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Distant Voices
The past is full of noises.
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“Tovarishchi! Grazhdanye! Bratya i syostri! Boitsy nashei armii i flota! K’vam obrashschayus ya, druzya moi …”

One listens in fascination to the man’s recorded voice, then goes to one’s books. Edvard Radzinsky: “On July 3 Stalin at last made his long-awaited appeal to the people: ‘Comrades! Citizens! Brothers and sisters! Warriors of the army and the fleet! I call upon you, my friends …'” That was eleven days after Hitler’s attack on the USSR in 1941; days that Stalin, according to Molotov, spent in a state of “paralysis.” The Wehrmacht had easily punched through Stalin’s forward defenses and was deep in Russian territory.

Ivan Maisky tells us that the speech was not a success, being delivered in “a dull colorless voice” with Stalin “often stopping and breathing heavily.” The recording confirms this. The despot was not at his oratorical best. One imagines the listening boitsy of the armii and flota — those not already slaughtered in the preceding eleven days, or rounded up for shipment to hellish POW camps (400,000 prisoners taken at Minsk alone) — listening in dismay, thinking to themselves, though of course not saying out loud: “This is our nation’s leader?”

Stalin’s speech is one of many historical sound snippets I have been listening to since seeing an ad in the London magazine Literary Review. The ad offered selections from the sound archive of the British Library, in CD format at modest prices. I bought three items. Stalin’s voice comes from the first: a two-disc “Voices of History” set, which also includes Trotsky (speaking in English), Lenin, and Hitler, along with a host of other 20th-century notables and a couple of 19th-century ones: Florence Nightingale and W. E. Gladstone, recorded in 1890 and 1888 respectively. My second item was a CD containing five radio recordings of Evelyn Waugh; my third, one of poets reading their own work.

The poets are a mixed bag. From the British Library CD one could fairly deduce that, as a general rule, poets ought to be forbidden by law to read their verses out loud, with FINES DOUBLED (as highway signs say) if the poet attempts to sing his productions, as Hilaire Belloc and Edith Sitwell both do. I don’t mind Sitwell, whose poems I never cared about, but Belloc’s “Tarantella” is an old favorite of mine. To hear the poet himself singing it very incompetently is distressing, especially when, as my mother used to say disapprovingly of Elvis Presley, “the man can’t even enunciate properly.”

The poetry selections are unbalanced, too. Forty-five seconds of Kipling and forty-eight of Robert Frost, then seven minutes of Ezra Pound? The old fraud’s comrade in fraudulence, T. S. Eliot, gets seven and a half to tell us about his wretched yellow fog rubbing its back on the darn window panes — one of the clumsiest, most strained metaphors in the history of published verse. And, passing from mere pretentiousness to rank gibberish, here is nearly four minutes of Gertrude Stein — three and a half more than any human being ever wanted.

At least the good poems, even when not well read, shine brighter for the dross around them. Siegfried Sassoon’s “Attack” makes vivid the most extreme of all experiences:

… hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

W. B. Yeats, in some introductory remarks, displays that vein of pompous silliness that Auden noted in his obituary tribute. Declares Yeats: “I am going to read my poems with great emphasis upon the rhythm. … It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.” He proceeds to give a plonking rendition of “Innisfree,” sounding like a schoolboy who has just learned scansion.

(Yeats came to hate that poem through having been asked to recite it so often. Says his biographer: “Hugh Kingsmill saw him in Switzerland in 1924, reciting ‘Innisfree’ with an air of suppressed loathing.” The British Library recording is from 1932.)

Waugh is less fun than I had hoped, his multiple affectations jostling audibly for precedence in his spoken words. The best selection is his inquisition by three interviewers on the 1953 radio program Frankly Speaking. Though not an especially good speaker, Waugh was a great interviewee. Was he happy at school? “No.” Why was he unhappy? “I hated the boys.” Asked about his pastimes, Waugh declares himself a collector of paintings. Contemporary paintings? “Oh no, no. Real paintings.” (There is a fictional recreation of the interview in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.)

Among all the technological wonders of the 20th century, did any really compare with the two great recording achievements of the 19th: the camera and the phonograph? I have read somewhere of the wondering awe felt by the earliest portrait photographers as their subjects’ faces slowly appeared in all their miniature accuracy from the developing fluid. Sound recording followed 50 years later, and took longer to attain high fidelity, but now at last there is nothing left unrecorded. The least of us routinely smile into lenses and mumble into microphones. The past, once silent, is now full of noises, like Caliban’s island. Wasn’t Caliban a monster, though? And wasn’t silence once said to be golden?

The science-fiction writer J. G. Ballard wrote a story, “The Sound-Sweep,” on the premise that sounds impress themselves not only on machines especially designed to record them, but also, to some minuscule degree, on everything. In the story, advances in musical technology have made people hyper-sensitive to sounds “recorded” thus, so that the story’s protagonist can make a living by going around with his sonovac, sweeping up unwanted sound residues from household interiors.


It’s fanciful, even by sci-fi standards, yet these old British Library selections leave one wondering whether the human race is improved for having had our fleeting sense impressions made permanent in the world of matter; or whether those impressions are better left to fade and die on the air, as they did before Daguerre and Edison came along to capture them. Is some inventor somewhere working on the sonovac? I think I’d be in the market for one.

(Republished from National Review by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: The Straggler 
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