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Vol. 30 No. 22 · 20 November 2008
Short Cuts

Voices from Beyond the Grave

Andrew O’Hagan

People say serious writing is akin to painting. Or music. They hardly ever say it’s like maths. Or quantity surveying. But the art form that literature most closely resembles is acting: the same fascination with character and ideas, the same obsession with voices and identities and silences. Dickens, we know, used to practise impersonating his characters in the confines of his study, mugging before the mirror in order to perfect the rascally sneer of Bill Sikes or the effeminate moue of Old Mr Turveydrop.

He was not alone in this, if you bear in mind the solo thespian flights of Bruce Chatwin. A woman in Italy with whom Chatwin used to stay remembers an afternoon when the maid came running downstairs, frightened half to death by the noises coming from Chatwin’s room. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said the experienced hostess. ‘Bruce is just doing his voices. He’s writing a book.’ But ever since Waterstone’s came up with the notion that prose writers should be expected to give regular public readings from their work, writers have been fully engaged with the question of how they sound in a public space. The time is long past when writers – pace Dickens – behaved as if the voice in their writing was a secret between the work and its readers. We don’t know what Henry James sounded like, and that is part of the mystery we enjoy. So much so that hearing the actual voices of dead writers can come as a shock.

The British Library has decided, most pleasingly, to begin trading in that kind of shock, with the issue of a bunch of recordings that show writers at their most talkative, often on occasions where they are least mediated by the sounds of their own inventions.* There are two compilations, one British, one American, and 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. He was right about that, about death not being the end. Last week in Liverpool I found myself broadcasting with a woman who wants to create a social networking website for the dead.

Despite Auden’s thing about memorable speech, a strong literary style bears the same relation to everyday conversation that Matisse bears to the demands of home decoration. That’s to say, they feel friendly to one another, but where they might share content they don’t share form. That is why 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.

In similar fashion, E.M. Forster’s voice makes him smaller. The problem is that he sounds like merely one thing, which is fine in general but it can make a novelist sound like a complete stranger to his facility. 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. Which just goes to show that broadcasting vices existed long before the days of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross. 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 and like more than one of their characters. Among the British contingent, none is more satisfying in this way than Noel Coward, who was caught at Heathrow in transit from his home in Jamaica to his home in Switzerland. It is 6 a.m. and you can hear in the background what a British transport arena used to sound like before the days of interminable announcements. 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. On the whole, the American CD is more satisfying because it gives you a collection of writers who seem to revel in the performance of themselves. 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, which is why he sounds beautiful but also completely unreal, like a figment of his own imagination.

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