Happy days

AUDEN by Richard Davenport-Hines, Heinemann pounds 20 WYSTAN AND CHESTE R: A Personal Memoir by Thekla Clark, Faber pounds 12.99
Click to follow
"BIOGRAPHIES of writers, whether by themselves or others, are always superfluous and usually in bad taste," wrote W H Auden. Even more dismaying for his biographer, he declared: "I object in principle to biographies of artists, since I do not believe that knowledge of their private lives sheds any significant light upon their works."

In his poem on Henry James, Auden noted that "there are many whose works/ Are in better taste than their lives", and the same might well be said of Auden, much of whose life was lived in a state of extraordinary disarray dominated by his addictions to fags and uppers, boys and booze, and lived out in a state of legendary personal untidiness. Yet the dominant note of Richard Davenport-Hines's new life of Auden is remarkably upbeat, like the "affirming flame" of the poet's own art ("let all your thinks be thanks"). An arresting mosaic of quotations rather than a subtle psychological or historical interpretation, this book is above all a celebration. It tells us little that is new about Auden - most of the facts are in Carpenter or Mendelson or other "shilling lives" and memoirs - and nothing new about his work - the most telling observations on the poems are culled from earlier critics - but nevertheless it creates a fresh and convincing all- round intellectual portrait of the greatest English poet of this century, warts and all.

Auden said that, like most important writers, T S Eliot was "not a single figure but a household". On the same lines, Auden's household was a spectacularly weird one, combining an outrageous Bohemian and bourgeois Stick-in-the-Mud, untidy Enfant Terrible and strict High Church vicar, camp Wit and grumpy Moralist, die-hard metrical traditionalist and confident contemporary inventor, English Edwardian gent and cosmopolitan man of letters, fanatical time-keeper and beslippered slouch, the Prospero and Caliban of his Sea and the Mirror.

What stands out in Hines's account is not the divide between early and late, English and Amer-ican, revolutionary and reactionary Audens that have dominated earlier pictures, but the driving intellectual and emotional passion that shaped an entire life committed to writing. "Unless I write something, anything, good, indifferent or trashy, every day, I feel ill," he said. "To me the only good reason for writing is to try to organise my scattered thoughts into a whole, to relate everything to everything else." In his art, Hines suggests, Auden managed to convert the existential disarray and intellectual conflicts of his life into a poetry that combines protean aesthetic playfulness and inquisitorial ethical passion. I think there's more strain and disarray in the art and more conflict in his life and thought than Hines acknowledges, but he documents the promiscuous eclecticism of Auden's appetites and momentarily manages to persuade us that it all hangs together in one harmonious household. That the outrageous poetic tyro and the Horatian grand master, the public school aesthete staring out of the early photos and the battered worldly rhino of the late pictures, are one and the same.

Hines's portrait of the artist, though loosely chronological, skips about essayistically, being more interested in doing justice to Auden's ideas of the moment (Auden always had ideas and to spare, usually begged, borrowed or stolen, then transformed into his own inimitable ex cathedra house- style) than to the bread-and-butter details of domicile, geography and chronology that are the staple of biographies. This is sometimes confusing, and you often don't know where the poet is while this is going on. A more ambitious study would place Auden, the self-confessed "minor transatlantic Goethe" within a more panoramic cultural history of the century which, after all, he recorded as no other modern poet has done; a more poetically attuned one would have generated more insight into the poet's astonishingly varied output in verse, drama, opera and prose. Yet this is the most attractive and approachable brief life of the poet to date, dominated, as it should be, by the poet's own voice, chattily idiosyncratic, reflective and seductive, converting the encyclopaedic complexities of his cultural experience into his own unmistakable idiom ("Consider this and in our time").

For a more intimate account of Auden and his lover Chester Kallman at home in Ischia or later in Kirchstetten, readers should turn to his close friend Thekla Clark's funny and moving memoir. "Auden was more open about his life than anyone else I have ever known," she writes, adding "Should one care to examine his writings one would find absolutely everything, including motives, in his life" (so much for the irrelevance of biography). Starting out as an elegiac gossip column about the couple's enviable Italian summers, her memoir develops into a remarkably revealing and affectionate double portrait of a troubled but enduring homosexual marriage ("any marriage, happy or unhappy, is more interesting than a love-affair", he told her).

Her brief memoir is a masterpiece of its kind, and makes more sense of Auden's abiding love for the charming, impossible Kallman than anything else I've read. She captures the gaiety as well as the sadness of their double-act, their grand campy tones ("I'm queerer than you." "Don't give yourself airs"), the absurdity of their domestic rituals, Auden's dinner- games ("purgatorial pairs", "Paradise or Eden"), his unique mix of moral seriousness and intellectual frivolity ("I'm a clown," he'd say) and his attractively heterodox incarnation of Christian orthodoxy. Above all it is a tribute, across the bleakness of his final prematurely senile years, to his capacity for friendship and happiness ("happiness is not a moral force, it's a duty," she quotes him as saying). I treasure two images in particular, both of which seem emblematic of the poet's gift: one of Auden every meal-time, bibbing and pontificating at table while seated child-like on a volume of the OED (his real bible, surely, and object of appetite) and another of him dancing and prancing to the grand march from Aida with Thekla and her four-year-old daughter Lisa, announcing: "This is grand opera and happiness."