Sunday, August 26, 2018

This she flushed down the toilet, thinking that she was improving the flat’s hygiene

From What W.H. Auden Can Do For You by Alexander McCall Smith.
My hosts were members of the English faculty, and one of them was married to a writer who told me an extraordinary story about Auden. We were in the car, traveling from the airport at which I had arrived, when, knowing of my admiration for Auden, he mentioned that as a teenager in New York he had met the poet. I asked him to tell the story.

He had written poetry, as some teenagers do, but, unlike most teenagers, he had decided to go to the top in seeking an opinion of his work. He wrote to Auden, enclosing some of his work, and Auden wrote back. That, in itself, was a fine thing: many such letters go off into an uncertain future and are never answered. This may be regrettable, but it is at least understandable: some public figures may be overwhelmed by correspondence and find it impossible to reply to all the letters they receive. They should not be judged too harshly for that, perhaps, but those who do reply should certainly be given moral credit.

Auden’s reply was encouraging, and the young man was emboldened to send further samples of his work. This led in due course to an invitation to call at Auden’s apartment to discuss the work. There was nothing untoward in this invitation, and the meeting consisted of a serious discussion of the poetry that the young man had been writing. But lunch was served amid great domestic squalor, and this gave rise to the story of the Audenesque chocolate pudding encountered by Vera Stravinsky. Mrs. Stravinsky, visiting Auden and Kallman for dinner, went into the bathroom and discovered on top of the cistern a bowl containing an awful brown mess. This she flushed down the toilet, thinking that she was improving the flat’s hygiene but only to discover that she had disposed of the chocolate pudding placed there to cool.

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