The tone of voice

Literature in many of its branches is no other than the shadow of good talk; but the imitation falls far short of the original in life, freedom and effect.

–          From “Talk and Talkers” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, spoke of seeing in literature the face of the author, even when he did not know what he author looked like. Possibly my imagination is less visually oriented than Orwell’s, but when I read, it is not so much a face that I see, but a voice that I hear; or, rather, a tone of voice. I suppose it comes to the same thing: whether we imagine a face or a voice, an author’s personality is evident in what the author writes. It may be that the personality that emerges from the writing is quite different from the personality that is apparent to those who knew the author in real life; but since, as a reader, I have no access to the latter (even biographies can offer no more than the biographer’s interpretation), it is the former that I find of greater interest.

There are, of course, authors who attempted to efface their own personalities, but I can’t help wondering how seriously intended these attempts are. Flaubert’s personality, for instance, is very evident in his novels. At times, he even speaks to the reader directly – such as in that famous passage in Madame Bovary where he speaks of language being a cracked kettle on which he beats out tunes for bears to dance to, when, instead, he wants to move the stars with pity. I say Flaubert “speaks” of this, for, when I read it, I feel as if this line were spoken. And it is spoken to me in a tone of resigned heartbreak.

That is the tone of voice I get in much of Flaubert – resigned heartbreak: and the cause of the heartbreak is that there is no option but to be resigned. Austen, who is as deeply ironic as Flaubert and as aware of human stupidity, has, however, a very different tone of voice: although she could be deeply serious, and even at times, as in Mansfield Park, sombre, her tone of voice is amused, happy to batter the cracked kettle with a virtuosic verve and gaiety without any thought of moving the stars with pity; or, indeed, without any thought of pity at all. On a personal level, I like the sound of Flaubert’s voice, even through the services of an interpreter (since I do not know French well enough to read the originals); Austen I am a bit frightened to sit too close to, in case she chooses me as the next object of her pitiless wit: and if she does, she would veil it in such subtle shades of irony, that I might not even notice. In any case, there are far too many people as it is sitting around Austen, enjoying her wicked wit, so there’s no point my adding to the throng.

Milton is on a platform, orating. It is a grand and sonorous voice, with a wide tessitura; it has a depth to it, reverberating across the room even when he is speaking softly. He has many devotees, admirers in thrall to that voice which is by turns turbulent and serene; and for some time, I, too, am mesmerised. But after a while, my ears start hurting, and I wander off to listen instead to the blank verse of Wordsworth. He does not speak at me, but, rather, to me: far from orating from a platform, he sits next to me, conversing eloquently. And I realise why it is that I reach for The Prelude far more frequently than I reach for Paradise Lost, even though Mr Wordsworth, himself an admirer of Milton, professes himself shocked by my preference.

To hear Dickens, one must go to the theatre: there he is, holding the stage by himself, performing his one-man show. He loves playing to the gallery. One moment he will make ’em laugh, the next he’ll have ’em in tears, and then, for good measure, he’ll freeze their blood with terror. Many dismiss him as a ham, and, since modern taste does not care so much for tears, accuse him of sentimentality; but no-one doubts his charisma, or the flamboyance of his personality: and that in itself is enjoyable. And those listening closely soon find that putting on a performance need not exclude seriousness of intent, or depth of utterance. Indeed, as the curtain comes down and the lights come up in the auditorium, one finds even such revered practitioners as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy applauding enthusiastically. It’s a damn fine trick to pull off.

Most affable of all is the voice of Mark Twain. He is sitting in a saloon bar with a bottle of whiskey, and he offers me some as he regales me with jokes, reminiscences, anecdotes, tall stories. Of course, one can’t get a word in edgeways with him, but one doesn’t want to stem that marvellous flow. And yet, despite all his boisterous high spirits, one senses at times a man struggling to come to terms with what he knows humans are capable of; and who, by the end – by the time, in other words, he came round to writing Pudd’nhead Wilson – throws up his arms in despair and admits it is too hard a knot for him to untie.

Henry James, however, specialised not so much in attempting to untie knots, but in tying them: and what intricate knots they are! He sits by the window, polishing with meticulous care the circular lenses of his pince-nez ; he speaks very softly, and very slowly, and very precisely, pausing frequently in mid-sentence to ensure his listeners have taken in what he has said so far, and taking care to give every word its correct weighting and its correct intonation. For all that, he engages; indeed, once one accustoms oneself to that insidiously softly-spoken voice, he is compelling. But after a while, I do find myself  wandering off once again to Mark Twain’s table.

