AUDEN by Richard Davenport-Hines


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British critic and author Davenport-Hines (The MacMillans, not reviewed, etc.) brings very English gusto and insight to this biography of the poet. Igor Stravinsky observed of Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73), ""He is the dirtiest man I have ever liked."" The composer meant it literally: Auden lived in self-described ""squalor"" for most of his life, and as the often unrequited lover of various men and a few women. Paul Bowles, Auden's Brooklyn housemate in 1939, noted, ""He . . . does strange things like picking his nose and eating what he finds."" ""Normality,"" Auden once remarked, is ""the goddess of bossy underlings."" He never worshiped her. His latest biographer presents a complex portrait of a man who, though acclaimed early in life as one of the century's outstanding writers, seemed almost continuously distressed or disconcerted--politically, spiritually, and sexually. Habitual traveler and amphetamine addict, critic, essayist, playwright, librettist, and teacher, Auden confounded friends and readers with his erudition, his originality, and his propensity for dislocation and discomfort. Davenport-Hines is especially good at briskly characterizing the English-born poet's social and intellectual milieu in New York City, where he immigrated in 1939, offering wonderfully vivid glimpses of Auden's companion Chester Kallman (""He disliked all physical exercise except cruising, which developed his calf muscles"") and of Hannah Arendt, who declined the elderly Auden's proposal of marriage. His assessments of Auden's work are sophisticated and excessively headlong in thrust, pace, and conclusions: Anyone not recently steeped in Auden will bridle at this, as will some who have been. The book, in effect, prevents a placid understanding of a man whom perhaps nobody understood--an astringent but welcome service.

Pub Date: Feb. 19th, 1996
ISBN: 0679747850
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Pantheon