a pair of
AS promised, today we have the British Library CD set The Spoken Word: American Writers. (The Brits were here last week.) This three-disc collection features 27 writers, including seven Nobel laureates: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison. Most of the audio comes from BBC interviews, which has the fringe benefit of hearing writers addressed as Miss Stein and Mr Steinbeck, though O’Neill reads from Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The oldest recording is the 1934 interview with Gertrude Stein, who puts her interrogator in his place when he suggests many readers don’t understand her work: ‘‘Look here, being intelligible is not what it seems.’’ One of the most recent, and it’s a gem, is a 1984 interview with Arthur Miller, then 69, recorded on the porch of his Connecticut home. You can hear birdsong in the background as the playwright talks about Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, the sadness of Marilyn Monroe and his refusal to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His analysis of American paranoia remains relevant. The other Miller, wild Henry, does not disappoint at 88, cheerfully railing against the world and admitting most people read his books for the sex. He says his only regret was abandoning piano lessons, because ‘‘music is the highest art of all’’. Low art is on Raymond Chandler’s mind in a wonderful 1958 interview with Ian Fleming that could be a conversation between Philip Marlowe and James Bond. Resisting Fleming’s praise, Chandler insists his ‘‘thrillers’’ are ‘‘below the salt’’. Chandler sounds as though he may have had a few, and James Thurber joins the party later when asked to describe himself: ‘‘A jolly drinking companion . . . up to a certain hour.’’ F. Scott Fitzgerald reads a bit of Othello but his pal Ernest Hemingway is the conspicuous absence here, for reasons that are not explained. He does get a mention in a 1960 interview with Mary McCarthy, but it’s a dishonourable one, as the exemplar of ‘‘anti-intellectual’’ American writers ‘‘whose minds would never be raped by an idea’’. I save the best for last: the aristocratic, imperious, playful, blindingly smart and sublimely self-possessed Vladimir Nabokov, interviewed in 1970 when he was 71. He talks with amused detachment about the writing process — the pencil that needs sharpening, the bladder that needs draining, ‘‘the word I always misspell’’ — before moving on to diss Dostoevsky for the ‘‘ghastly’’ Crime and Punishment, tick off Tolstoy for the sentimentality of War and Peace and upbraid ‘‘Mr Updike’’ for a recent review. But I laughed most when the interviewer asks if Nabokov could talk about the importance to his work of his wife and muse, Vera, and the author replies: ‘‘No, I could not.’’ The Spoken Word: American Writers ($45) is distributed by Inbooks (www.inbooks.com.au).