Nietzsche, I admit, I find myself avoiding: I do not doubt his extraordinary intellect, nor his visionary flashes of genius, but he seems continually to be screaming into my ear. Musil I avoid as well: it’s like being lectured to at great length by an extremely clever man who unfortunately has bad breath. Of the German writers, I prefer the refined, civilised charm of Thomas Mann, or even the bleak comedy of Kafka, who is forever expressing surprise that his nightmarish flights of fancy don’t make us laugh more often.

The presence of D. H. Lawrence can be wearing. He is angry, very angry, about something or other, and I keep getting the curious feeling that, for whatever reason, he is angry with me for, apparently, not living my life as he feels I should. But when I try to find out precisely what it is that angers him, either he rants incoherently, thumping the table with his fist; or he expresses some profound vision of what it is to be human that I don’t really understand: it has something, I believe, to do with our sexuality, but that’s about as much as I can take in. He does, though, have some ecstatic moments of poetic intensity, and if there were to be some award for seriousness of intent, old DH would win it hands down. But, I must admit, I do find it difficult staying with his outsize personality for long stretches.

Even dramatists, who speak for ever through other peoples’ voices, can make their presence felt: it would be difficult, for instance, to mistake The Master Builder for a Chekhov play, or Three Sisters for an Ibsen. Only Shakespeare remains inscrutable: he is whoever one may imagine him to be – even the Earl of Oxford, if one so wishes.


One of the main reasons why we read is, I think, the companionship of the author. And, just as there is no accounting for our instinctive likes and dislikes of people we know, so there seems no accounting for similar preferences amongst authorial personalities. I, for instance, take far more readily to Dickens’ personality than I do to Austen’s, whereas many friends of mine, whose tastes and judgement I respect, feel otherwise. In a recent post, I had suggested that one could, to a great extent, choose what one likes and what one doesn’t: does this apply also to our likes and dislikes of authorial personae? Or is this aspect of our taste more instinctive, and, thus, something over which we have less control? Or could it be that I am mistaken (it has been known to happen!) in placing so much weight on the reader’s reaction to the authorial personality? I know it is stylistically wrong to finish an essay with questions rather than with a conclusion – even a tentative conclusion – but since I do not have the first idea what the answers are to these questions, I don’t really see how I could end otherwise.

8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on September 5, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    As usual your topics are so very thought provoking Himadri.

    I actually hear Nietzsche not as a screamer, but just extremely contemptuous and yes, angry sounding. Having recently read Lawrence, I did not get an impression of an angry voice, but very superior and elitist.

    I agree with your impressions of Twain, Dickens and Milton.

    Once in great while I read an author whose voice I have actually heard, and yes, I hear their real voice! In particular I think of the late Carl Sagan as an example.


    • Carl Sagan did have a terrific speaking voice. I had the good fortune to attend one of his lectures at Cornell once, during which my hosts’ dog suddenly got up, trotted down to the stage, and sat down right next to Sagan, who continued speaking, with occasional humorous, questioning glances at the dog, who seemed perfectly content just to have a better seat from which to listen.


  2. Great post – one for the Internet Archives! You hear ’em pretty much like I do. Twain’s great voice, for example, allows him to get away with literary murder sometimes, but do we care? Mostly not.

    Although I am thick-skinned enough, or mean enough, to not mind sitting by Austen.


  3. I could listen to Isak Dinesen’s “voice” all day and all night long. Terrific post, Himadri; I particularly enjoyed your mini-portraits of Jane Austen and D. H. Lawrence.


  4. I think a history of literature that sees authors as the great button-holers that by large they are would be rather intriguing. It would ask, if these blokes button-holed you over a drink how would you respond to them? And I am quite with you in thinking that we may not hear them all the same, nor wish to have as our especial drinking buds all the same menageriethat others have, nor even to experience them in the same setting — some of us may prefer the parlor or the lecture hall or the coffe house to the sad but hearty clink and clash of the smoky bar.

    I won’t second-guess your portraits (well, not too much) — except to say, I always imagined that Twain was holding a bit of something in reserve and that he would be eyeing me rather closely even if his voice seems never to betray any suspicion of doubts and he would, indeed, always sound so very friendly and humorous and hale-and-well-met-hearty-fellow. Wordsworth I would imagine at times would get up from his seat beside me and wander a few steps away, forgetting I’m there, he would recite (he knows himself by heart) in a personal and very anguished way. Then, suddenly becoming aware again of my presence, he would slink back to his seat and whisper a few bits almost below my hearing before finally regaining his voice and his comfortable camaraderie (this is based on a reminiscence of Arnold that rather struck me).

