“First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville” | On Audiobooks of “Difficult” Novels

Moby-Dick, Rockwell Kent
I am a huge fan of audiobooks. I’ve pretty much always got one going—for commutes, jogs, workaday chores, etc. The usual. I love to listen to audiobooks of books I’ve already read, in particular, but I of course listen to new stuff too, or stuff that’s new to me, anyway. There just isn’t time to get to all the reading and rereading I want to do otherwise.

Beyond the fact that audiobooks allow me to experience more books than I would be able to otherwise, I like the medium itself: I like a reader reading me a story. Like a lot of people, some of my earliest, best memories are of someone reading to me. (The narrative in my family was always that my mother fell asleep while reading me The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and that I picked it up and finished it on my own and that’s how I “learned” to read—I’m not really sure of this tale’s veracity, which makes it a good story, of course). So I’ve never fully understood folks who sniff their noses at audiobooks as less than real reading. 

Indeed, the best literature is best read aloud. It is for the ear, as William H. Gass puts it in his marvelous essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.

Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Melville—a difficult foursome, no? I would argue that the finest audiobooks—those with the most perceptive performers (often guided by a great director and/or producer) can guide an auditor’s ear from sound to sense to spirit. A great audiobook can channel the pneuma of a complex and so-called difficult novel by animating it, channeling its life force. The very best audiobooks can teach their auditors how to read the novels—how to hear and feel their spirit.

I shall follow (with one slight deviation, substituting one William for another) Gass’s foursome by way of example. Joyce initiates his list, so:

I had read Joyce’s Ulysses twice before I first experience RTÉ’s 1982 dramatized, soundtracked, sound-effected, full cast recording of the novel (download it via that link). I wrote about the Irish broadcast company’s production at length when I first heard it, but briefly: This is a full cast of voices bringing the bustle and energy (and torpor and solemnity and ecstasy and etc.) of Bloomsday to vivid vivacious vivifying life. It’s not just that RTÉ’s cast captures the tone of Ulysses—all its brains and hearts, its howls and its harrumphs—it’s also that this production masterfully expresses the pace and the rhythm of Ulysses. Readers (unnecessarily) daunted by Ulysses’s reputation should consider reading the book in tandem with RTÉ’s production.

Woolf is next on Gass’s list. Orlando is my favorite book of hers, although I have been told by scholars and others that it is not as serious or important as To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway. It is probably not as “difficult” either; nevertheless, put it on the list! Clare Higgins’s reading of Orlando remains one of my favorite audiobooks of all times: arch without being glib, Higgins animates the novel with a picaresque force that subtly highlights the novel’s wonderful absurdities.

Faulkner…well, did you recall that I admitted I would not keep complete faith to Gass’s short list? Certainly Faulkner’s long twisted sentences evoke their own mossy music, but alas, I’ve yet to find an audiobook with a reader whose take on Faulkner I could tolerate. I tried Grover Gardner’s take on Absalom, Absalom! but alas!—our reader often took pains to untangle what was properly tangled. I don’t know. I was similarly disappointed in an audiobook of The Sound and the Fury (I don’t recall the reader). And yet I’m sure Faulkner could be translated into a marvelous audiobook (Apprise me, apprise me!).

Let me substitute another difficult William: Gaddis. I don’t know if I could’ve cracked J R if I hadn’t first read it in tandem with Nick Sullivan’s audiobook. J R is a tragicomic opera of voices—unattributed voices!—and it would be easy to quickly lose heart without signposts to guide you. Sullivan’s reading is frankly amazing, a baroque, wild, hilarious, and ultimately quite moving performance of what may be the most important American novel of the late twentieth century. A recent reread of J R was almost breezy; Sullivan had taught me how to read it.

Mighty Melville caps Gass’s list. I had read Moby-Dick a number of times, studying it under at least two excellent teachers, before I first heard William Hootkins read it. (Hootkins, a character actor, is probably most well-known as the X-wing pilot Porkins in A New Hope). As a younger reader, I struggled with Moby-Dick, even as it intrigued me. I did not, however, understand just how funny it was, and even though I intuited its humor later in life, I didn’t fully experience it until Hootkins’ reading. Hootkins inhabits Ishmael with a dynamic, goodwilled aplomb, but where his reading really excels is in handling the novel’s narrative macroscopic shifts, as Ishmael’s ego seems to fold into the crew/chorus, and dark Ahab takes over at times. But not just Ahab—Hootkins embodies Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb with humor and pathos. Hootkins breaths spirit into Melville’s music. I cannot overstate how much I recommend Hootkins audiobook, particularly for readers new to Moby-Dick. And readers old to Moby-Dick too.

