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.