Thursday, November 13, 2008

Figments of the auditory imagination

At the LRB, Andrew O'Hagan muses on the recordings of authorial voices recently released by the British Library:
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.

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