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October 19, 2009

Euphony and the Art of Writing

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The subject of this post is euphony and the writer is a man who deals with it professionally.

He's Charlton Griffin, a long-time 2Blowhards reader who creates audiobooks for a living (the link contains interesting biographical information). Our founder, Michael Blowhard, is a huge fan of Charlton's work, a catalog of which is here. (Don't forget to check out links at the top of the page that lead to much more than the short story selections shown.)

I'm utterly hapless behind a microphone, even when trying to record those "we're not here" messages for voicemail. So I found Charlton's peek behind the audiobook curtain fascinating; don't miss his takes on which authors do and don't make for easy reading.

* * * * *

"[A]greeableness of sound; pleasing effect to the ear, esp. a pleasant sounding or harmonious combination or succession of words: the majestic euphony of Milton's poetry."

In my experience, very few persons have ever expressed an opinion on the way literature sounds. Since most of us read silently, it would seem to be a moot point. But it is not. Because my daily bread is earned as a narrator, I have to give voice to books. It can be an arduous affair sometimes. Of all the qualities good writing possesses, I suppose euphony is the least understood and least important. Lucidity, simplicity and euphony were always the holy trinity of writing to Somerset Maugham. Like many great writers, he read his work aloud before he put his pen aside for the day. Don't you wish all writers would do this? Why on earth do some writers insist on linking up a long series of words that begin and end in difficult consonants? Or trip you up with a series of dependent clauses that leave you gasping for intellectual air? If you can't read a sentence aloud without contorting your face or stumbling around to find the right place for emphasis, there is a problem.

It is my opinion that the best writers are the ones whose works can be enjoyed audibly. I don't say this because I think their works ought to be enjoyed aloud. But it is in the vocal realm that language meets its sternest tests. A book can be lucid, and yet lose the reader because its sentence structure is so complex that the mind begins to wander. Think of those wonderfully logical college textbooks you struggled through. Can't get any more lucid than Plato, for example. Unfortunately, by piling one idea upon another in unending cascades, this kind of writing can sometimes require superhuman concentration after more than a few pages. Adding euphony to this process would probably not advance its ability to engage.

Simplicity is always to be desired. This assumes that you have something interesting to write about. Simplicity linked with inanity is devastating. But if your thinking process is such that you find it necessary to express complex ideas in an obscure manner, you may want to write for the educational market. Captive audiences have no choice. On the other hand, consumers of casual reading material will put up with a lot, but they won't stand for gratuitous intellectual fireworks, or paragraphs that must be constantly re-read. If a writer can employ simplicity and still get his ideas across, his readers will be grateful. If he can do this and also employ lucidity, he will be well ahead. But if the writer who understands the importance of lucidity and simplicity can also employ the ephemeral concept of euphony, he will be a great writer.

At this point, I'd like to show my hand by giving you some examples of writers whose use of euphony makes my life so much easier.

Charles Dickens: Yes, he can be obscure and often leaves us pondering monstrous run-on sentences. But his saving grace for me is his wonderful ability to punctuate...and some of the finest euphony by any English author since Shakespeare. The punctuation of Dickens is like a well lit series of road signs. You know where the hazards lie well in advance. You can relax and just enjoy the musical flow of words because you know precisely which word needs emphasizing. Also, Dickens read his work aloud to paying audiences. He knew how to write for the ear.

Guy de Maupassant: Simple and euphonic. The French seem to do this effortlessly and, apparently, to inspire their English translators. I have never read anything by Maupassant which did not incur my admiration for his amazing style. "Le mot juste" was his trademark, and he wielded those words with the wicked ferocity of a fencing master.

Somerset Maugham: Born in Paris, Maugham absorbed the lessons of euphony from the French masters. He re-introduced the concept of simple sentence structure at a time when late Victorian writers were running amok. Try any of his short story masterpieces to see how simplicity, lucidity and euphony are linked in his writing style.

And which writers have driven me to despair in front of a microphone? Here are a few.

