Every reader feels a sense of achievement on completing a book, which is why short books please. The pleasure of achievement comes without the pain of labor, and if we feel that we have cheated slightly by having chosen the easy path we can console ourselves that shortness is not necessarily shallowness. Descartes’s Discourse on Method, for example, is a very short book.
Alexander McCall Smith’s book on W. H. Auden is very short and pretends neither to the status of biographical guide to the poet’s work, nor profound criticism of it. Rather it is the record of a personal response to it, made in the hope that this will encourage people either to go to the poet for the first time or return to him with renewed enthusiasm. McCall Smith is something of an evangelist on the poet’s behalf.
Some of the author’s reflections are indeed not very profound, indeed bland, and some of his digressions are not of the first or most obvious relevance, though a few of them are delightful. I particularly relished his account of the history of psychoanalysis in Morocco (where it never really caught on), so that the very few analysts are buried next to their equally scarce analysands. This is the kind of detail that sparks McCall Smith’s imagination and has made him popular with millions of readers.
His approach to the poet—and by extension, to all literature—is that of the common man, not that of the literary academic, especially the literary academic of our times who views his own theorizing about literature as more significant than the literature he is theorizing about. McCall Smith restores the link between poetry and life, a link that encourages us to linger and reflect on every line or couplet. He demonstrates that Auden was capable of compressing a great deal of thought allusively into a few words, and suggests a technique that we can then apply ourselves. Two lines from “Epitaph on a Tyrant” (a poem he does not quote) provoke reflections on our philosophy of life, whatever it might be: “Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after . . . / He knew human folly like the back of his hand.”
All sublunary perfections are necessarily perfections of a kind, of course; nothing and nobody is perfect in all possible respects or from every conceivable angle—moral, social, or even aesthetic. That is why My kingdom is not, and can never be, of this world (Auden, as is well known, made a conscious choice for Anglicanism), and why utopian schemes always end in disaster. The search for perfection distorts, and the search for absolute perfection distorts absolutely.
To know human folly like the back of your hand might sound like the beginning of wisdom, but in fact it is, or at any rate can be made to be, the root of all evil. The tyrant is manipulative; he uses his knowledge to shore himself up, to exploit weakness, to flatter, to deceive, and to disguise his real purposes. As the late Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko said (knowing human folly like the back of his hand), it takes two to be corrupt—and everyone has his price. Knowledge, then, is not an absolute good, its goodness or otherwise depending on the purposes to which it is to be put. And this means in turn that, for humans, the universe must be suffused with meaning, it cannot be regarded in its mere quiddity, in its brute factness.
Since this book is personal, McCall Smith offers an interpretation, rather than the interpretation (if such were possible) of Auden’s work. Very important for him is Auden’s later religious stage, in which the poet turned from criticism of the existent to thankfulness for it. Of all human attitudes to life, gratitude is one of the least prevalent today, certainly by comparison with propensity to complaint; it often seems as if the majority of our fellow beings are lone, lorn creeturs with whom everythink goes contrairy.
The author says that reading Auden influenced him profoundly, so perhaps Auden also influenced (at least by proxy, if not directly) his most famous creation, Mma Ramotswe, the Botswanan lady of traditional build who owns the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gabarone, Botswana, Africa. Mma Ramotswe repeatedly thanks her good fortune for being born who, where, and when she was—an attitude of mind very far removed from that of people in the developed West who, though in many respects the most privileged or fortunate people who ever walked the earth, believe complaint to be not merely justified but almost a duty. Mma Ramotswe, like the later Auden, does not take things for granted, and is thankful for the small pleasures of life. Not perhaps coincidentally, we see in the Botswanan society in which Mma Ramotswe lives a society not indeed perfect (a perfect society would not need a private detective agency) but one which is in many respects more attractive than our own, for example in its dignified but not excessive ceremoniousness, in which people seem to have the time for one another and do not mistake looking at plasma screens for human contact.
It is possible to criticize, or at least question, some of McCall Smith’s historical references and judgments. He mentions the man from Porlock as if he were the real cause of Coleridge’s failure to complete “Kubla Khan,” rather than a self-exculpatory creation of the mythomaniac Coleridge himself. And in his discussion of Auden’s brief flirtation with Communism, he makes the common mistake of excusing it on the grounds that the horrors of Soviet Communism were not yet known. On the contrary, they were known, almost to the dotting of the i’s and the crossing of the t’s, at the very time they happened; intellectuals merely chose not to believe what they knew to be the case, that’s all, and one might suspect them of attraction to the Soviet Union not in spite of the brutality but because of it. In the 1930s, after all, the brutality of fascism (the supposed cause of attraction to Communism) was still mostly in the future, potential and implicit rather than achieved, as it was in the Soviet Union. And in discussing Orwell’s criticism of the famous, or infamous, line in Auden’s poem, Spain, about the necessary murder, he omits to mention that Orwell himself for a time believed in the necessary murder.
But these are merely cavils. The main point about this little book is that it will attract readers to Auden, and furthermore suggest what is now almost a subversive idea, at least among intellectuals, that literature is not primarily the fodder for unreadable treatises and suety theories, but a way of finding or deepening the meaning of our lives.