Trollope

You can learn language, but you earn your voice out in the world. I’ve been reading The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). His narrative voice fades in and out, amused, accurate, caring, modest. Sometimes you are listening to Trollope, sometimes to the characters, never far from either. The transitions are magically seamless.

A writer’s voice infuses and validates the general language—you know where he or she is coming from. The artist’s voice is a sina qua non in any media. I think that Victor is responding to this with the hand painted backgrounds in his photographed still lifes. Chopin is everywhere in his music, no matter the structure of the piece or the quality of the performance, etc. The voice in a story is only once removed from the voices which surrounded us at birth and gave us our first words—how natural that we listen for the heart behind the sounds.

Trollope’s novels (47!) present Victorian England and Ireland as perhaps nothing else can. If film had been possible in Trollope’s time, would it have been a better medium for his purpose? I doubt it. Different, yes. Good, yes. But images enter your mind directly and are impersonal in comparison to an author’s voice. You watch on your own. Even the best adaptations that come to (my) mind: John Huston’s, “The Dead,” the BBC’s, “Brideshead Revisited,” the epic Russian, “War and Peace,” do not surpass the original writing. At best, they equal with differences that preclude choosing a winner. This is cheerful if you care about the future of fiction.

In The Last Chronicle of Barset there are no violent confrontations or sexual revelations to keep you breathlessly turning pages. You read and read and read—hundreds of pages filled with exchanges turning on fine points of etiquette—and wonder if anything will ever happen. Gradually the story becomes more interesting, and you fall into step with Trollope. Finally you realize that something has indeed happened—you have been imbibing wisdom, walking with a great spirit.