Faulkner: I readily concede his genius. Some of his work is so sublime, you seem to be floating somewhere between poetry and prose. But try speaking it. I recorded "Barn Burning" three separate times before I was satisfied that I had gotten it. Too obscure in many places and little euphony in others. God help narrators who tackle Faulkner.

Thomas Hardy: The man had no concept of euphony. I keep avoiding his material because I can't stand the gymnastics I have to go through to vocally penetrate some of his prose. He had incredible insights into the human condition, along with an ability to draw characters in very sharp relief, but apparently he never understood the importance of euphony.

Vladamir Nabakov: Nabakov is a very good example of a genius writer who takes up his craft in a language other than that of his native tongue. Yes, it can be done. Goethe wrote sonnets in English. Conrad leaps to mind. But technical mastery and storytelling genius do not always go hand in hand with euphony. Nabakov is enthralling, but he clunks along in places when you read him aloud. Ayn Rand is another example of this problem.

So what do you think? Do any of you read aloud to friends and family? Or professionally? Who are your favorites when it comes to euphony? Who would you avoid?

* * * * *

Thank you, Charlton. I hope you will find time to send us more from the worlds you inhabit.



posted by Donald at October 19, 2009


So interesting, Charlton. The absence of such considerations as metre and musicality in the academic "analysis" of verse is a reason to shut down whole English faculties. But I've never thought about who's good to read aloud. Some books have been more enjoyable over the radio, and listening to old American radio plays starring the likes of Vincent Price and Ida Lupino leaves me wanting more. I've never looked at the issue from the stand-point of the guy reading, yet it must indicate a lot - mostly good - when authors lend themselves to your efforts.

"Simplicity is always to be desired." You got me.

I'm wondering who, besides Maugham, are your own faves for professional purposes. Further, do you have a Hall of Shame?

Posted by: Robert Townshend on October 19, 2009 4:22 AM

Charlton, I over-scrolled and missed your comments on Dickens and Maupassant. They're very different stylists, and I'm struck that you group them.

Yet it makes sense. Dickens did know he had thousands of people to entertain in public. Interesting that he still flows so well for the modern reciter (if that's what you're called).

Maupassant is the epitome of style-as-courtesy. That makes him, for me, the epitome of style. If a simple expression like "in the woods" appears in a sentence, you can bet he laboured mightily over its placement and punctuation till it was full of resonance, and so that the reader might not labour for an instant.

Thanks for the juicy post.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on October 19, 2009 4:50 AM

It would be nice if you could quote some representative passages from the authors you mention, to demonstrate their euphony or lack thereof.

Posted by: Wm Jas on October 19, 2009 5:46 AM

"Goethe wrote sonnets in English"

Did he? Very interesting. Do you have a link to one?

Posted by: Chris B. on October 19, 2009 9:37 AM

Nabokov? What the hell? Have you not heard Jeremy Irons' reading of Lolita? It's one of the few audiobooks that where I rarely tune out into a daydream.

Posted by: Sebastian Flyte on October 19, 2009 10:54 AM

Wm Jas: Just pick up a copy of Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" and read the opening paragraph aloud. This is wonderfully euphonic. Almost anything written by Ambrose Bierce is tough on the ear. (But I love his inventiveness and sardonic sense of humor.)

Chris B.: He wrote not only in English, but also in French. I can't find any links, but if you will get your hands on the Penguin edition of Goethe's "Selected Verse", the first poems in that book are examples of his English and French poems.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 19, 2009 11:16 AM

Curious about Flaubert. He could do almost anything in French, really a wonderful stylist. Does this come across in translation?

Posted by: MQ on October 19, 2009 12:43 PM

I'm a little surprised by the mention of Nabokov as a writer whose work is decidedly not euphonious. I would have thought he was euphonious, given what a pleasure he is to read, but I don't think I've ever tried reading him aloud. Will have to keep an ear out for that, next time I read something by him.

Ayn Rand I can see, though. Or hear, in my mind's ear.

