Alexander McCall Smith on why W H Auden still matters

W H Auden, who died 40 years ago this month, is one of the most humane, loving, direct and affecting poets of all time, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

 
That unmistakable voice: grey, shambling and covered in ash, Auden the man found it was the effect of his words that mattered.
Photo: Jerry Cooke/Corbis
 
He wrote a poem in praise of limestone. He wrote a poem about Sigmund Freud. He wrote poems about cats and opera, about the minute organisms that live on human skin. He wrote an achingly beautiful love poem, a lullaby that stands among the gentlest and most forgiving poetry of the 20th century. Years after his death, when the World Trade Center towers were brought to the ground, traumatised New Yorkers faxed each other copies of a poem he had written for an earlier and greater crisis, “September 1, 1939”. They took comfort in his words even if many of those who received them must have had no idea who he was.
 
My own discovery of W H Auden came in the early 1970s, when I was living in Belfast and working at Queen’s University. I picked up an edition of his collected shorter poems – many of which are, in fact, rather long. It was done on impulse, as many of our personal literary discoveries are, but I immediately felt that the voice I heard in the poems was speaking directly to me. That may sound like solipsism, but it is just what a great poet often does: he or she is there in the room with you, at your elbow, addressing you in particular. You can hear the voice. For me, some of the attraction of Auden was the hint of the political in the backdrop to his earlier work; to read him in the midst of the Northern Irish Troubles seemed somehow right.
 
A few months later, when I was back in Edinburgh, Auden arrived to give a public reading in George Square. I was in the second row and watched as the great poet shambled in, flanked by committee members of the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse. He was a terrible mess: a shapeless grey suit, stained and covered, as far as I could work out, in cigarette ash, complemented by a pair of ancient carpet slippers and that face, famously lined with what he called its geological catastrophe. The same face has been described as looking like a wedding cake left out in the rain. But there he was, and he mounted the platform to read – or rather to recite, as he needed no notes. And at that moment there was an involuntary intake of breath from the audience. His flies were undone.
 
Not that it mattered. Auden’s words, particularly when we hear them delivered in that curious mid-Atlantic accent that he developed after he left England for the United States, have an electrifying beauty and, in the case of so much of his work, profundity. It is this combination of lyricism and intellectual depth that makes him, I think, the most engaging of 20th-century poets.
 
From that early encounter with his work, I developed an increasingly strong interest in his writing. I began to travel with a collection of his poems in my suitcase; lines of his verse came back to me at odd moments; I started, I suppose, to look at the world through what might be described as an Audenesque set of spectacles. I taught our daughter, then aged four, to recite his ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening”. She enjoyed it. We are all pushy parents in one way or another, and may as well admit it.
 
When I started to write novels set in Edinburgh, the characters in these books – unsurprisingly, perhaps – began to show an interest in Auden. In particular, Isabel Dalhousie, the central character in my Sunday Philosophy Club series, thought about Auden rather a lot – and quoted him, too. A couple of years after the first of these novels was published, I received a letter from his literary executor, Edward Mendelson, who is a professor of English at Columbia University in New York. Unlike those writers who appoint coevals to look after their work, with the result that their executors either predecease them or do not last much longer, Auden made the wise move of appointing a young man to watch over his literary legacy.
 
Mendelson was then a junior academic at Yale – and this gave him the opportunity to devote much of a long and distinguished career to producing commentary on Auden’s writing. It transpired that he was a reader of my Botswana novels and he wrote to me to tell me that, in his opinion, Auden and Mma Ramotswe would have agreed on practically every subject. However, what particularly pleased him, he said, was the attachment my other fictional characters had to the poet.
 
The letter led to a friendship. I then wrote Professor Mendelson into an Isabel Dalhousie novel, creating a scene in which he comes to Edinburgh to deliver a public lecture on the sense of neurotic guilt in Auden’s verse. A year later, we translated fiction into reality by bringing Mendelson to Edinburgh to deliver before a real audience the lecture that he had previously given to a group of fictional characters. Such is the interest in Auden that almost 400 people came to hear him speak.
 
That is not bad for a poet who died 40 years ago this month. What explains the continuing appeal of his work? The language he used probably goes some way towards it. Auden had an ear for the rhythmic possibilities of English – at one time or another he used virtually every metre available to a poet writing in English. It is the syllabic verse, though, that he consistently used for so many of his later poems that has the strongest and most consistent appeal. It appears effortless – rather like the steady flow of a clever lecture – but it is really very skilfully constructed and has an extraordinary capacity to resonate with the reader. Yes, we think. This is exactly how it is. This is true.
 
There is also an intense humanity about Auden’s poetry. He comes across as a man of great sympathy, kindness and understanding. He is forgiving; he knows that we are rather weak, frightened creatures, afraid of the dark, but we need not be frightened, he says, because we can create for ourselves the just city for which we yearn. In his earlier work, he believed that this could be done by political engagement. He travelled to wars, to Spain and to China, witnessing the unfolding tragedies of fascism and militaristic aggression. Later, though, he eschewed politics and became something of a Horatian poet, celebrating the importance of the local, the domestic, the personal domain of culture. In that sense, there are several different Audens and one can take one’s pick according to one’s mood and needs.
 
For me, his most affecting poems are those in which he is talking, in one way or another, about love, even if he may not use the word directly. “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” is about freedom and the ability to be ourselves, yet it is also about the corrosive and limiting effects of repression and hate. Even when he writes about water, as he does in the bucolic “Streams”, he ends up talking about how we all need something to cherish and love. That can be anything, he explains in another poem called “Heavy Date”. “When I was a child”, he writes in that poem, 
 
. . . I
Loved a pumping-engine,
Thought it every bit as
Beautiful as you. 
 
There may be a sexual joke here. It does not matter: the point is that we can love anybody and anything – what counts is that we open ourselves to love.
 
It may be that the love is not returned. Most of us have experienced unrequited love – a bitter pill to swallow. But Auden has advice there, too. If equal affection cannot be, he writes, let the more loving one be me. Like just about everything he wrote, that helps.
 
Alexander McCall Smith’s “What W H Auden Can Do For You” will be published by Princeton University Press on 22 September 

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution