisher: Princeton Univ.

A beloved author waxes poetic on an unlikely muse: the poet W.H. Auden.

Poetry probably isn’t the first word to come to mind when thinking about McCall Smith’s work. A lawyer by training (and the author of Botswana’s only published legal text), he is best known for his wildly popular commercial mystery series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. However, as he reveals in this slim, category-defying volume, Auden has had a profound impact not only on McCall Smith’s work, but his life as a whole. His succinct ode to the celebrated British poet is not a memoir, though he includes a few moments from his own life—e.g., how he discovered Auden as a student in Belfast and how he began to understand him reading Bucolics on the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. Nor is the book a biography, though there are some charming details about Auden’s life as well—one particular story about his atrocious housekeeping skills is impossible to forget. McCall Smith is adamant that the book should not be read as criticism, as Auden’s body of work has been analyzed in detail by countless literary scholars, though he spends much of the text taking readers (rather haphazardly) through some of the major themes of Auden’s poetry. If anything, though, the book could best be called an argument for Auden, a defense of his work, and a simple case for people to continue to pay attention to this particular writer. As McCall Smith writes early on, “I believe that reading the work of W.H. Auden may make a difference to one’s life.”

A lovely yet overstretched article or essay topic; there’s earnest enthusiasm aplenty but not enough else to support a full book.