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.
"A joy, start to finish."—Philadelphia Inquirer
"The book comes alive when Smith connects his own moral and intellectual growth to his appreciation of the poet. . . . Anyone interested in the intellectual underpinnings of Smith's warm and humane novels should read this book."—Regina Marler, New York Times Book Review
"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. . . . 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."—Anne Kingston, Maclean's
"Poets need readers who aren't poets, and it is delightful to see an established novelist answer the call."—Lachlan MacKinnon, Times Literary Supplement
"What W. H. Auden Can Do for You is a graceful and personal response of gratitude for Auden, celebrating the resonance, reverence, and rebellion of the man who believed 'truth is catholic, but the search for it is protestant.'"—Mark Oakley, Church Times
"McCall Smith restores the link between poetry and life."—Anthony Daniels, New Criterion
"Charming."—Fiona Sampson, New Humanist
"An appreciation of the poet that should appeal even to those only familiar with his work via Four Weddings and a Funeral."—Eugenia Williamson, Boston Globe
"Maybe 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
"A wonderful work."—Vinton Rafe McCabe, New York Journal of Books
"Of all the volumes I've read about [Auden], and all the tributes paid, the most remarkable and in a sense the most lovable is a highly personal, 137-page book by Alexander McCall Smith, What W. H. Auden Can Do For You."—Robert Fulford, National Post
"[A] charming, insightful, personal look at one of the 20th century's great poets."—Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times
"Not only does What W. H. Auden Can Do for You express Smith's deep admiration of Auden's poetry, but his paean to the messy maestro also makes for a charming, honest look at Auden's failings. . . . Still, Smith's passion for the poet cannot help but inspire us. . . . [He] wisely counsels us to turn to the poems themselves to assess how much light they shed on our lives and loves. We won't be disappointed. For as Isabel Dalhousie knows so well, reading poetry may put us on the right track, after all."—Arlice Davenport, Wichita Eagle
"Novelist Alexander McCall Smith has written a short, personal book about another abiding poet: Wystan Hugh Auden, dead these 40 years. . . . McCall Smith feels enormous gratitude to Auden, and he is a keen proselytiser for poetry: its unique force and moral necessity. . . . With poems like Lullaby and Musée des Beaux Arts, Auden transcended his obscure vocabulary and arcane interests to become that rarest of creatures, a necessary poet—the creator of works that people chant to themselves on beaches and read to the bereaved or the newly married. Again and again we return to this strange, weathered scholar poet because he helps us to live."—Peter Rose, Sydney Morning Herald
"For some people The Art of War is a touchstone. A guide to living and to life. For others it is Tao Te Ching or even The Tao of Pooh. In his latest book, number one detective Alexander McCall Smith has an admission to make: his own personal touchstone is Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden. . . . If you are a fan of Auden's work, this is a must-read."—Jones Atwater, January Magazine
"Alexander McCall Smith's voice in this splendid book is instantly recognizable as the calm, sympathetic, psychologically shrewd, and morally generous one that narrates his novels. This is not only a convincing account of W. H. Auden's poetry and life. It is also a self-portrait of McCall Smith himself and a testimony to the wisdom and courage he has found in Auden's poems. This is a valuable and memorable book."—Edward Mendelson, author of Early Auden and Later Auden
"The attraction of this charming book lies in its author as much as its subject. It will appeal both to readers interested in the novelist Alexander McCall Smith and to anyone who wants an introduction to the poet W. H. Auden. McCall Smith gives a vivid portrait of his personal encounters with Auden's poetry and, in the process, illuminates some of its key themes and traits."—Alan Jacobs, author of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction