In 1951, Thekla Clark, a 24-year-old American from Oklahoma, sailed to Italy. On the island of Ischia in the bay of Naples, a family friend (the young poet Anthony Hecht) introduced her into a small circle of expatriates, at whose center were W.H. Auden and his companion, the librettist Chester Kallman. Clark became close friends with both men, and "The Visit," as she called it, became an annual summer ritual, first on Ischia and, after 1957, at Auden's house in Kirchstetten, Austria. Recounting particular incidents scattered over more than two decades, Clark casts light on the private lives of these two men as distinct individuals and as a couple. She describes Auden as a disciplined writer, passionate conversationalist and devoted friend who believed that "happiness, like grief, should be private" and who rejected Yeats's dictum that one must chose either "perfection of the life or of the work" with the remark that "perfection is possible in neither." While accepting his homosexuality, he nonetheless professed that homosexuality was wrong. Kallman comes across as a more unbuttoned character, an emotional man of much charm and considerable talent who was undone by his private demons. Clark writes frankly about Auden and Kallman's "extracurricular" affairs, their reliance on alcohol and Kallman's disintegration, but is never titillating or judgmental. Bringing considerable insight to bear on critical debate over the trajectory of Auden's career while defending Kallman's own creative work, this memoir is rich in personal vignettes. By turns humorous, ironic and poignant, Wystan and Chester is a valuable supplement to Humphrey Carpenter's 1982 Auden biography. Photos. (Sept.)
[Clark's] portraits of both Auden and Kallman are truer, and, in a seemingly offhand manner, as penetrating as any of those by . . . other memoirist friends. . . . She perfectly catches the nuances and intonations of [their] voices, simply . . . by quoting them believably. . . .Contributes richly to Auden folklore.
Auden is almost always included in the pantheon of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century, so almost anything written about him by those close to him is of interest to literary biographers and critics. The focus here is on the relationship between Auden and his friend, lover, and collaborator, Chester Kallman. The earlier Auden in Love by Kallman's stepmother is similar in the story it tells and in its disinterest in the poetry per se. What these books share is a thoughtful commentary on an intriguing romance of over 30 years. Clark's longtime friendship with both of them, which also lasted over 30 years, provides what one would expect‘charming anecdotes, good characterizations, and affectionate memories. More than in most memoirs of literary figures, it gives a sense of the personalities and the affection between them. The immediacy of Clark's writing draws the reader into the circle even as it shows what a special group it was. Recommended for all collections concerned with 20th-century literature.‘David S. Azzolina, Univ. of Pennsylvania Libs., Philadelphia