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Big novels, audiobooks and the north face of the Eiger

By Nicolas Soames

1 November 2007

Recording large novels unabridged is a massive undertaking. When we recorded War and Peace (which runs for 61 hours) with Neville Jason reading, we put aside twenty-one days for recording. It actually took about twenty-four, and then there were a few retakes as we re-considered interpretation and pronunciation.

Neville has never quantified the amount of time he spent in preparation – considering the characters, the tone of the narrative, the flow and pace of the whole book. And that is before the major task of preparing the reading! Many of the very finest readers read their books out loud first of all, before they get into the studio. Certainly David Timson did this with Our Mutual Friend (36 hours): he reckons he has read it out complete at least three times.

Their work is certainly appreciated. Neville received this a few days ago: ‘After listening to your absolutely lovely reading [of War and Peace] my admiration of Tolstoy must now be accompanied by a sense of happy wonder at the sensitivity you display and your beautiful voice. The characters come alive – you are a genius! I am now on my second round of listening.’

Another letter highlighted his recording of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (abridged, but still 45 hours!): ‘I was daunted by the book itself and never got closer to scaling its great height than the base camp of Volume One… but then I discovered it was possible to be whisked to the summit in deluxe comfort by means of your wonderful reading. I enjoyed every moment of the journey, and now that I understand the topography better, I have begun to make explorations of my own.’

Of course, there are some readers who are happier to take a more spontaneous run at a book. One famous reader (no names here…) never reads the last fifty pages until he is actually in front of the microphone in the studio, so that he feels he can inject the right note of surprise. I have always thought that a rather dangerous approach, because there could be a sting in the tail (‘…as he said in his strong Scottish accent – Yikes! The main character is Scottish!!!!).

And to be frank, sometimes the financial reward for actors ascending these verbal north-faces-of-the-Eiger is so small that the principal task becomes getting it out as fast as possible.

All this comes to me because I have been listening – for a change! – to another company’s recording. The work is Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, an account of an Australian who breaks out of a top security jail, flees to India and gets involved in the Bombay underworld. It is a massive book in size – 1,000 pages – and scope. Full of action, it has time for wonderfully vivid character portraits of Indian slum dwellers in Maharashtra, as well as Afghan mafia warlords, thugs, prostitutes, bodyguards, killers, and seductive but wayward women of all kinds. Its dialogue (reflecting the different nationalities) is right on the button. And it is also a snapshot of a time – when the Russians were fighting their Afghan war – which is particularly relevant to us today.

Roberts has done for Bombay what Lawrence Durrell did for Alexandria in The Alexandria Quartet, displaying a city in all its colours and smells, glory and underbelly.

And the reading, by the Australian actor Humphrey Bower, is as virtuosic as it could possibly be. He does a truly remarkable job. He has a strong presence as the main character, Lin, but also brings to life all the major and minor characters – be they an Indian taxi driver, a cocaine-addicted wastrel, a frightening Afghan torturer, a Palestinian gangster beset by nightmares or a whole range of women from a variety of countries, each with a distinctive character created by more than just the appropriate accent!

I have some personal experience of the slums of Maharashtra, and I can confirm that both Roberts and Bower have got the milieu, the people, the energy and the vocal sounds perfectly.

The recording runs for 41 hours, and I have been listening while in the gym, the car, walking down the road… and though it may appear odd for me to take your attention away from the wondrous classics we offer, I can only say that if you feel like sampling a roller-coaster which dips into metaphysics and some dodgy ethics from time to time but keeps you glued, completely glued, to your earphones, and you want to hear a master reader, and you want to see why the audiobook is such a transforming medium – one that has uplifted me for so many years – and why I wanted to start Naxos AudioBooks… then, apart from all the Naxos AudioBooks glories, I recommend Shantaram (Blackstone Audiobooks – an American company).

And my salutations go out to Humphrey Bower, a master of his craft.

Nicolas Soames

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