Authors on audio – Ian McEwan

Whatever the virus was that left me sprawled lifeless across the bed, I can thank it for putting me out of action for a week. It gave me the excuse to lie there listening to the four CDs of Ian McEwan reading his novella On Cheshil Beach.

I love audio books. They take the tension out of driving, creating an alternative universe while you are stuck in traffic on Punt Road. They feed the mind and heart while the body is busy fighting microbes and viruses. And what better than hearing the author himself read his work? Ian McEwan has a soft lilting Surrey accent that reveals the tender feelings of the author towards his characters, the young honeymooners Edward and Florence. It is set in 1962, a few years before my first marriage, but the coupling of two virgins is all too familiar. It’s marvellous to hear someone putting words to that fraught event. Writing about wordless events like sex is the hardest thing. Conveying a joyous union would be even harder.

I had already read Solar, McEwan’s latest novel, a very different animal from On Cheshil Beach. It is faster-paced, focussed on contemporary events and issues, funnier and more shocking. The plot may be implausible at times, but the reprobate Professor Beard – womanising, commitment-phobic, greedy, dishonest – delights at every turn. McEwan reads excerpts of Solar on his blog, but his voice does not have the sharper tone needed for this more angular work, however subtly his mellow voice masters the pastel shades of irony.

At the end of the recording of On Cheshil Beach, John Mullan interviews the author. McEwan talks about the experience of reading his books to live audiences. He is fascinated by the differing responses to his work in these readings. The reaction to On Cheshil Beach varied from rapt silence to hysterical laughter. Although in this case he thought the laughter stemmed from embarrassment, it can often be a response to irony, and reflect the underlying tone of the work.

That reminded me of the reaction to one of my short stories that I read to a group. I had used plenty of irony and was pretty pleased with what was on the page, but I was not prepared for the guffaws and general merriment that erupted when I read it aloud. There’s no greater pleasure as a writer than getting that instant response to your story, but it only happens when the writer and reader are face to face in the same room.

Audio books are great. Live storytelling is even better.

Carol Middleton

Carol Middleton is an award-winning Melbourne-based writer. She reviews books for Australian Book Review and music and theatre for Australian Stage.

More by Carol Middleton ›

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  1. Carol, I am similarly laid low by some awful lurgy and feeling too sorry for myself. But now that you have reminded me of the pleasure of audio books I feel slightly less miserable.

    I’m also glad to hear that someone else enjoyed Solar – it’s had such harsh reviews. I agree that the plot was a unbelievable in parts and some scenes too contrived, but Beard is a wonderfully grotesque character who had me laughing out loud.

    Whatever people think of Solar it’s good to see a respected and popular author tackle climate change. Wit is a too-neglected way of delivering very nasty truths.

  2. Books are portals to different realities – open the cover & you’re there – audio books make it possible to walk around & be connected to that parallel universe – it’s a great way to read more
    thank goodness technology has finally caught up to download books like music

    1. Hope you’re better, Trish. Yes, good to see novelists pick up on contemporary issues and get their characters to respond. Colum McCann does this – I’ll talk about him next post.
      Thanks for response.

  3. Man. I’ve just been awfully sick too. I wish I had more audio books. Although I also love hearing author interviews on the radio, or just conversations… I have a wild affair with 702’s conversations series, I love it, I don’t know where they find the people, it’s wonderful.

    I did have the pleasure of having the English Patient on audio book last year; read out aloud by Ralph Fiennes. It was wonderful, he has a wonderful voice, and it’s such a complex book, it was lovely to hear the subtleties in it brought out so beautifully. I shall have to get more.

    I’m also looking forward to reading Solar, is it fabulous?

  4. Thanks, Georgia. I’ll have to tune into 702.
    Other audio books to check out: James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, both read by my favourite, Jim Norton.
    Yes, Solar is great, easy reading and fast-paced for a literary novel.

    1. You must! It has restored my faith in radio humanity. I decided I had to stop listening to FM radio after listening to a segment about how one of the presenters had trimmed his nose hair and now his snot fell out.

      Ooh, sounds good! And I shall look forward to Solar; I love both literature and environmentalism, so it should be good!

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