Book review: What WH Auden Can Do For You

Alexander McCall Smith. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Alexander McCall Smith. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Alexander McCall Smith celebrates the life of WH Auden, whose work creeps into his fiction

What WH Auden Can Do For You

Alexander McCall Smith

Princeton University Press, 137pp, £13.95

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

Alexander McCall Smith

Little Brown, 249pp, £16.99

Alexander McCall Smith is diverse, particular and prolific, best known to his readers for The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series featuring Mma Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s answer to Miss Marple.

Rotund of contour, she is an essence, as well as a character, held affectionately one feels in the steady gaze of her creator who has imbued her with steely decency, uncommon shrewdness and a willingness to see in her fellow sinners the possibilities of goodness.

Mma Ramotswe is pre-eminent in “the bright circle of (McCall Smith’s) recognition” – a phrase originally attributed by the poet WH Auden to Sigmund Freud. McCall Smith’s devotion to Auden’s work has long been known to readers of his Isabel Dalhousie novels in which the moral philosopher, Dalhousie, sometimes invokes or quotes the poet in her pondering of a dilemma.

But it is to Ramotswe that Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, referred when in a letter to McCall Smith he pointed out that in his view WHAuden and Mma Ramotswe would have agreed about almost everything. By inference, such accord would extend to a kindredness between Auden and McCall Smith.

The extraordinary influence of the 20th century poet on the latterday best-selling novelist is set out in What WH Auden Can Do For You, McCall Smith’s testimony to the poet’s far-reaching effect. Part of the Princeton University Press’s series, Writers on Writers, McCall Smith’s brief but intense account bears personal witness, yet it also measures Auden’s poetry and importance with the scruple and integrity which readers of his most popular books have instinctively come to trust.

From the outset McCall Smith tells us: “This small book does not purport to be a work of criticism. It does not claim to shed new light on a body of work… It is an attempt to share an enthusiasm with others… It is not a hagiography…” If there is zealousness at all here, it is tempered by an intellect which critically appraises as well as appreciates Auden’s value – the metrical wizardry, Auden’s ear for a rhythmic English which disguised itself as conversational speech, so that the poet seems virtually present at one’s elbow when you read him.

McCall Smith imbibes him, recites him, evokes him, carrying with him when he travels a copy of Auden in his luggage. He recalls discovering Auden – in The Collected Shorter Poems – in the Queen’s University library in Belfast in 1973, the city then “a northern Beirut… In such an air of crisis Auden’s 1930s poetry seemed utterly apt, with its sense of things about to go wrong…” He remembers Auden reading in Edinburgh, the poet with his flies undone, reciting the work from memory.

The work, of course, and its special worth – “He helps us to have spiritual purpose and to love” – “He reminds us of community, and of how our life may be given meaning through everyday things” – is at the core of McCall Smith’s suggestion as to what Auden can do for us.

McCall Smith’s brief journey into Auden’s poetic domain is succinctly paralleled by the journeys of Auden himself, geographical, intellectual and spiritual rites of passage undertaken from Berlin (and Spain’s civil war) during the turbulent 1930s, to Iceland, Austria, Italy, Greece and the US where, in New York City, Auden produced a substantial part of his most mature work.

Therein we find the content of Auden’s character, and the source of his compound appeal. McCall Smith draws on a number of Auden’s significant poems – September 1, 1939, In Memory of WB Yeats’ and A Summer Night among them – in elucidating the phases of Auden’s life, the poet’s dreams and occasional visions, his trust in love.

The book is written in the voice we have come to know from McCall Smith’s fiction: calm, reassuring, able to disentangle complicated ideas and emotions and to express them in ways we recognise and understand as our own. To those with a passing interest in Auden it will provide affirming delight.

In his latest love letter to Botswana – the 14th instalment in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series – McCall Smith, as ever, presents his detectives, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, with snaking riddles to unravel, and in this case with snakes themselves in Makutsi’s bedroom.

The official cases involve the unmasking of the culprit of a smear campaign to shut down a brand new beauty salon, in tandem with the even more delicate challenge of checking out the bona fides of the beneficiary of a will, who may in fact be an impostor.

Essentially, these investigations are pretexts. The understanding of human nature, based on empathy, which Ramotswe brings to her task, is the real concern, a focused version of the belief, (the credo of all the novels), that, though we are flawed, we have all within us a better self.

It is thus no surprise when Ramotswe’s husband, Mr JLB Matekoni, secretly enrols on the Modern Husband course, nor that Charlie, Matekoni’s garage mechanic, becomes transformed from macho chauvinist into a drooling would-be father by the sight of Mma Makutsi’s new-born boy.

Growing old is also a joy. “Many people improve as they grow older,” says the owner of the beauty salon. Ramotswe nods assent. Doubtless Auden would have agreed. Oh, and readers are vouchsafed that redbush tea improves the skin, a freebie beauty tip given too late alas for Auden whose skin was ripe for severe improvement, unlike his work, which perhaps will one day fall into the hands of Mma Ramotswe. Might it ever happen? Just one man knows.