|By Colin Lacey
First appeared the in the Irish Voice.
Hands up everyone who has cracked open James Joyce's Ulysses on more than a single occasion (usually around this time of year, with the threat of Bloomsday lurching ever closer), read and then re-read the first five or so pages and, faced with a Martello tower of frustration in place of an epiphany of beauty and hilarity, opted for the relative safety of the TV remote control? That many, huh?
Let's face it -- it is a difficult novel; even many of those who manage to span the distance between "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" and Molly Bloom's closing "Yes" turn the final page with a sneaky feeling they've missed much of what was really going on in between. And now that we're at it, let's face another thing too: despite bucketfuls of good intentions, decades worth of New Year's resolutions and a handful of promises sworn on your poor mother's good health, if you haven't read the damn thing by now, chances are you're never going to do it, right?
Right. But just because you lack the necessary time, stamina or inclination to go cover to cover with Ulysses doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to life as a Joyce-free Zone. If you're not going to do the decent thing and plough through the text as written, probably the best way to familiarize yourself with Ulysses is to have somebody else read the book for you: that way, you get the story, you get the humor, you get the subtlety, you get the genius -- and somebody else does all the nasty legwork. Three cheers then for Naxos, a British classical music label whose beautifully recorded 4-CD edition of Ulysses, read by actor Jim Norton with assistance from BBC Radio veteran Marcella Riordan, takes care of business with style and skill, and is one of the best, most accessible introductions to Joyce currently available.
Literary snobs will of course sneer at the very notion of any book, not to mention the most significant novel of the twentieth century, being available in audio format. (Let them; they're the same sort of critics who scoff at any writer not churning out forsaken masterpieces using the quill-and-parchment-in-a- Parisienne-garrett method of composition.) But Joyce, who considered a career as a singer before becoming a writer, took pains to make sure his writing was as attractive to the ear as to the eye, and Ulysses -- which uses Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" as models in much the same way it famously uses The Odyssey - is probably THE perfect novel to make the transition from the page to the sound studio. Naxos' lush recording suggests why.
With Norton handling the male roles with humor and sensitivity -- he teases sense from beneath the weight of Joyce's deliberately obscure wordplay and often impenetrable stylistic/flourishes -- and Riordan taking care of the female characters, this audio Ulysses is a listener's delight, rather like hearing a particularly accomplished storyteller present his favorite, most popular tale for an enthusiastic audience of close friends. The music Joyce and his fictional creations loved -- the popular music of the day essentially -- is here too, fleshing out the narrative, drifting in and out of scenes as required, and often acting as a hint that certain incidents and scenes are connected ('Love's Old Sweet Song,' which in the novel reminds Leopold Bloom of his wife infidelities, was recorded especially for this audio edition; Mozart and Wagner also featured). You don't get that sort of souped-up depth and breadth on first reading the book, at least not as comprehensively as in this recording, and that why the audio Ulysses is a welcome release.
However, there are undeniable difficulties encountered in this translation. Not the least of these is the novel's unconventional, convoluted structure: intertwining, multiple viewpoints and stream of consciousness techniques coupled with parodies of literary forms and methods don't make an audio book particularly user-friendly. Another challenge comes from Ulysses' inordinate length; if the annual June 16 reading of the work at Manhattan's Symphony Space is any indication. a full audio version of Ulysses could take anything up to 24 hours to sit through, something only rabid Joyceans, the mildly insane, and people with absolutely nothing on their social calendar seem willing to endure.
But how can these dilemmas be overcome? With a work of the scale and scope of Ulysses, there's really only one way to go: abridgement, a veritable four-letter word in the literary world. Naxos, with a fairly squirmy, pretty much unconvincing apology (according to the CD booklet, all the chapters have been cut to a greater or lesser extent, so that what we present here is clearly not Ulysses but readings from Ulysses. Oh yeah? Well, why not stick that on the cover, instead of in the small print?) have lopped off large sections of the book to keep it to a manageable, listenable length -- just under five hours. ALL of chapters two and three are axed, along with significant portions of the rest of the novel, including -- scandalously, some might say -- great chunks of Molly Bloom's book-closing soliloquy. Still, nobody says that audio books are replacements for the printed work, and this Ulysses doesn't even begin to attempt that impossible feat. It's a version, an interpretation no less valid a taster for the real thing than, say, a movie version of any literary classic. In fact, this audio Ulysses has much in common with some of the better movie adaptations of the great books: it demystifies while it entertains and that's what gives it much of its value.
Ulysses is a book that should be reclaimed from the pedestal onto which 70 years of study and analysis have hoisted it; it's a book that belongs not in the leather satchels of graduate students and professors, but in the hands of everyone who proclaims an interest in good, earthy, challenging fiction. If it takes an audio book to do that, then so be it. By bringing Ulysses to life in a sparkling, hear-it-in-one-sitting production; Naxos Audio Books and Jim Norton have provided the means. All you have to do is listen.
By Francis Gilbert
First appeared the in the New Statesman, 4 Dec 98.
Blandness and apathy prevail in the world of audio books, but there is a little rebellious corner fighting for the imagination: Naxos AudioBooks.
As part of the budget classical CD company Naxos, Nicolas Soames, the managing director, is able to draw upon an amazing back catalogue to provide music for each audio book. "Sometimes," he says, "music can say more than a page of text in conjuring up a certain mood." This is certainly the case in its most recent releases: Byrd and Dowland's music brilliantly evokes the chivalrous atmosphere of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen, read by John Moffatt, while Rameau definitely assists in conjuring up the polite boisterousness of Cleveland's Fanny Hill, read by Emma Fielding.
But it is in its adaptations of the difficult modernist classics where Naxos really comes into its own. In 1994, the company released its wonderfully accessible adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses (read by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan).
The extraordinary combination of swirling effects, Dublin drinking songs, classical music, masterful abridgement by the Joyce scholar and composer Roger Marsh and a virtuoso reading from Jim Norton make this the best audio book I've encountered: I had never fully appreciated the true poignancy and humour of Joyce's text until I heard this. It deserves many repeat listenings.
Soames has followed up this triumph with the recent release of Joyce's Finnegans Wake, also read by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan, using the same production team, but providing a booklet containing the abridged text so that the visual puns as well as the aural ones can be appreciated. Norton's true genius comes to the fore here: listening to him reading this is like watching someone dive down Niagara Falls and survive.
More than anyone else in the industry, Soames understands the true art of audio book production. He sees that the producer is more like a film director adapting a novel for the screen than simply someone who has to find an abridger, and that when done well, an audio book is far more spectacular and meangingful than a celluloid adaptation of a literary classic. One hopes that Naxos AudioBooks can flourish in an increasingly commercial market.