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Tempo Reale - Villa Strozzi - Via Pisana 77 50143 Firenze
Scientific & Music Program May 20-22 2011



Alessandra CALANCHI Ear to the Page

Ear to the page. Literary soundscapes in detective fiction

The recent studies in the fields of ecology and the environment have created the conditions for reviewing literary landscapes and cityscapes from new critical perspectives. Ecocriticism in particular has urged scholars to reconsider nature, wilderness, and urban milieu not as frames but as actors, that is as bearers of contents and meaningful connotations. In the wake of such studies, a new interest has arisen about literary soundscapes as well. Sound has always existed in literature, of course, but it was generally either taken for granted or left in the background – with few exceptions, such as the famous chapter of Walden entitled “Sounds”, by the American writer and philosopher H.D.Thoreau (1854).
As a matter of fact, literature, not less than society, is full of sound, noise, and music. This is particularly true in poetry, where alliteration, assonance, and repetition always convey specific emotions. To make just a couple of examples, the bells in Giovanni Pascoli’s “La mia sera” merge in the poet’s reverie with the “canti di culla” (nursery rhymes) that his mother used to sing to him when he was a baby; similarly, the verses “I heard a fly buzz when I died” by Emily Dickinson provide a powerful acoustic metaphor of the dramatic moment when the soul leaves the body.
That poetry gives the soundscape due attention is nothing new. However, it is my aim here to demonstrate that sound plays a crucial role in narrative as well. I am particularly interested in a genre which is traditionally considered more linked to visual details: namely, detective fiction. If we take Arthur Conan Doyle, we shall find that in “The Speckled Band” the hiss of a snake easily becomes circumstantial evidence because it does not belong to the familiar soundscape; similarly, the dog in “Silver Blaze” gives Sherlock Holmes an equally meaningful clue just because it did not bark.
In my talk, both through the analysis of a number of texts and relying on my personal experience of participation in two forensic sciences seminars, it is my intention to prove the importance of sound environment in the literary description of the crime scene, in the reconstruction of the event, and in the final report by the detective and/or narrator. It will be my aim, also, to show how every alteration of the soundscape plays a fundamental role in the story, since it has little to do with the background but becomes an indispensable diegetic element – therefore assuming aesthetic, artistic value.

Alessandra Calanchi is assistant professor of Anglo-American Literature and Culture at the University of Urbino “Carlo Bo”. Her areas of research include Jewish-American literature, popular fiction (mainly detection and sci-fi), and the cinema. She has dedicated many essays to such issues as the literary representations of the body, postmodern revisitations of time travelling, subjectivity and masculinity. She has published several volumes, among which Dismissing the Body. Strange Cases of Fictional Invisibility (1999) and Oltre il sogno. La poetica della responsabilità in Delmore Schwartz (2008). She has co-edited Stanze segrete (1998, with M. Ascari), Courts and the Ideal City (2004, with G. Morisco), and The Thousand and One Sherlock Holmes (2007, with G. Ovarelli). She has edited 221B Baker Street (2001), American Sherlockitis (2005), and two nov els by Saul Bellow (Mr. Sammler’s Planet, 2009, and Something to Remember Me By, 2010). She has been a regular contributor to Cinemasessanta since 1984.

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