This month has for me been one of intense literary nostalgia. It began when I typed, not expecting any significant results, the names Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham into YouTube. Imagine my delight on finding extended interviews with each, both from the BBC and dating from the 1950s. The Waugh one was guarded, though still fascinating, but the prize find was the discussion between Malcolm Muggeridge and Maugham.
The occasion was the publication of Maugham’s book Ten Novels and their Authors and its most curious moment is when Muggeridge asks Maugham what he thinks of abbreviated novels. The reason this, and Maugham’s laconic reply, are so interesting is that nine of the 10 essays contained in the book were written as introductions to shortened editions of the novels they discuss, and that it was Maugham himself who did the abbreviating. This fact isn’t mentioned by either person.
But literary nostalgia broke over me like a wave when I started looking again at the huge collection that is Naxos Audio Books. Authors reading their own work feature on two of the most remarkable products. The first I came across was T.S. Eliot Reads T.S. Eliot, a single CD of quite inestimable value.
Eliot wasn’t reticent when it came to making recordings of his own verse, and there are different selections available on other labels. But this one, which contains Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Portrait of a Lady and Ash Wednesday, is truly remarkable.
To hear Eliot reading the poems which were to form the basis of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is to seriously challenge one’s opinion of the august critic, let alone the poet of solitude and alienation from modern life. He’s jaunty and whimsical, and the verse scansion is invariably meticulous. It makes Eliot seem more like a broad-based man of letters with many strings to his bow, not unlike Maugham, omitting only prose fiction from his accomplishments, as Maugham omitted poetry.
Another unassailable Naxos classic is Under Milk Wood and Other Plays, with Dylan Thomas himself appearing in the “other plays” (Return Journey to Swansea and Quite Early One Morning). Thomas didn’t live to hear the BBC premiere of Under Milk Wood, a poetic drama for radio, broadcast in 1954 with Richard Burton as the First Voice. But here it is in all its incomparable splendor.
Burton, too, died relatively young, so that when this historic broadcast was re-worked in 2003 his voice, from this 1954 recording, was blended in with those of more modern actors. He was the irreplaceable star of the old broadcast, as you’ll hear here. As for Thomas, he takes the lead in Return Journey as himself, looking for “himself” as he was as a teenager. And he’s the sole speaker in Quite Early One Morning, which anticipates Under Milk Wood at many points. There’s hardly a moment that isn’t magic on this wonderful pair of CDs.
The publication of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in 1962 was a defining moment in the history of feminism, and of a great deal else. It opens with an extraordinary dialogue between two women that continues, with interruptions, for almost half an hour, and goes on to incorporate considerations of African nationalism and the history of Communism in the UK. Various “notebooks” are interleaved with the main story, culminating in the “golden notebook” of the title.