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Audiobook recording the hard way

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The_face_of_frustration.jpgBack in January, I blogged about recording my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, as an audiobook.  I am sorry to say that the experience has taught me several life lessons in the manner through which I most commonly learn: the hard way.

First lesson: location, location, location!  Eureka, California is about as good a place for recording an audiobook as coastal Japan is for a nuclear power plant.  Quite simply, the audio engineer talent isn't in Eureka.  If you want an audio engineer who is incapable of recording the spoken word inside a booth without also recording himself zipping up his hoodie outside the booth - along with picking up other technical noises, like 60-cycle hums, which shouldn't be on the track - then by all means, record in Eureka. 

Second lesson: notwithstanding my default assumption that most people in the world are basically well-intentioned and doing the best they can, the world is occasionally peopled with unprofessional, unethical scoundrels.  Such folk may be disguised as soft-spoken, physically-pathetic, socially-awkward sound engineers to whom one may be predisposed to show kindness.  But for reasons known best to themselves, the mask slips, and they reveal themselves: in my case, the incompetent sound engineer held my master audio file hostage and demanded a ransom of more than a hundred dollars in excess of the hundreds of dollars I'd already paid him . . . for an ultimately unusable recording.    

Third lesson:  people who deserve to be sued don't have to be sued by you.  I didn't pay the ransom, but I did retain a lawyer.  And another sound engineer.  The lawyer sent a demand letter, which threatened to sue the first sound engineer if he didn't return the master audio file to me.  The second sound engineer meanwhile analyzed some mp3 files made from the master audio file, a process that revealed that the master was hopelessly flawed and useless. 

Thus, when the first sound engineer responded to the demand letter by refusing to return the master audio file, I found myself without much reason to pursue litigation.  I could ask for a refund, yes, and punitive damages, as well; but the impetus for the suit had never been money: the audio recording was my voice, my novel, my creation - and I wanted it back.  If it was, in fact, unusable, then I wasn't much interested in being the instrument of punishment for the Eureka-based, unprofessional, unethical sound engineer: let adult-onset diabetes, or some other lifestyle disease related to his obesity and general decrepitude, finish him off.

Fourth lesson:  the fact that I paid $1,150 to two sound engineers and an attorney and ended up with nothing isn't the kind of fact that I should dwell on.  Financial loss is an unavoidable fact of life, especially for artists, and apparently for me in particular, and acceptance is the only manner of dealing that isn't going to impair my quality of life (to say nothing of my emotional calm).  Instead, I will focus on this soothing, amusing quote from E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, in which Aziz says:

If money goes, money comes.  If money stays, death comes.  Did you ever hear that useful Urdu proverb?  Probably not, for I have just invented it.  
The Swing of Beijing will be available as an audiobook at some future, but as-of-yet undetermined, date.

(Photo of Alice Forney personifying the Goddess of Frustration in Relation to Sound Recordings by Maya Alexandri)

If only "only connect" . . .

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EM_Forster_1938.jpgIn his Express review Wendy Moffat's biography, EM Forster: A New Life, Duncan Fallowell wrote that "the great and beautiful theme of all [Forster's] work [was] 'the search of each person for an honest connection with another human being.'"

Certainly Forster's theme is no secret.  Indeed, his formulation of it in Howard's End is endlessly quoted:

Only connect! . . . Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.  Live in fragments no longer.  Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
Although "Only connect" obviously resonates with many people, I prefer Forster's statement of the principal in concrete terms.  Here he is, explaining in A Passage to India, how "only connect" works in action, without any of the abstract "beast" and "monk" references:

There needs must be this evil of brains in India, but woe to him through whom they are increased!  The feeling grew that Mr. Fielding was a disruptive force, and rightly, for ideas are fatal to caste, and he used ideas by that most potent method - interchange.  Neither a missionary nor a student, he was happiest in the give-and-take of a private conversation.  The world, he believed, is a globe of men who are trying to reach one another and can best do so by the help of good will plus culture and intelligence - a creed ill-suited to Chandrapore, but [Fielding] had come out too late to lose it.
Forster's description of cross-cultural connection through conversational interchange is something I recognize from experience.  But the more important reason for preferring "good will plus culture and intelligence" to "only connect" is that, in A Passage to India, Forster illustrates something else I know from experience: the limits of his doctrine.

"Only connect" just isn't enough.  Abstractly stated, it's easy to romanticize; contextualized in A Passage to India, it's exposed as wishful thinking.