    Some others: Frost is like Wordsworth, knows himself by rote. He speaks in a bit of a character-actors voice, but now and then some lines will snake out of his recitation, come alive, and sound as if he has spoken them extempore; and he will have a wicked twinkle in his eyes and a damned scurrilous smile on his face. Stevens, to me, has a bit of a businessman’s monotonic voice. It takes a while listening to it to begin to hear the music and the very subtle rhythms. Yeats declaims until he has your attention, then he might just put an arm around your shoulder, look at you, suddenly feel embarassed, and recite the rest sotto voce and you realize that his real genius is in his whispers, not his rants. My friend Matthew Arnold once said that he laughs too much, and I think he, himself, had trouble figuring out if he was being serious, and that is what I hear in his voice — he seems to be waiting to see if folks will laugh or not.

    Ah, what a great parlor game. I could go on like this all night, but there is one voice I should hate to overlook.

    You see, I think it only fair to turn this game upon the essayist himself — particularly as to some degree, if in different form, he has anatomized me in some such fashion over the years.

    So what voice do I hear when I read your writing, Himadri? I always imagine it as a rather clear voice, carefully enunciated, pausing now and then. And I picture you pushing your eyebrows up and staring at us readers, as if to say am I making sense, or have I rattled off into incoherence? — which, of course, you never do, but something in your voice seems to always suggest that you fear you are just about to start speaking gobble-de-gook — it is the oddest quality in your voice, because in all the time I have known you you have never given into nonsense (where, as you well know, I have often delighted in being nonsensical or in pissing Hadrian off by being rather whimsical). I must to add that I hear in you voice a rather interesting timbre, very agreeable — it is not highflown, never off-putting; I would say earthy, but it is never raw, or disagreeably colloquial. A note of sincerity seems always present in your voice, but so, too, much less often, but there all the same, a note of intensity that indicates when you are pleading for a particular topic. Your abundant humility aside, the plaint of your voice seems to suggest that you would wish that we readers could see in the subject at hand the same significance that you see in it — the irony of which is that we almost invariably do see the significance, because your voice is so clear and your arguments so cognet. But the plaint is an important part of your voice and I would not wish you to ever be without it, for it is an important part of what our age needs (noting as I say this, how utterly declamatory my voice is in saying what in your voice would be more honestly quizzical.)

    In any event, that’s your voice, as I hear it.

    Best, Mark


  5. Thanks, all, for your comments. Sorry for having taken so long to reply.

    It was ony after reading RLS’ comment (quoted at the start) to the effect that literature is really an extension of speech – and an inferior extension at that – that it struck me that i often do hear different tones of voices in different writers. Not that i go along entirely with Stevenson: not even the most accomplished speakers can be expected to structure their sentences at the speed of conversation as well as it is possible to do in the leisure of one’s study; and long-term structure is even further out of the question. But nonetheless, I do hear specific voices in writing, even though Brian’s comments on how he hears Nietzsche or DH Lawrence does indicate that we don’t always hear the same voice.

    From what i remember of the series “Cosmos”, i do agree that carl Sagan had a marvellous voice.

    Mark – given such a flattering description of my own voice, how could I possibly disagree? Sadly, were you to meet me in person, you may find that my real voice to be somewhat less impressive. I do try, it is true, to establish a conversational tone, but one can’t rate one’s own self: as Robert Burns tells us:

    O wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!

    I did want to go over and hear Robert Burns’ tone of voice, but the randy old goat was too busy making a pass at Jane Austen…


  6. After reading Jennings’ biography of Emile Zola, I checked out the 1937 William Dieterle film THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, starring Paul Muni, for some contrast. I found to my delight that Muni’s performance almost exactly matched my mental impression of Zola’s “voice”: fussy, obstinate, and inexorable (the stitch-up of Dreyfus is portrayed with a surprisingly sinister chill; definitely recommended). Muni started out in Yiddish theater, and his performing style wasn’t to every taste, but he really (maybe over-) sold Zola’s importance and appeal. As it was made only a few decades after his death, I found myself wondering if they had anyone on the film who’d known the great man and advised Muni on his performance thereof. Great post here on the mysteries of the authorial voice. I can’t really think of any whose *actual* voices I’d recognize instantly, apart from maybe Gore Vidal (who I did indeed “hear” more than a bit while reading his essays and series of historical novels). I wonder, too, after reading this, if foreknowledge of a *physical* authorial voice gets in the way of “hearing” one’s own impressions of the author’s style.


    • I saw that paul Miuni film many, many years ago when they still used to show old Hollywood film on television. I’d love to see it again. I know Paul Muni best in “I am a Fugitive From the Chain Gang” and “Scarface”, and he was superb in both. I would love to see what he would make of the role of Emile Zola.

      Another cinematic portrayal of a writer in a film is Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Eugene O’Neill in “Reds”. It was certainly an eye-catching depiction, and I can’t help wondering if o#Neill really was like that in real life. (Apparently, Nicholson met with many people who had known O’Neill before making that film.)


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