...I feel confident in saying that readers will either get a huge kick out of Sansom's kooky, rambling, self-conscious and often inspired writing style, as I did — or they will loathe it ... September 1, 1939, the book, is a deeply informed and unapologetically digressive dive into Auden's life, as well as into the life of this singular poem. Along the way, we readers hear a good deal of nattering about Sansom's own life: how, for instance, his sister in Australia thinks he should buy a barbecue grill, or how he, unlike Auden, lasted only two weeks on a misbegotten pilgrimage to New York City. Sansom says of Auden, the poet, that he's 'a terrible fidget. It's what makes [his] poems entertaining, and infuriating.' Much the same can be said of Sansom, the fidgety critic ... In his own erratic and largely entertaining style, Sansom ruminates on what he calls the 'showing-off' structure and extraordinary language of Auden's poem ... Sansom is also refreshingly blunt about parts of the poem he thinks are weak, like the end, which he dismisses as 'twinkl[y]'.
[Sansome's] richly entertaining book explores what goes on in the poem and why it has had such an impact. Having spent the past 25 years failing to write a magnum opus on Auden, he opts for something quirkier: a jaunt round 99 lines of verse ... Not that he’s sluggish, but he can’t resist a detour; half the book is made up of parentheses ... Shandyesque and magpie-like, scholarly yet frolicsome, the book makes room for all manner of diverse material, to great effect. Not that Sansom would admit as much: he keeps telling us how boring and ordinary he is. But the self-abasement doesn’t convince. His book is distinctly above average.
Don’t expect conventional literary criticism or an exegesis of the poem’s historical and autobiographical underpinnings in this rambling, fitfully stimulating work. Structured as a stanza-by-stanza exploration, the text is in fact extremely scattershot; Sansom takes 100 pages to get through Auden’s first stanza, leaving 200 breathless pages for the next eight. Indeed, the text generally has a breathless, tossed-off air ... He certainly knows a lot about Auden, and there are flashes of genuine perceptiveness ... Knowledgeable and occasionally insightful but also undisciplined and self-indulgent.