Sunday, November 30, 2008
I rather stupidly began two gargantuan novels at the same time, one in print and the other on CD in my car. I don't read a lot of fiction, but I do find it much quicker going for a fun diversion. Non-fiction in the car is hard; I find it difficult to listen to anything very complicated for more than a short period without having to repeatedly back up to re-consider a point. So, for driving, I've taken to more of a 50/50 mix fiction/non-fiction.
The print book is Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. After 200 pages I have abandoned this in disgust. I ordered it from my little local bookstore, and I should have sensed the red flag when I saw the "Oprah reading club" sticker on the cover. (I'm sure Oprah Winfrey is a smart woman and all, but any book that is aimed at some kind of mass audience--worse, a television audience--is bound to disappoint.) While the book's medieval setting intrigued me, the stupid and haphazard details and the cliched, insipid dialog just kept me from engaging to any degree. The whole effort seems like the work of a gifted junior high schooler. I was doubtful from the first few pages, and I gave up after about 50 and then, reluctant to cede my $25 without a fight, returned and quit in disgust several more times before I donated the book to the local library.
The other, Margaret George's Helen of Troy, is another matter altogether. I've just finished this, 600-plus pages which converts to over 30 hours of audio, and it's magnificent, breathtaking. I've never read Homer's The Iliad, the source from whence comes the original tale, so I'm not sure how much Margaret George has embellished on the facts of history (such as they are). But she has succeeded in telling so grand a story, with so many fleshed-out characters and brought to life with such subtlety that I cannot but stand in awe of her accomplishment.
The story covers the entire life of Helen, who from early childhood was renowned as the most beautiful woman in the world, a result (or a cause of the rumor), according to the unwashed masses of the day, of her having been fathered by the god Zeus. She marries and becomes the queen of her home city-state of Sparta, but her oversight in not seeking the blessings of the goddess Aphrodite results in her failing to establish an intimate bond with her husband. She then supplicates herself to Aphrodite in a desperate search for passion, and the goddess responds... though not in orthodox fashion. Rather, she falls in love with a visiting young prince, Paris, and in a fit of passion abandons her post to follow her love back to his home in the spectacular and powerful Troy.
What follows has been written about for centuries (thinking of Christopher Marlowe's lines from Doctor Faustus, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?"), and is the very definition of an epic drama. Thousands of lives are destroyed or deflected or altered, dynasties fall, civilization itself teeters. The story, as it is told, involves actions and consequences of the gravest sort, and has that mix I am drawn to of individual human dramas occurring amid a backdrop of sweeping, historical events.
I'm still coming to grips with the business of audiobooks. I have an awful lot of drive time between WI and KY, and this is a fantastic way to pass the time. But I'm used to reading with a pen in hand, marking off things I might want to go back and revisit, passages that strike me as especially well-written, etc.; it makes revisiting the book easier. But in this format it's impossible for me to do more than keep a running summary in my mind, and I'm unable to put any supporting quotes into my review. One key thing about an audiobook is the effect of the narrator's voice on the success of the story. Especially with a long work like this one, the voice has to be pleasant (or at least tolerable), and there's the question of how the narrator will portray dialog and the various characters. Our narrator here is Canadian / Philippino actress Justine Eyre, who has (to my ear) the world's sexiest voice. Or at least the perfect voice for this work. Her pronunciation and pacing are perfect, and her vocal quality itself is not at all cloying--mesmerizing, even. I cannot think of a voice I would rather be chained to for 30-some hours than this one.
Everything about Margaret George's book is an undertaking, its scope and scale, the arc of the story, the numbers of players and locales and all manner of physical and psychological details. The entire story is told from the first person; Helen herself narrates, telling of her life from a very young age to an old woman. But events are conveyed by description and dialog, and the narrator chooses to subtly portray the characters. And--especially for the handful of main charcters--Ms. Eyre personifies the voices and characters wonderfully, even though her vocal range is not wide. All the names--people and cities alike--are a bit difficult for the modern tongue, and even when the voices are so well drawn it's an ongoing task to remember which names should arouse which characteristics, particularly with more minor characters.
Greece of the time was evidently polytheistic, and the gods play a role in all the story's unfolding (though, like today, the gods' influence is mostly indistinguishable from random chance). It's just a story, I suppose; yet these differences between society then and now makes for an interesting reflection on the "spiritual" in our own world, as we are no more solidly grounded in our mythologies than were the Greeks whose multiple gods we dismiss out of hand. They might even have a leg up on us, actually, in that different gods with varied talents and personalities and characteristics are invoked for differing problems.
But that's just my own baggage coming to bear on the subject. The book does not dwell, and gods or no the story unfolds with a grim march toward a dénouement which one hopes can be averted, even when you know it can't. It doesn't seem slow-moving, but George takes the time for exquisite detail in the unfolding days and myriad relationships. It is to her great credit that what might be dry and tedious is instead tense and gripping.
I'm curious now to know whether the book would have fared as well (or perhaps better) if I had read it myself rather than having it read to me. But my enthusiasm is such that I'll get to try this hypothesis out: I think I'll take another Margaret George novel with me on my January vacation.