THUCYDIDES, Translated by Richard Crawley, Read by Neville Jason, Naxos NA0069
PARADISE LOST, By John Milton, Read by Anton Lesser, Naxos NA 935012
THE GUERMANTES WAY, By Marcel Proust, Read by Neville Jason, Naxos NA 0098
VIRGIL’S AENEID, Translated by Cecil Day Lewis, Read by Paul Schofield and others, Naxos NA 427812
THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD, By J.M. Synge, Cyril Cusack, Siobhan McKenna and others, Naxos NA 287612
This month and next we’ll take a break from music and instead review some of the riches contained in Naxos Audio Books. There are many other companies, of course, that offer CDs or audio downloads of books being read aloud. But I’ve recently had the opportunity to investigate Naxos’s catalogue in some detail, and so will concentrate on their audio CDs, and refer to other producers’ versions of the same books wherever feasible.
But there’s one reason why Naxos has the edge over its competitors. This is that they’ve managed to get hold of quite a large number of British BBC recordings from their radio drama archives, classic plays performed by incomparable actors. No one else can quite match this superb treasure trove.
Naxos, as if to cap its own already prodigious achievement — it has over 700 audio CDs available — is in the process of issuing the whole of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past in this translation), uncut. They issued an abridged version ten years ago, read by the unstoppable Neville Jason, and now Jason has just completed the entire thing. There’s a podcast online in which he looks back on the experience as being less daunting than he’d expected. Naxos, though, are taking it easy and issuing the seven books one at a time. Four have appeared so far, and the third, The Guermantes Way, is as good a one as any to consider.
This Naxos version uses the original translation by Scott Moncrieff. Which translation of Proust’s masterwork you prefer is a notoriously contentious territory, but there are strong reasons for opting for the Scott Moncrieff version beyond its copyright availability. It’s been re-issued in a supposedly new version, revised by Terence Kilmartin, but what was sometimes overlooked was that Kilmartin only made on average three changes per page. Penguin’s more recent version, with a different translator for each book, was widely judged to lack the stylistic cohesion that a talented single translator, especially unrevised, could provide.
As for the reading, Neville Jason offers an easy, relaxed tone to carry us through the enormous length of the work. His rendition of the gay tailor, Jupien, early in Sodom and Gomorrah (the fourth book) may appear too mannered to some, but generally his approach is congenial, relaxed, and appropriately ironic where necessary.
Jason is a mainstay of the Naxos operation, being also responsible for the whole of War and Peace on 51 CDs. He is in addition the main reader of one of Naxos’s newest products, an abridged version of Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War (7 hours, 15 minutes on six CDs). The styles of Proust and Thucydides could hardly be more different, but Jason, using subtle variation, takes them both in stride.
Poetry must be included in any overview of an audio-book collection, and a representative item is Milton’s Paradise Lost, read here by Anton Lesser. His reading style is eager, light, dramatic and quite fast — appropriate, it might be thought, considering that Milton’s Latinate style all too often tends in the opposite direction. Music is added here and there, and this version does a lot to make what might in other circumstances be a forbidding experience pleasant and congenial.