“What can we do to find out how writing is written? Why, we listen to writers who have written well,” advises (or scolds, if you like) William Gass. The best audiobook performances of difficult books don’t merely provide shortcuts to understanding those books—rather, they teach auditors how to hear them, how to feel them, how to read them.

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams Is a Perfect Audiobook

Going West (Express Train) — Thomas Hart Benton

A few weeks ago on this blog, I declared Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a perfect novella, a claim that I feel even more certain about after listening to Macmillan audio’s new production of the book, read by Will Patton.

Precise, funny, and moving, Train Dreams tells the story of Robert Grainier, a laborer (and eventual hermit of sorts) who makes a life in (and against) the strange wilderness of the Idaho panhandle. The book somehow measures the first half of the twentieth century in the US without overreaching; instead, through Grainier’s human (but anti-social) presence, Johnson traces the end of Manifest Destiny, the last strands of the wild frontier. Train Dreams, poised tautly on a line that divides the mythic and metaphysical from the concrete and real, shows us a world where we might catch a glimpse of wolf-children and angels—the real thing, not just the sham show, not just a pale suggestion.

Moving through the book again via Patton’s expert narration, I was struck by how constructed yet seamless Johnson’s narrative is. Johnson gets so much credit for the precision of his syntax, but a rereading of Train Dreams reveals how tight and layered, yet never obvious, his plot is—how he lays out his themes repeatedly without brazenly calling attention to them. (One of the joys of reading is rereading; one of the joys of a novella is that its brevity allows us to easily reread). The book is a gem.

Will Patton’s reading perfectly matches the tone, pacing, and depth of Train Dreams. He understands the restraint of Johnson’s prose, never tripping over into bombast or ghastly over-emoting. Patton’s wry, not-quite-dusty, not-quite-dulcet tone brings Johnson’s small cast to vivid life. In particular, he breathes energy into the humorous dialogues. I found myself laughing aloud over a discourse between Grainier and a man who’s been shot by his own dog. Patton understands the material and brings the same sensitivity, pathos, and wit to it that he brought to his reading of Johnson’s 2007 opus, Tree of Smoke.

A good reader makes all the difference of course. In the wrong hands—excuse me, wrong voice—a book we thought we knew can come across stifled, squashed; the reader can actually hurt the book, impose the wrong tone: misread. A reader like Patton (and I should credit his director and production team too, of course) can enlarge a book for its audience, shining light on the subtle nuances we might overlook, or even clouding phrases we thought we fully understood, empowering the language with a new ambiguity that enriches the overall reading experience. Highly recommended.

Here’s Patton reading the first part of Train Dreams:

We Review RTÉ’s Full Cast Audio Recording of James Joyce’s Ulysses

My third (complete) trip through James Joyce’s Ulysses finds me just as (or even more than) stunned as the previous two journeys, a bit (very much) unequal to properly reviewing the book, but this time with an easy out — I listened to an unabridged, full cast audio recording. The aforementioned “easy out” is resting on the received greatness and goodness (and evilness) of the book, which I will hardly contend with and heartily endorse (and do very little real critical work to support my endorsement). Ulysses is fantastic. But what about this audio recording?

First thing’s first — I listened to, absorbed, choked up at, guffawed about, cackled around, and generally loved RTÉ’s 1982 dramatized, soundtracked, sound-effected, lovingly detailed recording of Ulysses, a work crammed with voices to match (if perhaps not equal) Joyce’s big fat work. This recording is not as widely available as LibriVox’s (free) full cast production or Jim Norton’s Naxos reading, but, after sampling both, I’d argue that it’s better. The Irish players bring sensitivity and humor to their roles, but beyond that pathos, the energy of RTÉ’s troupe is what really makes the book sing. Leopold Bloom gets his own voice, as does Stephen Dedalus and Molly (and all the characters). This innovation propels the narrative forward with dramatic power, and clarifies the oh-so indirectness of Joyce’s free indirect style, making the plot’s pitfalls and pratfalls more distinct and defined. There are songs (and dances) and music (and musing) and humming (and hemming and hawing and reverb). There is chanting and chawing and brouhaha. There is chaos and calamity and confusion. There is brilliance and peace and transcendence. It’s all very good, great, wonderful.

So: Who is a full cast unabridged audio recording of Ulysses for? Say, for instance, can someone who’s never read Ulysses listen to this instead?

I don’t know.

