The truth about audiobooks

10 December 1998
The New Statesman

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.

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