The Godfather: Peter Corris on audiobooks revisited
Recently I wrote in praise of audiobooks, which I continue to consume at a rate of three or four a week – they are vital to my quality of life. Further familiarity has bred not contempt but a critique.
At the risk of appearing sexist, I find readings by women unsatisfactory. It’s not that they lack the basic skills of bringing a story to life, but in my view it is much harder for a woman to deepen or roughen her voice to simulate a male speaking than for a man to use a lighter tone and convey the voice of a woman. The one female narration I’ve listened to (I’ve rejected others after a chapter or two) suffered from this difficulty, which detracted severely from the impact of the book. There may be exceptions – female readers with more flexible voices – but I’ve yet to encounter one.
Possibly the best reader I’ve heard is Gerard Doyle, who has read five of Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy novels, beginning with The Cold, Cold Ground (2012) through to Rain Dogs (2016). Doyle’s mastery of the Belfast accent and, necessarily, of Scots and standard English accents, is extraordinary. Somehow his renditions convey an atmosphere and flavour as well as humour and drama which have made these readings among the most enjoyable I’ve experienced. Like any reader addicted to a series, I look forward to McKinty’s next Duffy and (I hope) Doyle’s reading.
One of the most remarkable readings I’ve heard, and not for its merits, has been of The Day of the Scorpion (1968), the second book in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. Although the reader is adept with Indian and British accents, he allows himself long pauses between passages and sometimes loses the rhythm of the text. In some of these pauses he can be heard coughing, having a drink and lighting a cigarette. These are all natural actions, but they somehow distance the listener from the story. The book itself seems to me not very good, with tedious passages of description and unlikely soliloquies, which the poor reading emphasises.
Among the many readings I’ve enjoyed, some more than others, I’ve occasionally come across other notably poor examples. One such is Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice (1950).
I read several of Shute’s books when young and enjoyed them. When I was an undergraduate I remember Leavisite lecturer David Moody saying that a neighbour had persuaded him to read a Shute novel (I’ve forgotten the title), which he had found very poor. I decided to listen to one to see whether I agreed with Moody or whether my youthful appreciation still held.
The book tells the story of an Englishwoman leading a party of women and children for hundreds of miles through Malaya when the Japanese were in charge in the early 1940s. This part of the story, perhaps half of the whole, is well constructed and read with one glaring exception – the reader is utterly unable to capture the Australian accent and idiom. The second half of the book deals with the reinvolvement of the Englishwoman with the Australian soldier who had helped the party during their trek and been tortured by the Japanese.
This section, in which there are many Australian speakers, was almost painful to hear. Quite apart from the unconvincing accent of the reader, the author had characters using expressions no Australian would ever have used, and the story was reduced to nothing more than an unconvincing, sentimental romance with capitalist and racist underpinnings. If this was the book David Moody read I’m not surprised at his reaction.
Nevil Shute Norway was an Englishman who emigrated to Australia in 1950. His novels, like A Town Like Alice and On the Beach (1957), were immensely popular and were successfully filmed, the screenwriters having eliminated the stilted pseudo-Australianisms of the books. Perhaps his novel No Highway (1948), filmed in 1951, is better, and would have been a wiser choice for me. It dealt with a long-distance flight in an aircraft subject to fatal metal fatigue. Here Shute, an aeronautical engineer, was dealing with something he knew, rather than with caricatured Australian soldiers and ‘Abo’ stockmen in the Queensland Gulf Country.