Saturday, December 1, 2007

Vin Audenaire

Another of my GCN book reviews, published in 1982 or early 1983. Turns out I was wrong about Chester Kallman's not rating his own biography: his friend and, later, stepmother Dorothy Farnan, published one in 1984. (I reviewed it and will eventually post that review here.) Thekla Clark's Wystan and Chester: A Personal Memoir of W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman (Faber and Faber, 1995; Columbia University Press, 1996) is a beautifully written tribute to both men.


W. H. Auden: a Biography
by Humphrey Carpenter
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981

During the week that I spent reading this book I carried it around with me, and I was surprised to discover how many of the college undergraduates I know had no idea W. H. Auden was; even those who had heard of him usually had never read any of his poetry. For the benefit, then, of those readers of this review to whom Auden is at best one more famous queer: during the 1930s Auden was a widely-read and influential poet, thanks largely to such poems on political subjects as “Spain 1937” and “September 1, 1939”. But many of his non-political lyrics also became famous, such as “Lullaby” (“Lay your sleeping head, my love”) and “Musée des Beaux Arts” (“About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters”). When he died in 1973, he was arguably the greatest living poet in English. By then he had renounced “political” poetry and made himself irrelevant from that point of view, but he had never been an activist anyhow. He had been at most a journalist, and for those pre-television days a media star: when he and Christopher Isherwood decided to remain in the United States during World War II, there was controversy in the Daily Mail and confusion in Parliament (for details see page 291 of Carpenter's book). At about the same time he re-embraced the Anglican Christianity of his childhood, and religion became the ideology he expounded in his verse. Later he collaborated with his husband, Chester Kallman, on opera libretti -- most notably The Rake's Progress for Igor Stravinsky.

Humphrey Carpenter's biography is the second major life of Auden to see print in the past few years (the other is Charles Osborne's W. H. Auden: the Life of a Poet, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979). Auden was one of those people like W. Somerset Maugham who attempt to obstruct biographers by requesting friends to burn their letters – a request which was, naturally, for the most part disregarded in Auden's case as in Maugham's. “He was also (he said) opposed in principle to the publication of, or quotation from, a writer's letters after his death, which he declared was just as dishonourable as reading someone's private correspondence while he was out of the room” (Carpenter, page xv). In practice, Auden (like Maugham) loved gossip and didn't mind reading the biographies and published letters of other writers. For that matter, Neville Coghill, who tutored Auden in English literature at Oxford, once “arrived at his rooms to find Auden already there, reading one of Coghill's letters” (54). Auden looked up and said, “Ah, you're here. Good. What have you done with the second page of this letter?” (Osborne, 40). Later on, “Auden's friends found their drawers being rifled for any letters suitable for inclusion” in a projected three-volume study of schoolboy and collegiate homosexuality (Carpenter, 78). While Carpenter's is not an authorized biography, he did have access to Auden's papers, and got interviews and other help from Auden's family. If this makes voyeurs of the biographer and his readers, we are after all only following in the Master's footsteps.

The subject of our voyeurism, of course, is Auden's homosexuality, which was an open secret during most of Auden's life and about which he cautiously became more open in later years. The details Carpenter supplies should satisfy all but the most jaded: Auden's technical preferences (fellatio -- a word Carpenter inexplicably insists on italicizing -- and occasional light s&m) and Chester Kallman's (Chester liked to be fucked, preferably by trade), Auden's insecurities about his looks and the size of his cock, and the age at which Auden was circumcised (seven). There is also copious information about Auden's loves, including the relationship with Chester, which Auden himself considered a marriage “with all its boredoms and rewards” (258), as well as Auden's forays into the mysterious twilight world between the sexes of heterosexuality. (Happily, Carpenter -- unlike some reviewers of his book in the straight press -- is not inclined to crow overmuch about these latter; even the affair with Rhoda Jaffe in the late 1940s, after all, was essentially a digression.) Jade that I am, I'm less interested in the nitty-gritty trivia than in the relationships, and Carpenter chronicles Auden's love life pretty thoroughly, starting with Auden's unrequited love for Robert Medley in 1922, without too much heterosexual condescension. If Osborne is less gingerly in his handling of Auden's sexuality, he is also less informative.

The mass of detail with which Carpenter presents us is probably necessary in order to depict Auden with all his contradictions. He was enormously fastidious about poetic technique and became more so as he got older, at the same time that his personal sloppiness increased to outrageousness: “You pee in the toilet?” he once asked a houseguest. “Everyone I know does it in the sink. It's a male's privilege,” and his brother John noticed while visiting that “the basin stank horribly” (408 and note to 409) in Auden's New York City apartment. He was convinced he was ugly and unlovable, yet pursued prospective loves tenaciously. He was ambivalent about his homosexuality: while he seems to have had no doubt of the value of his love for Chester, he was capable of writing a primly disapproving preface to Rae Dalven's translation of the poems of Constantine Cavafy. He went through one ideology after another -- John Layard's mystical psychology, D. H. Lawrence's Leader-worship, Marxism – before settling on Anglicanism, leaving behind him a trail of cigarette ashes and empty wine bottles, always with the apparent zeal of a true believer, but in reality mainly in search of jargon with which to stuff his poems. While he claimed to take the Church seriously, it was really no different except that its childhood associations reminded him of his mother, whom he adored. He was capable of travestying both in later life, saying of himself, “Your mother is the resurrection and the life. If she be lifted up, she will lift up all men unto her.”

Chester seems to have been no less complicated, though he never quite emerges from the shadows of Carpenter's book. This is a pity, for he was certainly important in Auden's life, but probably doesn't rate a biography of his own. A poet himself, he found it difficult being married to one of the greatest poets in the English language; of course he never managed to establish an independent reputation. Cyril Connolly once asked him: “How does it feel to be Alice B. Toklas to Gertrude Stein?” Auden raged: “I shan't rest until Cyril Connolly is either dead or in a lunatic asylum” (316). Unfortunately, Chester lacked Alice's self-possession and strength. When Auden died, he drank himself to death in a year and a half.

At my age (thirty-two) I'm no longer looking for gay father-figures or role models, yet I have to admit that in the end Auden disappoints me. The drinking, the slovenliness, the ambivalence about his gayness, the retreat into religion are all depressing. There are of course the poems -- a fat collected volume -- the essays, and the libretti; and I suppose they ought to be enough to counterbalance the frequent dreariness of his life. Auden himself thought so, and said in 1965 that his life had, “so far, been unusually happy” (455). And Carpenter closes his acknowledgements, and the book, by thanking “Auden himself for living a life that has ben such a pleasure to write about” (482). I mustn't forget that most lives have their share of dreariness, and that Auden lived (as we still all do) in a society that insisted that homosexuals were degenerates. Like so many of our gay Elder Statesmen, Auden managed not only to survive but to succeed, and he emerges from Carpenter's pages defiantly, often exuberantly, human.

(Photo of Auden from "the BBC News website" via The National Library Board of Singapore.)