What do Borges, Bowen, Kawabata, and Nabokov have in common? They are acclaimed writers, all four born in 1899. And what do Shakespeare and Cervantes have in common? Both are undisputed literary giants who passed away in the same year, 1616. Certainly, we may be awed by the amazing alignment of the stars. But astrology aside, the single most striking feature that they all share is their distinct voice. Faulkner, Hemingway, Woolf, Hesse, Chekhov, Cortázar, and Capote had it, and so did Mallea, Breton, Poe, Baudelaire, and Mansfield. We recognize it when we hear it with our mind’s ear, and miss it when a work lacks it. But, what is the writer’s voice?
I take four books from my bookcase and read aloud:
“Vi en el reloj de la pequeña estación que eran las once de la noche pasadas. Fui caminando hasta el hotel. Sentí, como otras veces, la resignación y el alivio que nos infunden los lugares muy conocidos. El ancho portón estaba abierto; la quinta, a oscuras. Entré en el vestíbulo, cuyos espejos pálidos repetían las plantas del salón. Curiosamente el dueño no me reconoció y me tendió el registro. Tomé la pluma que estaba sujeta al pupitre, la mojé en el tintero de bronce y al inclinarme sobre el libro abierto, ocurrió la primera sorpresa de las muchas que me depararía esa noche. Mi nombre, Jorge Luis Borges, ya estaba escrito, y la tinta, todavía fresca.” —J. L. Borges (excerpt from “Agosto 25, 1983”)
“She dropped the letter onto the bedsprings, then picked it up to see the writing again—her lips, beneath the remains of lipstick, beginning to go white. She felt so much the change in her own face that she went to the mirror, polished a clear patch in it, and looked at once urgently and stealthily in. She was confronted by a woman of forty-four, with eyes starting out under a hat brim that had been rather carelessly pulled down. She had not put on any more powder since she left the shop where she ate her solitary tea. The pearls her husband had given her on their marriage hung loose round her now rather thinner throat, slipping in the V of the pink wool jumper her sister knitted last autumn as they sat round the fire. Mrs. Drover’s most normal expression was one of controlled worry, but of assent. Since the birth of the third of her little boys, attended by a quite serious illness, she had had an intermittent muscular flicker to the left of her mouth, but in spite of this she could always sustain a manner that was at once energetic and calm. ” —Elizabeth Bowen (excerpt from “The Demon Lover”)
“He had the illusion that the Inamura girl was walking in the shade of the trees, the pink kerchief and its thousand white cranes under her arm. He could see the cranes and the kerchief vividly. He sensed something fresh and clean. His chest rose—the girl might even now be arriving at his door.” —Yasunari Kawabata (excerpt from Thousand Cranes)
“I was, and still am, despite mes malheours, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor. Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject’s displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal.” —Vladimir Nabokov (excerpt from Lolita)
Without a doubt these authors have—aside from a fecund imagination—a remarkable command of the language. In fact, proficiency in the use of language helps to free the writer’s voice. Language is used as an instrument for conveying ideas, while setting the proper tone. Readers are enthralled by these writers’ display of simplicity, mystery, irony, alluring descriptions, or even pedantry. Nevertheless, the voice goes far beyond the author’s ideas, word choice, syntax, and literary tricks; it is, indeed, the timbre of a speaking voice, a total human presence. The persona in a novel or poem is part and parcel of the work and comes alive during the course of the creation.
No aspiring writer can deny that finding his true voice is a hard task. The reason is simple: the writers’ raw materials are words. By contrast, painters use brushstrokes on canvas, each of them unique. Just a cursory glance at the following paintings will show you how apparent Van Gogh’s, Monet’s, Turner’s, and Quinquela’s styles are:
Keelman Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, Turner
Starry Night, Van Gogh
Los barcos, Quinquela Martín
Again, these painters show dexterity with the materials at hand, just as notable authors do with words.
Now, let’s consider the realm of music and ballet. Composers’ and choreographers’ styles can be as distinct as painters’. Think about Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Falla, Bach, Liszt, Chopin, and Prokofiev as well as Petipa, Béjart, and Balanchine, to name just a few. Their compositions and choreographies carry a hallmark, easily identifiable by those who are well versed in classical music and dance. Nonetheless, when it comes to identifying interpreters’ renditions of their works, the difference may not be so evident on occasion. Naturally, the trained ear and the trained eye will recognize a myriad of nuances in every single case, as can be appreciated in the following pieces:
Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major, 1st Movement, by Yehudi Menuhin:
Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major, 1st Movement, by Jascha Heifetz:
Sergei Rachmaninov’s Spring Waters, Choreography: Messerer, Dancers: Bylova and Nikonov
Sergei Rachmaninov’s Spring Waters, Choreography: Messerer, Dancers: Tikhomirova and Merkuriev
I sip my tea and think some more about a writer’s most distinct feature: his voice. Put simply, style is the manner of a piece of writing; voice is its soul, what sets an author’s writing apart from others. It serves a specific purpose in each work because it is directly related to the narrator or the persona of the piece. The same author may sometimes produce a vibrant, overpowering voice; while his voice may turn gloomy or dismal under different circumstances. Just as actors embody a different character in each film, a good writer is supple enough to adjust his voice to the character who is speaking in his work.
A convincing voice is honest, as opposed to fake. The work is fictional, but the experience must be authentic. Developing a voice demands courage, intelligence, and self-knowledge. For a writer to discover his true voice is to discover himself.