Between the covers: Forewords and Afterwords – W.H. Auden

Forewords and Afterwords by W.H. Auden

A collection of essays about literature, Forewords and Afterwords is a nice collection of reviews, forewords and such but it suffers from a lack of context, not to mention age.

Today, Auden’s remembered mostly as a poet (when he’s remembered at all, anyway), but during his lifetime he was a voluminous writer and lecturer. He translated, wrote librettos and taught at universities on both sides of the Atlantic. And he wrote a lot for the trades, too.

These are generally what comprises Forewords and Afterwords. It’s generally taken from the last decade of Auden’s life, when he wrote short book reviews for slicks like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and elsewhere. In these, he generally lays down his ideas on prose, what a biographer should include (or ignore) and the perils of translation.

Some of his ideas are interesting, if a bit odd. He doesn’t just think writers should have biographies written about them, he suggests most writers would gladly publish anonymously to stay out of the spotlight. Likewise, he draws a thick line between private and public life and what a biographer should cover.

For example, Auden writes that Charles Dickens’ disastrous marriage doesn’t offer any light on his novels, so why should it be reported. Elsewhere, he says reading correspondence between people after their death is no better than sneaking a peek at their letters when they’re out of the room. I wonder what he made of James Joyce’s infamous love letters, let alone their publication.

Of course, he has no problem bending his own rules when it comes to a book he likes, like a biography of Alexander Pope. One wonders if his own messy private life –  Auden was openly gay but proposed marriage to several women, notably Hannah Arendt – is simply why he holds this opinion. He certainly didn’t like his dirty poems getting published!

Elsewhere, he betrays an attitude that’s either intentionally cantankerous or just reflective of snobby taste. When reviewing Lincoln Kerstein’s long-forgotten book of poetry Rhymes of a PFC, he calls it the best book he’s read about World War II, slighting books like Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line and more.

Still, at times, he writes with force, particularly on religious matters. I especially liked his line when reviewing a science book through his devout Episcopalian beliefs:

“If… it is a statistical impossibility that I should be walking the Earth instead of a million other people, I can only think of it as a miracle I must do my best to deserve.”

The forewords collected in this book are also interesting snapshots of their time they were written: his take on Shakespeare’s sonnets is wildly different than other writers: not only is he uninterested in their subject and circumstances, he casually dismisses several of them:

“Going through the hundred and fifty-four of them, I can find forty-nine which seem to me excellent throughout, a good number of the rest have one or two memorable lines but there are also several which I can only read out of a sense of duty.”

Of course, he makes the interesting observation of their publication: did Shakespeare intend for them to be made public? And if not, was publishing them after his death tantamount to betraying his privacy? It’s an interesting take on someone who’s writing an introduction to a collection of them. And questions Auden poses again and again.

I suppose the great flaw of a collection like this also works as one of it’s virtues: by this time, so many of these books have fallen out of print and into obscurity that reading about them has the duel effect of spotlighting something impossible to find.

Another example: he praises a collection of writing by Russian author Konstantin Leontiev called Against the Current. The book he praises is long out of print and goes for a pretty penny on sites like Amazon. And Leontiev himself has fallen basically into the abyss; I don’t think any collection of his writing is in print at all. Reading about Leontiev raises his profile a bit, but it’s also like reading about music you can’t hear or a painting you can’t see: you’re trusting the critic to portray something you’ll likely never encounter. And, as shown above, Auden was somewhat problematic in his opinions, so that trust is only grudgingly given – if at all.

Despite his contrariness and desire for privacy, some of the books most interesting passages come when he interjects his own life into his reviews, comparing his upbringing to that of Evelyn Waugh, outlining his family history or the importance of reading Greek in prep school. He never would’ve written an autobiography – even when he writes of himself, it’s hard not to feel a shade being drawn over his past – but when he shows a little of himself, his reviews shine.

In all, a bit of a mixed bag: some of the introductions and reviews are interesting, especially if you’re familiar with the books or authors involved. He certainly convinced me to look more into Goethe and Henry Mayhew’s books. But elsewhere, the reviews lack interest to someone in 2015. After all, it’s hard to convince anyone to read a book these days; it’s harder still to convince them on something published nearly 40 years ago.

Rating: 5/10. Interesting to literary snobs and Auden fans. And occasionally, his prose shines – and makes me curious in reading The Dyer’s Hand, not to mention any other collection of his as-yet uncollected nonfiction – but not enough for me to recommend.




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