Posted by: Taeyoung on October 19, 2009 3:52 PM

Jane Austen's language is flowery by modern standards, but flows. Its euphony is more logical than lyrical. The clauses tumble out - and then veer.

Your reference to Dickens' punctuation made me think of Tom Wolfe (white suit, not southern longing), a true contemporary master to my mind. But is he? I would love to model myself after him, but my imitations of his beautifully, heavily punctuated sentences come off fuddy-duddyish. Writing for mostly English editors, I end up trying to suppress punctuation, in particular leaving out commas I think would help. It seems to me there's a trend toward using less punctuation and using it less artfully, at least in Britain.

A few years ago, I read Resentment by Gary Indiana. The plot was flawed but I remember thinking he must have written for the stage because his dialogue was so evocative. I couldn't read it without hearing the voices.

Ayn Rand's prose seems plodding to me, though I love her and have read both of the long novels twice.

Posted by: robert61 on October 19, 2009 6:00 PM

Goethe did not write anything in English or French, although he knew both languages.

Rilke wrote many poems in French. Samuel Becket wrote works in French.

Posted by: G on October 19, 2009 9:38 PM

"Dickens read his work aloud to paying audiences."

On "Antiques Roadshow", a woman brought in a letter from Dickens. It was written to a Lady Spencer, who apparently wanted choice tickets to one of Dickens' readings. Dickens basically blew her off, though of course politely. The appraiser explained that tickets to a Dickens reading really were "hot" in the day: like tickets to "The Producers" when it was selling out on Broadway.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on October 19, 2009 11:18 PM


Goethe wrote "A Song Over the Unconfidence Toward Myself" in English, and "Le Veritable Ami" in French. I'm not saying I'm glad he did!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on October 19, 2009 11:35 PM

G: See my note above to Chris B.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 19, 2009 11:41 PM

MQ: I've read two pieces by Flaubert..."Salammbo", a novel, and "A Simple Heart", which is a terrific short story. Yes, the translations I have do him justice. But his stories seem to lack plot velocity, which is something Maupassant was brilliant at. I believe Maupassant once studied under Flaubert briefly. You might want to try the work of Alfonse Daudet. His "Letters from my Windmill" are really delightful.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 20, 2009 12:58 AM

It would be tempting to add Joyce to the list of non-euphonious masters of language, but I think that he's actually quite euphonious, and reading him out loud helps bring out the meaning of many of his more obscure passages. Like Dickens, Joyce was a master of punctuation, and using it as a guide to reading aloud does make a difference. But he's Irish after all, and his language shows it, punctuated or not.


For example, Joyce in the Telemachus section of Ulysses, describes a sexual act performed by Leopold Bloom on his sleeping wife Molly. Here's the passage (punctuation may not be accurate; I'm working from memory):

He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump. On each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation.

That really does roll rather nicely off the tongue (ahem), especially if you affect a mild Irish brogue.

I think it's a mistake to assume euphony was only present in writers considered "clear", like Maugham and Maupassant (not that I think Charlton was saying that). You do have to work saying the Joyce passage, but the compressed sequence of plosives, for example, is appropriate to his onomatopoeic intentions, it seems to me.

I must confess I'd love to hear Charlton read the Telemachus section of Ulysses, which is my favourite section of the book, and is very very funny.

And if the sexy stuff offends, read the opening:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan

or the famous intro of Leopold Bloom:

Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.

And how could you resist reading this out loud:

a bottle of porter stodged to its waist in the cakey sand dough

"Stodged". Man, it feels good just saying that word. "Cakey" is another feelgood word, and it's just icing on the, ah, cake of "stodged".

Posted by: PatrickH on October 20, 2009 9:21 AM

PatrickH: I've recorded "The Boarding House" by Joyce. You're right. Joyce is very euphonious. As are many Irish writers. In the DNA? As a matter of fact, Maugham traces his name to Ireland. George Moore was probably the most euphonius of all Irish writers. Reading him aloud is a memorable pleasure.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 20, 2009 10:18 AM

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