When authors read from their own works, all sorts of magic can happen

September 24, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Books on tape and the growing market for them brought the matter of writers' voices to mind recently. If there is virtue in reading aloud, certainly there is importance in hearing how authors read their own work: sense of purpose, attitudes, irony, levels of intensity, an entire spectrum of meaning that the mute page can only suggest.

There are, of course, lots and lots of live authors reading aloud in places from bookshops to political demonstrations. But what about the past?

Serendipitously, there fell into my hands an arresting example of authors' voices. It is a three-CD set, "Writers and Poets," put out by EMI Records Ltd. in 1994. Produced in England, it is marketed only in the United Kingdom. EMI's American marketing branch apparently believes that Americans are simply too primitive of mind to want such richnesses.

This set contains snippets that range from Leo Tolstoy in 1909 to Sir Stephen Spender in 1949. The Tolstoy bit was a sort of promotional trick that he did in Russian, French and German as well as English, and is a pompous and rather silly passage of earnestness, of which some is indecipherable after five listenings. By the time of the post-World War II recordings, both technology and sound editing - from the lush days of radio - had advanced dramatically.

On this set are two James Joyce recordings that were privately done in 1924. A.A. Milne, Rebecca West and several others have been taken from a commercial series of 78 records marketed in 1929 and 1930.

Huge resource

Recordings of sound date back to 1894, but it was not until 1925 that "electrical" recording began, with microphones and some control and modulation of tone. A lot of singles and albums were made in the 1920s through the 1940s and often can be found in specialty shops and even flea markets. The Library of Congress has a large collection, as does the Yale University Library. The British Broadcasting Company has an immense archive.

Yet there are precious few CD's or cassettes generally available on the American market. There should be more.

I did not feel that with the urgency that besets me now until I listened twice through the EMI British set.

The sound quality, of course, is far from ideal. The first Joyce recording is a passage from John F. Taylor's speech from "Ulysses." It has a very scratchy background; it is impossible to feel one is in the room with him. His voice came to me as surprising: remarkably formal, metered, almost liturgical. His accents and inflections were far closer to a London High Church pulpit than any Dublin pub I have been in, and I have been in more than prudence probably should dictate.

At first, he reads very slowly, pronouncing each word separately. Then, suddenly, there is a machine-gun attack, a rattling passage of Joycean color that he sings out as if it had no spaces at all between the words. No reader of Joyce will have missed this frequent device, of pouring out sensory consciousness, but to hear it as Joyce expressed it is explosively powerful.

In the second passage, "Anna Livia Plurabelle," from "Work in Progress," Joyce's voice comes on very singsongy, very Dublin. There are lots of rolled r's, almost trilling out. Short-cut vowels. Country talk, but very civil country talk.

Today, one might be forgiven for imagining that A.A. Milne would be playful with his master works, that he might talk, somehow, for children as children talk. But he reads from "Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle" with grave respect and intensity.

This is serious stuff, he is saying, dramatically, and anybody who trivializes it deserves to have his ankle bitten severely by a 4-year-old.

I found breathless fascination in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his very civilized and remarkably sibilant Scottish voice, reading a little essay on how he came to write Sherlock Holmes and how he was drawn into spiritualism. His voice is so rich that a platoon of great British movie character actors came marching across my mental screen, all very Holmesian.

Modulation of intents

And then comes Virginia Woolf, with "Extract from Craftsmanship," a radio talk. She sounds prissy, sometimes sermonical, and then turns out to be richly ironic and strangely distant. The voice, the modulation of intents bring thoughts of Virginia Woolf herself, her other work, thoughts worth the price of admission.

T.S. Eliot reads his poetry, intones his poetry, here and there chants his poetry. The sounds seem to come out of deep clouds, of very old, dense stone walls. I found myself thinking this surely is what the voice of God would be, if God were a repatriated American Anglican.

Yeats sings two poems, almost liturgically, "The Lake Isle of dTC Innisfree," and "Coole Park and Ballylee." The first is done even more musically than the other, but neither is even remotely conversational in tone or meter.

The effect is one of riding on the breaking wave of the words, being borne up, somehow floating on the bright, round buoyant shape of his voice. Each of the words has distinct, unmistakable meaning, but somehow as Yeats declaims them, they shed that and are swept into a larger, encompassing consequence. Such is poetry, of course, but to have that physically demonstrated by the likes of Yeats is to grow in the living awareness of that.

There is more, much more, on three reasonably full disks. But there are hundreds of hours of such material available, and indeed greatly enhancable, from original sources. If enough people ask shops and producers for more such recordings, the market will respond. And every serious reader will be richer for it.

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