Who's ever heard Virginia Woolf?; New compilation highlights dead British writers
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 2 December 2008)

Hearing the voice of a long-dead writer adds another dimension to a reader's connection with an author's work, not profound, but intimate. It can also be surprising. Many years ago, I was jolted by a record of James Joyce reading a delirious passage from Finnegans Wake, an often incomprehensible but nevertheless enchanting experiment.

Until then, Joyce had existed for me only as words on the page. He was disembodied, the pure spirit of the English language at one of its greater moments. I was therefore astonished to hear him speaking much like a stage Irishman, rather in the style of Barry Fitzgerald, who played a series of lovable priests and cops in Hollywood films. Joyce's accent made it clear that even late in life he remained intensely grounded in Dublin, the city he escaped before unfolding his genius. That subtly changed my feelings about him. It made him more local, more obviously the magnificent product of one particular time and place. "All talent is clannish," said Isaac Bashevis Singer. Joyce was triumphantly clannish, and never more than in his speech.

For those of us who enjoy this kind of contact, Richard Fairman of the British Library has been rooting through his sound archives to make collections of authorial speech, most recently in a three-CD set, The Spoken Word: British Writers (www.bl.uk/catalogues/sound.html), an assortment of utterances by 30 writers. Today, when every interesting author gets recorded often, it's surprising to learn from Fairman that there is exactly one known recording of Arthur Conan Doyle's voice extant, and also only one of Virginia Woolf's. They both lived well into the age of sound recording (Conan Doyle died in 1930, Woolf in 1941) but the idea of preserving voices hadn't yet taken hold among broadcasters and librarians.

People simply didn't keep radio broadcasts. As Fairman says, "They went out on the air and that was it. They were lost forever." Woolf spoke on the BBC several times, but on only one occasion did someone think it a good idea to save part of a talk she gave. The piece included in The Spoken Word: British Writers runs only eight minutes, but it's a revelation. Heard in 2008, she sounds like a vicious parody of an English intellectual. I had to listen three times before I could get past her mannerisms and absorb what she was saying.

Under the title Words Fail Me, she discussed the way every interesting word carries echoes, memories and associations. Words have been "out and about" for centuries, which makes them hard to use. They carry so many meanings. "They have contracted so many famous marriages in the past." I love the part about famous marriages and the phrase "out and about."

Her contribution is much more engaging than Conan Doyle's. He talks for about two minutes about Sherlock Holmes and then spends six minutes describing the virtues of spiritualism, a subject on which no one (not even Conan Doyle) has ever been interesting. As a subject, spiritualism suffers from the fact that dead people are always boring. Not one word spoken from beyond the grave holds any interest. ("I saw your mother?" "How is she?" "She's fine.") Conan Doyle says he's had fascinating and enriching conversations with the dead, but gives no examples. He insists, though, that spiritualism is "the great question of the future."

Nancy Mitford, who was very much alive when interviewed in 1970, was asked whether she had studied in a university. "I don't think I could pass into a university," she said. "I'm much too stupid." She didn't go to school either, and had only a limited amount of teaching at home. She learned to read and write but not to spell in either French or English, so all her manuscripts required grimly devoted editing. Nobody ever taught her arithmetic and she never taught herself. So, as she said at the age of 66, she still couldn't do sums, even the simplest ones. If she had to fill out a form that required a certain amount of addition, she couldn't do it. "I have to send for my charwoman's grandson. He does it." But she wrote some of the brilliant comic novels of her day, notably The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

P. G. Wodehouse, answering Alistair Cooke's questions, gives the most amiable of the interviews. Most of the authors, looking back over their lives, have complaints to pass along -- though sometimes they are qualified, like Rebecca West's. "I've had a very disappointing life, I feel, but still it's been well worthwhile," she says. She thinks that life is really horrible "and has been probably through history," but in a way it's also great fun. Graham Greene, lifelong sufferer from ennui, says that in adolescence he played Russian roulette with a loaded pistol on six occasions, "to get away from the boredom." There was a balloon of boredom inside his skull. He felt it would explode if he didn't do something daring.

The words of Joe Orton, placed at the end of the third CD, have an inadvertently poignant quality. A gardener's son who wrote brilliant, acerbic farces, Orton died at the age of 34. During a BBC interview he seemed worried about his financial future. Aside from some offhand literary comments ("I hope I've never written anything so bad as the early Shakespeare plays"), he mainly explained why he was saving his money. The film rights to his play Loot having brought 100,000, he was anxious to put that money aside for the time when his talent would run out. "I only have so much inspiration. I think any playwright does. It's like a boxer, a really good playwright's career is quite short. A boxer's career is usually 10 years and then they start to get punchy, which I think playwrights do as well. I shan't always be young."

After hearing those words I checked the date of the interview: Aug. 1, 1967. Eight days later, Orton's lover, apparently driven mad by Orton's success and his own failure, beat Orton to death with a hammer, then took a fatal dose of sleeping pills. John Lahr, Orton's biographer, wrote that the deaths of the two men "confirmed the vision of Orton's comedy, that reality is the ultimate outrage."

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