A great writer breaks the chains of verbal description. When Virginia Woolf’s done describing a face, the words stand alone, more beautiful and canny than any actual face: “Nothing disturbed the arrowy nose in its short, tense flight; the hair was dark, the ears small, and fitted closely to the head. But, alas, that these catalogues of youthful beauty cannot end without mentioning forehead and eyes. Alas, that people are seldom born devoid of all three.” When you or I try to paint a portrait of someone—say, Woolf—we might not do as well. There is silent music in her face, but can we make her dance?
The closest we come to a living acquaintance with Woolf, turns out, is a sole surviving recording of her voice, coupled with photographs of her. It’s been released on the DVD In Their Own Words, which collects archival BBC interviews with great writers and thinkers. There’s also the only film footage of Sigmund Freud. With others, like Evelyn Waugh and J.R.R. Tolkien, we fare better—moving pictures! Rarely seen and heard, these allow you to follow writers’ words right to their source—and coupled with days and weeks spent with a copy of The Two Towers or To The Lighthouse, you just might begin to know them in the flesh.
Writers write. Their contributions must be measured by quality words on the page. But if you were to trace the dreams, urges, and neuroses of a man, you’d want to sit back and listen to a voice constantly in flux, to a face as it reacts to emotions and buried instincts—in other words, practice some psychoanalysis. Try it on Freud: In December of 1938, when the Austrian was living in London, a BBC crew recorded him just months before his death, and before World War II broke out. What fears lie in a man’s voice?
“Words, English words, are full of echoes, memories, associations, naturally. They’ve been out and about—on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields—for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in the writing of today. They’re stored with other meanings, with other memories.” In the only surviving recording of the great modernist’s voice, Woolf sounds expectedly and perfectly regal, and lays down a serious challenge: how to create new art without being held hostage to the old? Her Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves contain some of the best writing in any age. “The day waves yellow with all its crops.” How’s that for an answer?
Gibberish. That’s what Waugh thought of the works of Woolf and James Joyce. He was not a fan of stream of consciousness, and anyway he thought little of anybody else’s writings except for his own—he alone was worthy of our prostrating.
The Englishman’s poems were either vast (though not in length, necessarily) and philosophizing, or personal and revealing. I, Claudius is none of those things. Ironic that one of the first pop novels was about the Roman Empire—nearly 80 years later it still resembles a reality TV romp set in ancient Italy. It is a historical novel that feels like a busy, seedy city—Graves makes a spectacle of sex, violence and imperial politics, and has very adult fun doing it. But the socially rebellious Graves had no fun at all answering a question about his sexuality. “No, no, I’m not a faggot myself,” he said. All right.
So now we know: you wouldn’t want to hear an audio book narrated by the Lord of the Rings himself. The professor seems to have swallowed whole the entire Middle-earth and lodged it in his throat, releasing his hostages one croaky syllable at a time. Whether he’s speaking Elvish or not, he’s hard to understand.
John Maynard Keynes
The world of 1939 was not entirely different from today’s. A worldwide Depression had gone on long enough. But a titanic battle was beginning, and Keynes saw it as a radical solution to unemployment, so much so that he called World War II “The Grand Experiment.” If massive spending can indeed pull the world out of poverty, then “good may come out of evil,” or so he hoped. We are still debating the idea more than 70 years later.