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From the platitudinous to the witty: Alexander McCall Smith (right) and Nick Hornby

If books are an intimate conversation between author and reader, then getting through Alexander McCall Smith's What W.H. Auden Can Do For You is like being stuck at a dinner party with the worst kind of bore, while Nick Hornby's Stuff I've Been Reading is the friend you'd sit up talking to until 5am, even though the wine is long gone and the sky is getting light.

It's difficult to see who McCall Smith's book is aimed at. It's a self-acknowledged homage to Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, but whereas de Botton's witty and erudite book assumed that the reader knew little about the early 20th century French novelist, McCall Smith seems to assume that his reader knows almost nothing about anything at all. Why else would he continually make the most prosaic statements as if they were original observations?

Over the course of his meandering analysis of Auden's life and work we learn that "fascism was egregiously wicked" and "probably the greatest moral disaster" in Europe's history; traditional English boarding schools were an "emotionally crippling system designed to produce a stiff upper lip" and that "the shape of our life is often determined by external factors such as geography and the sheer accident of being born into a particular society and a particular time". On page after page, McCall Smith reveals the most startling gift for reducing any topic he touches into a series of leaden clichés. 

His forays into literary criticism are equally bewildering. He tells us that Auden had a "curious trait of personalising the inanimate" — the anthropomorphism, as old as literature itself, seems to have passed him by — and then illustrates this banal observation by noting that in one poem a stream shouts boyishly and "shouting boyishly is clearly a human thing to do". 

Thankfully, McCall Smith doesn't limit himself to solemnly stating the obvious; occasionally he provides some much needed variety by completely missing the point. He says he wishes that as a teenager someone had taken him "through a line-by-line exegesis of poems such as ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud'" before going on to criticise Auden for claiming that Freud "wasn't clever at all: he merely told / The unhappy Present to recite the Past". "The view that Freud was not clever is questionable; he was hardly dull," McCall Smith humourlessly observes. Perhaps it's not too late to take this 65-year-old novelist aside now and explain that this particular line is meant in jest.

He claims early on that What W.H. Auden Can Do For You is "not a hagiography", yet only canonisation in the literal rather than the literary sense could justify the bizarrely religious language that McCall Smith uses to describe the poet. Auden is held up as "a healer", a man who can "inspire us to be better than we currently are" and, much like the Son of God, someone "who might, if we allow him, really change our lives". Any sense of the actual Auden — brilliant, depressive, chain-smoking and contradictory — is lost in the evangelical praise. 

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