I’m going through hell for the sake of art. Tolstoy or Henry James could learn a thing or two | Audiobooks

I’m going through hell for the sake of art. Tolstoy or Henry James could learn a thing or two | Audiobooks

my head hurts, my throat hurts, my back hurts. I can’t think, read or speak. I recorded my audiobook, you see. It was murder. If it’s as painful to listen to as it was to record, I’ll send out refunds.

The people who do these things well deserve the highest praise. Baftas should be awarded. I especially honor Michael Jayston for his work reading Le Carré. I could listen to Jayston – who was in the seminal TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Sir Alec Guinness – read anything from Le Carré. In fact, I’ll happily listen to Michael Jayston read anything: iTunes terms and conditions, last year’s race results, my detailed phone bill – he’s that good.

His reading of Tinker Tailor, for example, is almost 13 hours long. It falls to him, as with almost every audiobook narrator, to do every voice, every accent and, of course, to deliver the authorial voice. This amounts to what is essentially a very long one-player game. Jayston was able to give a performance for the ages as King Lear at Stratford and couldn’t have impressed me more than he did with his audiobook recordings. And that’s how I felt before I had to record one myself. Now I am even more in awe.

I thought reading my own words would make it easier, but it didn’t. My book is about drinking – part memoir, part self-help. When I read back anything I’ve written, I think how I could have written it better. You may feel the same way about my work; please rest assured, I share your pain. Reading your words out loud takes them to a new level, subjecting your prose to the strictest, most unforgiving test. Every writer should make it their business to do this. Maybe they do? I can think of a few who might have learned a thing or two.

If Henry James had to do an audiobook of The Golden Bowl, I can’t believe he wouldn’t have gone back and trimmed some of those endless sentences a bit. And I imagine old Leo Tolstoy losing his mind reading War and Peace aloud by candlelight, pausing occasionally to throw the odd chapter on the fire, giving that classic doorstop a much-needed finish.

As for me, assisted by a brilliant, terrifyingly observant producer, Chris Barstow, I got off to a pretty good start. His directions were great – he would suggest lean in a little more after this word or that. And he was always right. But the longer it went on, the more confused I became, and his soothing interjections came thicker and faster. “Let’s try that one again, shall we, Adrian?” “Little fluff there, Adrian.” Or a gentle inquiry along the lines of, “Do you want to say ‘could’ there, Adrian? It says ‘would’ on the page.” And so on.

He didn’t miss anything. Sometimes I would think I got away with a little sub-optimal emphasis, but no, within a second or two he was on me. The whole thing felt like a very long version of Just a Minute, with my producer as Paul Merton, jumping off on the other side of the glass and buzzing in at every hesitation, repetition or digression.

After five hours of this, I couldn’t take it anymore. Every word, sentence and paragraph became a mountain to climb. It was also very uncomfortable to sit with my legs crossed as I was constantly needing the toilet. My intake of tea and water to lubricate my throat was great. We called it quits for the day.

On the bus home I couldn’t read, speak or even think at all. But, my God, I’ve never felt so hydrated. My skin is glowing – glowing, I tell you.

Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, author and Guardian columnist


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here