Voices from Literature’s Past

The British Library’s Spoken Word albums of recordings by British and American writers shed new light on the authors’ work

John Steinbeck
In the Spoken Word recording, John Steinbeck recounts how he came up with the idea for The Grapes of Wrath. Bettmann / Corbis

What we call a writer’s voice exists mostly in a reader’s imagination, called forth by a printed page. The audio series “The Spoken Word” offers reality checks in the form of historic literary recordings and radio broadcasts (most from the BBC) drawn from the Sound Archive of the British Library. Past CDs and albums from the Library have brought to life literary lions such as Edith Sitwell, H.G. Wells, Ted Hughes and W.H. Auden. But for many listeners, the pair of new samplers, British Writers and American Writers, will be the incontestable jewel in the crown, presenting a total of nearly 60 writers recorded between the 1930s and the 1980s. Whether one knows their work (or even their names) or not, all prove to be worth hearing from. (The sets—3 CDs each, $35 per set—are distributed in the United States by the University of Chicago Press, www.press.uchicago.edu.)

“Look here,” Gertrude Stein begins briskly, on the opening track of American Writers, when an anonymous interviewer suggests that her libretto for the opera Four Saints in Three Acts is beyond comprehension, “being intelligible is not what it seems….Everybody has their own English and it is only a matter of anybody getting used to an English, anybody’s English, and then it’s all right….You mean by understanding that you can talk about it in the way that you have a habit of talking, putting it in other words, but I mean by understanding, enjoyment. If you enjoy it, you understand it, and lots of people have enjoyed it, so lots of people have understood it.” Whew!

The Stein interview aired in 1934, and this excerpt—3 minutes and 24 seconds—is all that survives. The British Library’s Richard Fairman, who produced the series, almost rejected it because of the wretched sound quality, but luckily reconsidered. “It captures Stein speaking off the cuff, and I thought it was astounding—not just fun but important,” he says. “It tells me something I didn’t know. She spoke like a poem, and indeed Vladimir Nabokov talks like a book. It’s quite extraordinary.”

Nabokov’s subject is the “pleasure and agony,” he says, of composing a book in his mind versus the “harrowing irritation” of “struggling with his tools and viscera” in the act of writing; the self-mockery in his delivery (if that’s what it is) exactly suits the pomposity of what he has to say. Arthur Conan Doyle, two months before his death, makes his case for spiritualism in the same clearly projected, expository tones he uses to describe the creation of Sherlock Holmes. Virginia Woolf, her voice low-pitched and strangely sexless, speaks of the “echoes, memories, associations” that attach to English words. Coolly analytical, Graham Greene reminisces about youthful games of Russian roulette.

As packages, both British Writers and American Writers are inevitably, and in the best sense, a miscellanea. One or two writers are heard reading from their own work. A few read from texts that they have specially prepared. Reflecting general trends in broadcasting, the bulk of the material comes from conversations and interviews. Writers, for the purposes of these collections, means novelists, playwrights, essayists and the like—but not poets, whose broadcasts are almost always given over to recitation. “There are few recordings of poets talking,” says Fairman, who is currently preparing the future companion volumes British Poets and American Poets, “and there are few recordings of writers other than poets reading from their own works.”

Selections max out at about 12 minutes, which in many cases was no problem. The Conan Doyle and Woolf segments—the only known recordings of their voices—are much shorter and were included in their entirety. So is the segment of Noel Coward quipping away at six in the morning at Heathrow airport. But some of the original interviews ran an hour or more. In those cases, Fairman presents a single, coherent excerpt, without splices. Finding the right segment was often a challenge. Sometimes it happens that a track ends abruptly, on the cusp of a new thought. With Arthur Miller, though, Fairman was in luck: a continuous section dealt with his two most famous plays—Death of a Salesman and The Crucible—and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, all in 12 minutes and 18 seconds.

Within each set, the writers are presented in order of birth. No attempt was made to fabricate thematic arcs, yet such arcs emerge. Many of the British writers say they became writers because they couldn’t do anything else. (Evelyn Waugh wanted to be a painter.) Many speculate wistfully, and none too hopefully, about the reputations they will enjoy once they are gone. (W. Somerset Maugham hopes a play or two may survive.) J. R. R. Tolkien is asked whether he expects to be better remembered for his philology or The Lord of the Rings.

The Americans often startle you with their social, political and ethical convictions. In princely phrases, James Baldwin addresses incendiary racial issues, led on by a questioner audibly squirming with discomfort. Lillian Hellman, her voice all whisky and gravel, begins with a reading of her famous statement to the House Un-American Activities Committee (“I cannot and will not cut my conscience to this year’s fashions,”) but is then left by her virtually silent interviewer to explore deeper, more personal issues. Pearl Buck quietly lays out the plight of “a group of new people born into the world”—the children born to American servicemen stationed to seven Asian countries and local women. Such children had no standing in the eyes of the laws of either parent’s country. She says that as an American, she is ashamed of this state of affairs. If you want to know what integrity sounds like, this is it.

“A lot of the Americans have that quality,” Fairman says. “They wanted to write because there was something in the world they wanted to change. They have a real motivation. The British writers don’t have that by and large. I’ve heard the material in these albums many, many times in the process of putting them together, and I still find more in the Americans to enjoy every time I play the segments. I have a special passion for Eudora Welty, who sounds like the most warm-hearted person in the world.”

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