Friday, May 14, 2010

Literature aloud

For some reason I've been absolutely addicted to audiobooks lately. It started with Tristram Shandy, which I was rereading but realized I didn't quite have the time to go all the way through again. Then I stumbled upon Peter Barker's unbeleviably excellent recording. It is ridiculously inexpensive ($7!!!), since it is in the (still excellent) "Great Literary Classics" series made by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, but that's not only why you should check it out. I generally am suspicious of the full-on dramatization in the reading of literary texts, or the playing up of characters at the expense of something like a narrative voice (I don't speak here of actual dramatizations, which are quite amazing alternatives to TV or Film adaptations--I'll recommend a couple below). Except in some very special cases--namely, the indescribably wonderful readings of Harry Potter by the inimitable Stephen Fry, and what is (to me) simply the most hilariously absurd satire ever written, Wigfield, by Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and Paul Dinello--because I am a literary critic, I want the tonelessness of the page (or, rather, its multiple tonalities) somewhat available to me at all times, and that is the first thing to go when this sort of thing happens. But if there is any one text that repays this sort of work, it is Tristram, since the text itself is already cut up so much into so many voices that it becomes almost impossible to read silently straight through. In short, much is actually lost in the silence, and Barker brings it all (and more) back. It feels like a different book, in all the best ways--and is all the more hilarious. All the other recordings of Shandy, as well, don't even compare with this one (though looking at them all, you can see Sterne has had a better audio fate than other authors).

I have been looking for the best Austen recording lately, but I'm still not satisfied with what is out there. I will venture to say the "Great Literary Classics" Emma by Richard Baker isn't bad, Anne Flosnik's is somewhat better, while the Juliet Stevenson's Emma is the best. Fascinatingly, Jeremy Northam who played Knightly in the popular Paltrow movie adaptation, reads a version which is actually really, really good--though abridged (blech!). I will say Flo Gibson's Pride and Prejudice is a little too quick for me--you don't get the unbelievable balance (or telling imbalance) of Austen's prose when you go that quick.

But all that is prose. It's quite a different thing to listen to poetry--and not just in a live reading, but in a recorded version. For, strangely, the temptation is even greater here to work up these wonderful lines into something like drama, which makes them fall so very flat for me: take, for example, Ian McKellen's Ancient Mariner, which--sad to say, since he has of course one of the most amazing voices around--is so overdone (unlike, however, McKellen's wonderfully quick, sprightly rendition of Robert Fagle's quirky Odyssey). The BBC's recent adaptation of Wordsworth's "Two-Part" Prelude which--with its interesting sound effects and music--is a bit more effective, but again dulls the poetry. Anton Lesser's Milton (the most recent BBC recording of Paradise Lost, as well as Regained and many of the other poems for Naxos) so ov-er-em-pha-sizes-every syl-able that all rhythm is murdered--though he occasionally produces some unbelievably sublime moments. But, just to be clear, it isn't dramatization as such that is really the problem: the dramatizations of Austen by the BBC are really wonderful, and so is the recent Maltese Falcon with Tom Wilkinson--which is really, really, really good. And of course Shakespeare is meant to be heard on a stage--not on the page. But with certain bits of poetry, or perhaps certain forms of poetry, a certain space opens up in between drama and silent reading which is problematic--and in which, at least for me, it is better to err by moving away from drama.

This all said, it will be no suprise that I was again suprised to find myself getting quite addicted to Ralph Cosham's absolutely excellent recording of Paradise Lost. It is of course just another aspect of my Milton-mania over the last few weeks (not just because of--again I'll mention them, they are that good--John Rogers' lectures which I have been enjoying, but also because some bits in my research have taken me back to Milton [Paradise Regained might have some part in my diss], whom I haven't read in a few years). But the recordings are so good because they hit exactly the sort of open tone or antitone I think is excellent. His reserved, controlled approach--perhaps too reserved for prose--is actually extremely well suited to capturing Milton's prosodic pyrotechnics, and I really recommend this version over every other one: what's so essential--though there is a lot of literature on this (Robert Pinsky, to take the most recognized example, writes well on the demands of reading aloud and promotes it tirelessly)--is that the rhythms of verse produce the drama first and foremost, and Cosham nails this. Also exellent are any of Derek Jacobi's recordings.

I should add as a footnote to all this that it is an extremely tough thing to read any book aloud with any amount of talent--as anyone who has been in a literature class, and listened to our plain, shy, amateur attempts to just sound out the thing to get a grip on it knows. This is especially the case with poetry, which sounds so flat so easily... Nearly every reading from the Naxos Great Poets series is excellent.


Robyn said...

I have to admit I have never bought a book on tape. I thought they would sound awful for the very reasons you mentioned -- overacting, silly character voices, etc.

Last night I wrote a post about reading aloud to my son. I was thinking about how we take in spoken words and written words differently, and how this might affect our own speech and writing (though I was thinking about it from a developmental standpoint). You started to address the "space" between drama and silent reading. You could expand on that, but also on the space between silent reading and plain old reading aloud. One is internalized almost without mediation from the "toneless" page, and the other is set out before us with its highs and lows (aural ones and narrative ones) to examine a little differently before we take it in. What the heck goes on there!? Like you said, it's hard to read Tristam Shandy quietly. It would probably be even harder to do some silent Dr. Seuss reading.

Thanks for the recommendations!

Mike Johnduff said...

There's a lot to say and indeed expand upon (having experimented a lot with reading things aloud in the Children's Literature class I've been teaching, I definitely agree there's something that Seuss is tapping into--which also may be lost when we grow older and start to hear things in seminar rooms!). But let me now just link both to your post (here: and to Cosham reading (for free) the Simplon pass passage in the Prelude (here: to give people a nice sense of how much he can bring to (and bring out) blank verse.