The reader, the writer, the reader
Till Stephen Daldry decided to turn it into a film (with a redoubtable performance from Kate Winslet), not everybody had heard of Bernhard Schlink’s superb 1995 novel, The Reader. With the film’s success, it is now again being widely read – and bought – in the UK and the US. (On its publication 14 years ago, it had been translated into 39 languages and had become a New York Times bestseller.)
But Daldry’s film has done more than acquainted Schlink to new readers. It has made – thanks to the scenes of reading as foreplay between the character Winslet plays and the (very) young man she has an affair with in the film – reading aloud sexy in a different way.
Reading aloud (beginning with children at bedtime to old people with failing eyesight) has always been popular. When a colleague sent me this link of an article published in March in The Times (London), I realised that it wasn’t merely that: some people were making a living from reading aloud.
Reading the article (not aloud) made me think of what it is like for writers to read from their own books in front of an audience. And I thought of that again while giving a reading from my book during the London Book Fair last month.
It’s an odd, sometimes unsettling, sometimes bewildering, sometimes enjoyable experience to read from one’s own work. As I found out in front of the largish audience at Foyle’s, one of Britain’s best-known bookstores.
The writer, so racked by self-doubt and anxiety, on his own, spends so much time agonising over what goes into his book, and over years tries to build something like a wall, brick by brick, not knowing if it will stand up in the end, that it seems almost disquieting reading aloud a section from it to an audience.
I can only speak for myself; and it is an ambiguous, conflicting experience. It makes me feel exposed and vulnerable. It feels strange to hear aloud the words that you have heard inside your head for years, read over and over again till you wanted to not read it ever again. Somehow, the sentences seem transmuted in their articulation; at the same time, somehow they seem the same.
And then there are the moments of thrilling pleasure when you see that the audience (or at least a few people in the audience) have really got the section you are reading out: when they laugh in the right places, when they nod vigorously, when you can tell from their expressions that they are hooked.
It’s a communion unlike any other. (These are the people who afterwards buy copies at the store and come and get them signed.)
Writers need not, as this article in the Guardian shows, necessarily be the best readers of their own work. At a lot of publication parties, actors read from the books that are being published. I have heard Rahul Bose read from Amitav Ghosh’s work; and Victor Banerjee from VS Naipaul’s. Both were splendid.
And yet, and yet… No reader, however trained and sophisticated, however well modulated and passionate about the book he is reading aloud from, is as passionate about it as the writer himself. No one quite knows the intended emphases, the cadence of sentences – at least in his own mind – as the writer himself. You might know what I mean when you hear Kamila Shamsie reading from her new novel, Burnt Shadows.
It makes you think, doesn’t it? Do you think writers should read aloud from their own work? Or should they simply leave it to the pros?