A brief summary of the plot of A Passage to India is here useful: Fielding and Aziz manage to become friends despite the British raj.  When Adela Quested accuses Aziz of making criminal sexual advances, Fielding maintains Aziz's innocence.  Fielding resigns from the British club in protest of the colonial community's racist presumption of Aziz's guilt.  Adela receives vulgar support from racist colonials, against which her intrinsic decency recoils.  On the witness stand in court, Adela dramatically retracts her accusation.  In the aftermath of the trial, Fielding houses Adela at the school where he teaches, and he urges Aziz not to sue Adela for libel.  Aziz accuses Fielding of helping his [Aziz's] enemy, and years later refuses to see Fielding when he returns to India with his new wife.  Upon learning that Fielding's wife is not Adela Quested, but in fact Stella Moore, the daughter of an elderly woman who Aziz loved and honored, Aziz relents in his anger, but the rupture in their friendship is permanent. 

In the book's last scene, Fielding and Aziz meet, "aware that they could meet no more."  Aziz asserts, "if it's fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then . . . and then . . . you and I shall be friends."  Fielding questions this perspective: "Why can't we be friends now? . . . It's what I want.  It's what you want."  But Forster makes clear that everything in the environs - the horses, "the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion . . . they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, 'No, not yet,' and the sky said, 'No, not there.'"     

As even the plot outline clarifies, the connection between Aziz and Fielding does not make manifest "human love at its height."  It reveals that individual human connections devoid of social support are fragile, fleeting and unstable.  The flip-side is shown by Adela Quested, who is propped up by people she loathes: social support devoid of human connections are equally fragile, fleeting and unstable.  Both - as demonstrated by the ostracization of both Fielding and Adela -  lead to loneliness and isolation.

I have lived this saddening dynamic myself.  The vast majority of interactions that I've had over the last seven years have involved some attempt to connect across a cultural divide.  The connections so achieved don't mean what I hope, or wish, or think they mean; they're superficial; they evaporate with a hint of pressure; they continually disappoint.  Falling into the trap of blaming myself - I didn't try hard enough, I didn't have enough compassion - is easy, but the truth is hard.

What EM Forster could have said - what's accurate - is "Only connect, in a context that supports connection."  The drawback to truth, of course, is what Forster describes at the end of A Passage to India: contexts often don't support connections.  The temples, the sky, they don't want it.  And if you're in a context that doesn't support the connection you want or need, then you must remake your context, which is vastly more difficult than making a connection.

To describe Forster's "great and beautiful" theme as finding individual connection with another human being does a disservice to Forster, I think.  In his own life, he knew that what he needed was not an individual connection, but a gay-friendly social context.  And in A Passage to India, he suffused his art with that more complicated version of his theme: "Only connect, although the connection will fail, fragile, fleeting and unstable is our portion."
   
(Image of EM Forster from The Daily Mail)

Recommending Henry

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Sargent's_Henry_James.jpg
A friend recently wrote to me asking for recommendations of classic books he could read over Spring Break.  (Plainly, he's not one of my friends who believes that nothing in the classics can rival Girls Gone Wild: Endless Spring Break; and for those of my friends who do hold such beliefs, what about the "lioness on the cheese grater" position referred to in Lysistrata?)

So back to my friend: I replied with a list of books that included Henry James' The Aspern Papers, possibly my fave of the James oeuvre.  Short, shocking and chock full of nasty conflicts of interest and sexual tensions, The Aspern Papers is my idea of reading satisfaction.

Not so much my friend: "I tried reading the Aspern Papers, but didn't really enjoy the writing style."

Poor Henry!  All those long sentences with tangential, intermediary clauses; all that punctuation - those dashes, those commas; all those asides, all that effort, all that style: all beyond the ready appreciation of today's reader.

And poor friend!  Henry James is not called "The Master" for nothing.  All his learning, his intimate knowledge of the human viscera, his understanding of emotional contortion and manipulative behavior, of the corrupting power of money and the dangers of life on society's periphery: all inaccessible under the lock of his impenetrable prose.

The situation brought to mind the scene in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, when Aziz spontaneously recites a poem by Ghalib to an assortment of well-wishers who have come to his bedside when he's sick:

[The poem] had no connection with anything that had gone before, but it came from his heart and spoke to theirs.  They were overwhelmed by its pathos; pathos, they agreed, is the highest quality in art; a poem should touch the hearer with a sense of his own weakness, and should institute some comparison between mankind and flowers.
. . . .
Of the company, only Hamidullah had any comprehension of poetry.  The minds of the others were inferior and rough.  Yet they listened with pleasure, because literature had not been divorced from their civilization.  The police inspector, for instance, did not feel that Aziz had degraded himself by reciting, nor break into the cheery guffaw with which an Englishman averts the infection of beauty.  He just sat with his mind empty, and when his thoughts, which were mainly ignoble, flowed back into it they had a pleasant freshness.
(p. 99-100.)  With humor and a deft description, Forster captured - almost 90 years ago - what we have lost and, still today, haven't been able to replace.  The "infection of beauty" imbues even the ignoble thought with a "pleasant freshness."

Translation: Girls Gone Wild is even better after reading The Aspern Papers!

(Image of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Henry James from State College of Florida website)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the A Passage to India category.

A House for Mr. Biswas is the previous category.

A Place of Greater Safety is the next category.

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