Auden: An American Friendship
Glenn Gould: Variations
Balthus: Drawings and Watercolors
Have the experiences of living together been assembled; for example, the experiences in the monasteries?
—Nietzsche, The Gay Science
This book tells us more about its author than about W.H. Auden. To even the most trivial remarks of the poet, Mr. Miller gives his own reactions in full: “‘Aren’t the fireplaces handsome?’ Wystan enthused, and yes, I thought of the previous century when those fireplaces heated the generous rooms.” Noting that after a certain incident he never again heard Auden mispronounce the word “ate,” Mr. Miller feels it necessary to add: “Though he may have said it outside my hearing.” What did Wystan “get” from him? Mr. Miller asks at one point. And he answers himself: “My offbeat, ‘amiable anarchist’ wisdom, my ability (finally!) to laugh at life.” Lucky Wystan.
What did Charles get from Wystan? Not much in the way of literary inspiration. Abraham Lincoln is described as “that lanky New World Napoleon of emancipation.” On one page Mr. Miller recalls that “we stood in equinoctial sunlight,” and, on another, he refers to an “equinoctal [sic] afternoon”—apparently unaware that these occasions, unlike etesian days and nights, occur only twice a year. Unfortunate, too, are his attempts to spell out Auden’s accent, and the failure to mention the distinctive timbre, intensity, and tessitura of his voice. To this reviewer, in any case, Auden’s speech is not evoked by “deah me,” “I caaahn’t,” “nevah,” “veddy nice,” “nah-sty,” etc.
Miller and Auden met in Ann Arbor in January 1940, during the poet’s lecture-visit to the University of Michigan. In New York one day in the autumn of the same year, Miller attended Auden’s class at the New School and was introduced to Chester Kallman. Returning to Ann Arbor as a faculty member in September 1941, Auden invited Miller to become his cook and housemate, an arrangement that ended with the war, when Miller left to work on a farm. A further meeting took place while Auden was at Swarthmore (1942-1945), and in later years Miller frequently visited Auden in New York. Thus Miller was well placed to observe Auden throughout his American period. Yet the book is stronger on the squalor of his apartments than on the brilliance of their tenant, and the only comment about poetry that the author has chosen to repeat is not Auden’s but Robert Frost’s: “I’m often asked which tower belongs to that poem. But a poem is written about a feeling a poet has in him.”
Miller quotes Auden, “Freud points out, correctly, that a homosexual may be normal in every way, except the sexual…I am normal in most ways,” and this theme, “normal in every way except the sexual,” is repeated as if it were true. But surely Auden’s transcendent intellect cannot be described as “normal,” not to mention his cultural prejudices(“The French, my dear, are hardly white”) and eccentricities of behavior (going to dinner, getting out of the elevator on …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.