a pair of

ragged claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

TO­DAY and next week I am go­ing to re­view two more CD sets in the Bri­tish Li­brary’s Spo­ken Word se­ries: Bri­tish Writers and Amer­i­can Writers. Reg­u­lar read­ers will re­call I re­viewed the poets in Jan­uary. Bri­tish Writers is a three-disc set fea­tur­ing 30 au­thors, from a 1930 speech by Arthur Conan Doyle to a 1989 in­ter­view with Muriel Spark. I didn’t en­joy the writers as much as I did the poets, but that’s mainly a com­ment on the power of po­etry. This col­lec­tion is com­prised largely of snip­pets from BBC pro­grams, which just isn’t as sat­is­fy­ing as hear­ing Ten­nyson re­cite The Charge of the Light Brigade. Even so, there is much to rel­ish and the best of it leaves you want­ing more, such as a three-minute air­port in­ter­view with a seam­less Noel Coward. Asked what he thinks of the ‘‘an­gry young men’’ of Bri­tish theatre, Coward zings: ‘‘I think of them very lit­tle as a mat­ter of fact.’’ Asked whether the crit­ics have be­come too clever for their own good, he zaps: ‘‘I have not ob­served any par­tic­u­lar clev­er­ness in the crit­ics.’’ Graham Greene is his own harsh­est critic, de­scrib­ing the ‘‘fail­ure’’ of nov­els such as Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Mat­ter. He says The Power and the Glory is his best book. It is fas­ci­nat­ing to hear Greene’s rather flat, bland voice, which be­comes al­most mes­meris­ing as he talks about his boy­hood games of Rus­sian roulette and his life­long battle with me­lan­cho­lia and bore­dom. It’s al­ways ab­sorb­ing to hear writers talk about their in­spi­ra­tions and here we have Conan Doyle on Edgar Al­lan Poe’s sto­ries (‘‘A model for all time’’) and John le Carre on Som­er­set Maugham’s Ashen­den books (‘‘The best of all spy sto­ries’’). Le Carre also talks en­ter­tain­ingly about his own work. Maugham reads from his 1949 mem­oir A Writer’s Notebook, in which he spec­u­lates, in­ac­cu­rately, about his prospects for lit­er­ary longevity. One of the plea­sures of these record­ings is hear­ing English spo­ken well. P. G. Wode­house, in­ter­viewed at 82, is a de­light. On French trans­la­tions of his nov­els: ‘‘When­ever they come up to a dif­fi­cult bit they are rather apt to dodge it.’’ Not all the in­ter­views go so sweetly. Eve­lyn Waugh, bad­gered about his Catholi­cism: ‘‘I am just try­ing to write books.’’ Tolkien, pestered about the place of God in The Lord of the Rings: ‘‘He’s men­tioned once or twice.’’ Rud­yard Ki­pling and Vir­ginia Woolf talk about the power of words, and the 1937 broad­cast by the lat­ter is the only known record­ing of her voice. You have to laugh when she says that com­pared with Keats’s Ode to a Nightin­gale, Pride and Prej­u­dice and David Cop­per­field are the ‘‘crude bungling of am­a­teurs’’. I’ll give the last word to G. K. Ch­ester­ton, from a broad­cast three months be­fore his death: ‘‘You have to be happy in those quiet mo­ments when you re­mem­ber you are alive.’’ The Spo­ken Word: Bri­tish Poets ($45) is dis­trib­uted by In­books (www.in­books.com.au). Next week: Amer­i­can Writers.

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