Here’s what I think though: Ulysses begs to be read aloud, is musical, soundical. Beyond obvious chapters like episode 11, “Sirens,” an overtly musical interlude that actually hurt my throat the first (second?) time I read it (even though I read it that time silently) — beyond the obvious musicality of “Sirens,” Ulysses hums and thrums and bristles and thumps with lively, vocal, melodious, rhythmic energy, pulses in sound and vision. The full cast reading, to cling to a hoary cliché, brings this sound and vision to life, animating Joyce’s words with a just vitality. But I’ve tripped into details, put carts before horses — the prime advantage for an audio recording of Ulysses to newbies is probably how clearly (and audibly, ahem) it delineates the book’s plot. But —

At the same time, I think anyone reading the book for the first time will want to read it along with the audio recording. Read along as in literally read along with, or, more likely read first or after — chapter by chapter that is. Yes, I think, yes, that’s what I’d recommend (lagersoaked now as my brain might be) — read a chapter first, then listen, then read another (or reread). Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

The Cast at Work

Now I retreat to that ugly bastard of literary criticism, reader response shtick, the stuff of fellows who can’t make real claims on the work itself but rather hide behind how the book made me feel and think and blah blah blah. Sorry. I break myself against Ulysses. And it’s not even the book, truth be told (to trot out another hoary cliché) — I’ve reviewed books here that sought to rival Ulysses, books that undoubtedly contend with it — it’s more the critical tradition that accompanies Ulysses that daunts me. But enough. Anyone who wishes to read pages of graduate school work on the subject, written by moi, may apply below. Suffice to say for now that I loved loved loved listening to this audio recording.

Perhaps because I was so familiar (or familiar enough) with Joyce’s themes at this reading/auditing, I was able to relax during this odyssey through Joyce’s epic. To put it another way, I felt no need to be “on” — to pick up allusions, to grasp at threads — and trip over them. Instead, I found a human dimension to Joyce’s work, one I’d felt there before, but perhaps not fully experienced (I am not claiming that I have fully experienced Ulysses). I laughed. I angered. I spit. I snarled. I cried (yes, I cried; at the mention of Rudy at the end of “Circes,” and then, again, at the end of the novel, just a bit, when I felt (felt) Molly’s love for her husband). There might have been a stirring at the loins.

I found a confirmation of my favorite episodes: “Circe,” foremost, an apocalyptic carnival brought to a bristling boil in the Irish cast’s capable choir. The aforementioned “Sirens” sings of course; far more pleasant, really, to hear than read. “Telemachus,” sure, who can nay-say an opener like that, although it’s really just the opener to the prelude to the real opener “Calypso” — great stuff. What earthy joy to meet Bloom. “Hades” — a sad treat. “Aeolus” — a funny treat, windily rebounding in vim and vigor and vigorous vim. The library episode — “Scylla and Charybdis” — I’ve always thought of it as Hamlet and Stephen, or grandfathers and ghosts — becomes clearer in the voices of RTÉ’s cast. Clearer not in the sense of: “Now I understand what Stephen’s getting at,” but clearer in the sense: “Now I see where Stephen sees what he is not quite sure he is getting at.” That chapter on pig-headed closemindedness, “The Cyclops” — a triumph, a magnitude, a bold chuckle. And “Penelope.” Well, yes, great stuff.

It’s more remarkable, I suppose, the ways in which RTÉ’s recording illuminated those chapters I’d struggled with, those that had made me yawn. The first, tedious, purposefully clichéd half of “Nausica” tried my patience (get back to Bloom!) — but the actress who reads it highlights the chapter’s tedium, its commonplaces — even as it/she rushes to that juicy climax. “Proteus”: far more manageable than I’d remembered. And “The Oxen of the Sun” (aka that chapter that I never really read properly) — well, with a full band of nasty drunken med students, a bold narrator (and a sympathetic nurse), this stumbling rock becomes a springboard to the madness I so love (and have loved) in “Circe.” In the once-trying catechism of “Ithaca,” the actors find a rhythmic bounce, a dry crunching that explodes in the wet gush of “Penelope.” And didn’t I say, yes, great stuff.

What this audio recording does best is humanize Joyce’s characters. While there is never a doubt that they are set against their mythotypical forebears, I found in Joyce’s characters this time a deep specificity, a concreteness of place, a realness. I found no need to situate a Bloom-as-Odysseus correspondence. Molly did not have to be an earth goddess. Stephen was freed from the burden of Hamlet. Sure, metempsychosis was in play, but it was a backdrop, not a foregrounding, determining analytical program. I think the audio recording helped transmit this humanity, a humanity that was always there, obscured by the clutter of critical tradition.

If I haven’t been clear: Very highly recommended.