Fury over Auden's role in 'distorting' UN chief's memoirs

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A feud has erupted in New York and Stockholm over the literary legacy of the former UN secretary general Dag Hammars-kjold, whose posthumous memoirs were translated and, allegedly, wilfully distorted by W H Auden.

The United Nations is preparing to celebrate the centenary of the Swedish diplomat, one of its most mourned and venerated heroes, who died in a plane crash in 1961. But scholars are calling into question the integrity of the highly contemplative - and ultimately bestselling - journal translated by the English poet, entitled Markings.

According to critics, the English version is full of Auden in-jokes, private references intended to be understood by friends, and even allusions to the poet's pain at a failed love affair. One of the most vociferous scholars, a former Swedish diplomat, has accused Auden of having committed a "crime" in producing such a cavalier translation.

Compiled from a type-written manuscript found in a bedside drawer in his New York apartment after his death, Markings was published in Swedish and then in English, but only after the US publisher demanded that its translation be overseen by a figure with a famous name.

The person was Auden, by then a naturalised American. What emerged was a work that sold out almost in a day. "The noblest disclosure of spiritual struggle and triumph," raved one critic. "Perhaps the greatest testament of personal devotion published this century".

But the claim today is that Auden abused the trust given to him, by corrupting the musings and philosophies haphazardly expressed by Hammarskjold - sometimes through collected notes and even occasional haiku verses - with his own religious beliefs, romantic hang-ups and prejudices. It appears that the poet even injected some of his sorrow after being abandoned by his long-time lover, Chester Kallman.

Stoking the row is a former Swedish diplomat and scholar, Kai Falkman. He contends that Auden took large liberties with the text, even changing the title. The Vagmarken of the author should have been rendered in English as Waymarks.

"This behaviour seems to me to be a kind of crime," Mr Falkman raged in The New York Times. "What do copyright lawyers say about deliberate falsifications of serious texts?"

Aside from the skewing of some of Hammarskjold's musings, Auden also took it upon himself to write a preface (which was never required of him). In it he questioned the author's own premise that the journal was "a sort of White Book concerning my negotiations with myself - and with God," that amounted to his "only true profile". Auden posited: "No man can draw his own 'profile'."

"I don't know why he did that," noted Sir Brian Urquhart, a former under-secretary general of the UN, speaking to The Independent yesterday. It was Sir Brian who first found the manuscript and, over a dinner party at his own apartment, subsequently recruited Auden, his friend, to work on the project.

"He added this preface, which, I must say, was pretty pretentious and tendentious and I know it annoyed many Swedes at that time," Sir Brian reflected.

"Auden at this stage was getting quite old and was a wilful figure. And he was in a terrible state about Kallman and I think that did creep into the text." It was shortly after Kallman had ditched Auden and taken up residence a continent away in Athens. This may help to explain why Auden altered ruminations of Hammarskjold on the bonds of "friendship" and wrote instead about the pain of lost "love". He wrote: "Perhaps a great love is never reciprocated and I only understood much later that his words had hurt so much because my love had still a long way to go".

Other scholars of Auden have long speculated that this was a not-so-subtle jest by the poet aimed at his friends. He was prone to "embed highly subjective, clandestinely self-revelatory comments" in his writings, the Auden biographer Richard Davenport-Hines suggested to The New York Times, "both to clarify his own mind and for the in-joke edification of his friends."