Uncle Wiz

Stefan Collini

  • Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Vol. V: 1963-68 edited by Edward Mendelson
    Princeton, 561 pp, £44.95, June 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 15171 7
  • Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Vol. VI: 1969-73 edited by Edward Mendelson
    Princeton, 790 pp, £44.95, June 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 15171 7

Auden loved aphorisms, extracts, notes, lists. It was not just the shortness of short forms that he approved of: he liked their refusal of system even more, their acknowledgment that fragmentariness can only ever be papered over, never wholly subsumed. The nearest he came to publishing an autobiography, which was not very near at all, was A Certain World (1970), a commonplace book made up of his favourite quotations, arranged alphabetically under rough and ready, almost arbitrary headings, with only occasional passages of explanation or commentary. Similarly, his editing (with Louis Kronenberger) of A Book of Aphorisms (1962) expressed a collector’s delight in showing off his treasures.

In the foreword to what is generally regarded as his best critical work, The Dyer’s Hand, published in 1962, he articulated a similar preference about literary criticism: ‘In going over my critical pieces, I have reduced them, when possible, to sets of notes because, as a reader, I prefer a critic’s notebooks to his treatises.’ This presents the choice in somewhat extreme terms – most connected prose written by critics has not been in the form of either notebooks or treatises – but it pointed to a marked feature of Auden’s practice. He placed little value on continuity in a prose composition: his own paragraphs are often a series of fresh starts, oblivious to the existence of their immediate predecessors. Those grace notes that most writers use to ferry the reader’s expectations over from shore to shore bored him or seemed inauthentic. He made much of the quality he called ‘good sense’ in many of his favourite writers, the measured acceptance of the actual that became almost the signature of his own later poetry; a frank acknowledgment of the scattered incompleteness of experience constituted, for him, an important test of a writer’s humility before the sheer solidity of the empirical.

This anthologising impulse made for a distinctive reviewing style. He could, when he chose, be conscientious enough about giving a report on a book’s contents, but increasingly he just picked out the plums. This gave many of his long reviews the character of scrapbooks, compilations of greatest hits loosely tied together with obiter dicta. In writing about Edgar Johnson’s Life of Walter Scott, for instance, in the New Yorker in 1971, he assembled a sequence of favoured exhibits. ‘Idiosyncrasies are always endearing, and Scott was not without them’; examples follow. Then, further down the same page: ‘The working habits of a writer are always interesting, at least to other writers. Like most serious and prolific writers – Balzac and Proust are exceptions – Scott worked by day, not by night,’ and more in that vein. Having mentioned, in passing, Scott’s role in orchestrating George IV’s visit to Edinburgh, he went on chattily: ‘About the Royal Visit Professor Johnson has an amusing anecdote to relate’; the anecdote is quoted at length. And then, as so often, just as he seems to be launching into another aspect of his topic, he abruptly ends. Sometimes one can’t help wondering whether he simply broke off, having reached the appointed length, much as he would abruptly leave a dinner as the clock struck ten (9.30 later in life), merely announcing that he liked to go to bed early.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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