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.
[ ... ]
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.
* British Library, £19.95 each.
Andrew O’Hagan’s The Atlantic Ocean, a collection of essays on Britain and America, many of which were first published in the London Review, will be published in June. Be Near Me, his last novel, won the 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Prize award for fiction.