Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Voices from beyond the grave

Andrew O’Hagan in this month's issue of The London Review of Books looks at some compilations of recordings by writers issued by the British Library, one 3-CD set for 30 British writers and one for 27 Americans. He notes that hearing the actual voices of dead writers can come as a shock:

....The British one gets off to a startling beginning by bodying forth the ghostly voice of Arthur Conan Doyle, whom one expects to sound like Basil Rathbone. In actual fact he sounds like Gordon Brown. It’s somehow easy to forget that Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, and his voice, recorded in 1930, is here filled with lilting plangencies about the age of materialism and the fact that death is not the end.

The conversation of writers can often seem so unbearably silly in the light of our expectations. We think Virginia Woolf should sound like her style, but she doesn’t: in her British Library recording (the only one in existence), she sounds like a person imprisoned by her sensibility and her class as opposed to someone who floats somewhere above it. Woolf was recorded in 1937 and we listen for the sound of her prose and find instead a person fast in the grip of banality.

Some of the recordings take the form of interviews, and the presenters don’t make matters any easier; John Lehmann, for example, speaks to Aldous Huxley as if he were questioning him with a view to offering him something at the Foreign Office. None of the English writers on the British Library CD has a regional accent: Joe Orton doesn’t sound like a boy from Leicester, but like someone from RADA, which claimed only a few years of his life but all of his voice.

Thankfully, some of the writers do sound as we might wish them to: like their style or like one of their characters. Among the British contingent, none is more satisfying in this way than Noel Coward, who was caught at Heathrow. It is 6 a.m., but it is not too early in the morning for Coward to have a pop at both theatre critics and Angry Young Men. ‘Propaganda is death in the theatre,’ he says. But the viry viry wonderful Gertrude Lawrence is lovely.

Listening to these recordings, we learn that writing words and speaking them are distinct businesses. It’s not just about accent, but also about inflection, pace and the degrees of excitement or reticence that ground the talking. James Baldwin tells us he’s a blues singer but he sounds like Prince Charles. Raymond Chandler sounds like someone who had recently downed a quart of bourbon (he had) and Saul Bellow’s voice is nearly musical (in the way of an advertising jingle) with self-belief. Henry Miller sounds like a longshoreman ordering his breakfast.

But the overall prize goes to Nabokov, whose voice can be described as one might describe a mysterious and expensive perfume: it is limpid and exotic and crazy, with a definite touch of Ninotchka. Of all the writers on these CDs, he is the one who sounds most like his prose, beautiful but also completely unreal, like a figment of his own imagination.

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