Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – read by Edward Petherbridge

Dorian Gray

“The life that was to make his soul would mark his body …”

It is many years since I read The Picture of Dorian Gray. I did so after watching the unforgettable 1945 film version with Hurd Hatfield in the title role, George Sanders as the hedonistic and epigrammatic Lord Henry Wotton and Angela Lansbury – in her first film appearance – as the doomed Sibyl Vane.  Over the intervening years, the novel and the film had more or less merged into a single amorphous mass in my brain, so when I spotted that Edward Petherbridge’s much-lauded unabridged recording was due for reissue this month, I immediately ear-marked it as my reviewing choice for our Audiobook Month.

The story is fairly well known.  The beautiful but unworldly Dorian Gray is sitting for a portrait by Basil Hallward – the society artist who is obsessed with him.  In the artist’s studio, Dorian is fatefully introduced to the entirely too worldly Lord Henry Wotton and, dazzled by the older man’s  seductive  wit, he begins to believe his cynical assertion that the only worthwhile possession in life is beauty and that once beauty has faded, there is nothing left worth living for.  As the realization dawns that he is destined to age while his portrait remains eternally young, Dorian voices the fervent wish that the picture could grow old, instead of him . . .

On the face of it, the Faustian storyline, tinged with homo-eroticism,  is  utterly absurd and should only work either as  a parody like Wilde’s other supernatural tale, The Canterville Ghost, or as a nice thick slab of  Victorian Gothic horror.  In fact, it’s neither.  Instead it steers its own remarkably sure-footed course  between the two – a tale so entertaining and beautifully crafted that you willingly suspend disbelief for the duration of the  journey.

From the point of view of an audiobook narrator, one of the biggest problems with The Portrait of Dorian Gray is that in some places  it’s basically just a lot of very well known quotations strung together (as somebody once said of Macbeth), because a substantial percentage of Oscar Wilde’s most anthologized quotes come from this one book, mostly uttered by Lord Henry Wotton.  To make it all sound freshly minted is a major challenge – and one to which Edward Petherbridge rises magnificently.  Those famous epigrams, which a less skillful narrator might have been tempted to over-emphasize, shine brightly but don’t interrupt the flow.  You barely have time to register,  “Ah – famous bit …”,  before you’ve been sucked straight back into the narrative as the story heads inexorably for its chilling dénouement.

The book is replete with vivid but subtly shaded characters, beautifully delineated in Wilde’s own inimitable way;  but one of them – above all the others – has always haunted me.  Sibyl Vane.  The beautiful, talented, naïvely romantic young actress who has the misfortune to catch Dorian Gray’s eye is one of Wilde’s most heart-breaking creations and in a truly astounding piece of characterization Edward Petherbridge catches her tragic, trusting charm to perfection. The scene in theatre where Gray’s adoration of her turns to disdain is almost too painful to listen to.

Several times already during this Talking Books month, the term ‘performance’ has been used in relation to audiobooks  and later this week Sam Ruddock will be talking about the differences between reading a book and listening to a book.   When you read a book,  you play the story out in your mind’s eye.  When you listen to a book, you still see it inwardly, but the narrator is doing a lot of the work for you by adding dimensions, inflections  and even –  sometimes – meanings you might not otherwise have considered.  The art lies in not being intrusive, not making the listener more conscious of the narrator than the narrative.  Here, Edward Petherbridge brings Wilde’s classic cast of characters to life so deftly  that you completely forget his presence.

I’ve enjoyed both ‘real’ books and audio books for over 40 years and firmly believe that the latter are a valuable adjunct to the former, not just a poor relation;  but if you remain unconvinced, try listening to this masterclass  –  because if this doesn’t win you over, then I doubt anything will.

Cover to Cover/BBC Audiobooks. 2010. (Originally published on cassette, 1994). ISBN: 978-1602838789.  Includes a companion eBook in PDF format.

(Edward Petherbridge – along with Jay Benedict and  Stephen Greif  – will be joining us next week to talk about the nuts and bolts of  recording audiobooks.)

7 comments on “The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – read by Edward Petherbridge

  1. kirstyjane
    September 14, 2010

    “I’m only a bird in a gilded cage…”

    This sounds absolutely triffic. It doesn’t usually occur to me to listen to audiobooks – which is why this whole month is so interesting – but this one sounds really delicious. I’ll definitely try and find it.

  2. rosyb
    September 14, 2010

    I’ve always liked this book and can imagine it might lend itself to audio being so emminently quotable as you say.

    It’s interesting what you say about performance. There’s something I want to put my finger on about the difference between a good audio book performance or a good acting performance. Often I cringe when listening to actors reading aloud and I can prefer to listen to different voices. Indeed, in the two recent pieces about CSA Word and (more controversially) the piece by Nicholas Jones about abridgement of Darwin – an issue that cropped up was how good public speakers who are not actors can be at doing audio. Like Obama! But also, having listened to part of the Dawkins CD, he also is very pleasant to listen to without the “actorly” style that so distracts me. Bea Long and Victoria Williams also said politicians could make good readers (!!!) Anne Widdecombe reading Jane Austen anyone?

    It is the actorly thing that also makes me dislike a lot of poetry read aloud. Again, there is a tendency to interfere too much and “act” the images. I prefer a more low-key reading I suppose.

  3. Clare London
    September 14, 2010

    Excellent review, and certainly caught my eye because I’ve always loved Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter Wimsey. Thanks! 🙂

  4. Moira
    September 14, 2010

    I agree Rosy. Not everyone can narrate audiobooks. Just because someone is a good actor, it doesn’t necessarily make them a good audiobook reader (a point that Martin Jarvis will be making next week, incidentally) – nor does it mean they’re going to be good at reading poetry, because it, too, is a very particularly skill. I can read poetry, but I can’t act. I can also name you a clutch of well known actors who can’t (or couldn’t – one of them’s dead) read poetry for toffee.

  5. Christine
    September 14, 2010

    I think narration is more than just another dimension to a book; it turns the book into something else. Like a movie, it creates a different experience. I’ve read books that I’ve loved and heard the same unabridged book read by someone and have hated it–sometimes because the prose doesn’t translate well to the oral presentation and sometimes just because the narrator didn’t do anything for me (Michael Chabon has an unfortunate habit of reading his works and I wish he wouldn’t because I love his writing and hate his voice). I’ve been told there are some books I can’t stomach that are much better if you “hear” them first (I think one of your reviewers said that about Joyce’s Ulysses). I really enjoy audio books, but I find that, unlike the printed format, I won’t wade through it or skip to the good parts if I don’t like the voice that is reading it.

  6. Jackie
    September 14, 2010

    I’m glad that they decided to rerelease this version instead of getting one of those young hip newcomers to do it over. I would think it would be harder to do a work that is so familiar, because it would take a lot of skill to make the work fresh. I’m sure Mr. Petherbridge does a great job & this review has got me curious enough to look for it at the library. Looking forward to him and the other actors next week.

  7. Nikki
    September 15, 2010

    I keep meaning to read this book, but I somehow pick up something different. But I will read it, just so I can try this audio book version because it sounds great.

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