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A week after the end of WWII, a nightingale begins to sing in the darkness of a northwest London park. ‘Figures of listeners’ appear in the nearby lighted windows. Part of the ‘emanations of peacetime’, the mellifluous whistles and trills transfix but also unsettle those within earshot emerging as they are from an auditory wartime regime of hyper-alert listening. The bird sings ‘into incredulity […] note after note from its throat stripped everything else to silence.’ This is Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘I Hear You Say So’ (1945), but in all her fiction, and her work as a broadcaster and writer for the BBC, Bowen had a keen ear for the acoustics of modernity, particularly the uncanny and troubling properties of found sound. In this story, too, given that the nightingale’s song is acousmatic – the tiny bird unseen – Bowen plays with the confusion between ‘absolute’ and reproduced sound.
What does it mean to write in and about sound? How can literature, seemingly a silent, visual medium, be sound-bearing? This volume considers these questions by attending to the energy generated by the sonic in literary studies from the late nineteenth century to the present. Sound, whether understood as noise, music, rhythm, voice or vibration, has long shaped literary cultures and their scholarship. In original chapters written by leading scholars in the field, this book tunes in to the literary text as a site of vocalisation, rhythmics and dissonance, as well as an archive of soundscapes, modes of listening, and sound technologies. Sound and Literature is unique for the breadth and plurality of its approach, and for its interrogation and methodological mapping of the field of literary sound studies.
This chapter attends to the transnational and multiracial nature of modernist writing in Britain, and the critical paradigms that have only recently made this archive fully visible and audible. Black and Asian writers, publishers, editors, and broadcasters were working within and across the cultural and political networks of literary London in this period. Theatres, bookshops, meeting halls, and boarding houses provided a generative topography for various forms of cultural production. Through exploring key texts – C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, Una Marson’s The Moth and the Star, Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, and Aubrey Menen’s The Prevalence of Witches – we can chart the global perspectives and histories that took writers to London and how these were transformed and structured by their encounters in the city. These texts, in both their subject-matter and experiments with language, voice, and register, as well as genre and literary mode, are products of movement between cultures, belief systems, and literary conventions. Their diverse oeuvres suggest the versatility required of colonial writers, but also their position at the meeting point of multiple literary and political traditions.