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 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.)