"Dead Souls" is a wonderful book. It has all the wit and linguistic dexterity of Dickens, and still is utterly and completely Russian. The elusive "Russian spirit" is on every page. Truly a masterpiece, presented here in a very good translation. The reader does an excellent job, too; his voices do slip here and there, but never for more than a second or two.
There is, however, one thing to note about this audiobook: Gogol intended this to be a three-volume work. In his lifetime, he only published the first volume. He apparently wrote some of the second part, but then burned it. Now, it seems that some fragments of this second part have survived, and these are included in the audiobook. Listening to that half of the audiobook isn't really enjoyable: every time you start to follow the plot, the narrator says "at this point there is a long hiatus in the original" and jumps off to a much later part of the story, complete with new and unfamiliar characters and full of references to events you have no knowledge of. I think the audiobook would have been better without this rather pointless second part, and would recommend stopping after the first.
First, a few technical notes:
- The translation used in the audiobook is the one by Constance Garnett.
- The actual length of the book is about 61 hours, since the last four hours (the epilogues) are repeated twice.
The narrator (whose real name was David Case -- he passed away in 2005) seems to provoke extreme reactions: some people can't stand him, others can't get enough of him. I happen to belong to the second class, and I believe he is especially suited for this novel. However, if you find his voice as irritating as some of the other reviewers, you should probably go for another version.
And now for the book itself. In "The Brothers Karamazov", Dostoyevsky writes: "Show a Russian schoolboy a map of the stars, which he knows nothing about, and he will give you back the map next day with corrections on it." Tolstoy is the ideal to which all such schoolboys aspire, and "War and Peace" is his greatest achievement. Not only is this immense work a novel, it is a place for Tolstoy to expound his views on the causes and persons of the Napoleonic wars, on the methods of historical research, on free will and (of course) the existence of God. I can't say that I found everything convincing or even interesting -- for example, he takes a lot of pains to demonstrate the Napoleon was not a military genius but a blundering fool -- but for the sheer complexity and ambition of this work I cannot help but award it five stars.
I don't have much to add about the poem itself, which is truly marvelous; the translation here is the one by Rolfe Humphries, and it is indeed extremely good. However, there's another aspect of the audiobook which I didn't care for. In addition to the poem itself, the audiobook contains two short essays: a biographical sketch of Lucretius by William Young Sellar, and an overview of Epicureanism by William Wallace. I actually found the essays an interesting addition, but for some reason they are not include before or after the text, but interspersed with it. I normally like to read or listen to introductions after the text itself, and I found that the arrangement here broke the flow of the text. If you're like me, the following layout might be useful:
0h0m to 0h15m: Lucretius biography, part 1
0h15m to 1h29m: Book I of the poem
1h29m to 1h45m: Lucretius biography, part 2
1h45m to 3h04m: Book II
3h04m to 3h20m: Epicureanism, part 1
3h20m to 4h32m: Book III
4h32m to 4h46m: Epicureanism, part 2
4h46m to 6h13m: Book IV
6h13m to 7h54m: Book V
7h54m to 9h12m: Book VI
As for the narrator: I've bought quite a few of Charlton Griffin's audiobooks, and there's no denying he's an excellent narrator. He's not my personal favorite, because I find his booming voice a little too, well, booming. I sometimes felt like it was an irate Roman god reading the poem, and not an atheistic poet. Not a real problem, of course, just my personal taste.
In short: an excellent poem, beautifully translated, expertly read. I only wish the extra parts were concentrated in one place, either at the beginning or the end.
This book has all the things which annoy me about supposed "great" literature.
It is excessively poetic. (Not a fan of poetry).
It is wordy for the sake of it. (Big fan of directness).
There is relatively little direct narrative. (I like a plain and simple central thread).
Its full of clever devices. (Like my English not mucked about with)
But it is magnificent! I'm pretty sure that I didn't properly follow a lot of it but it doesn't matter. Some of the words made no sense but the sounded beautiful. Some of the scenes were meaningless to me but they were magic to listen to. The whole thing was a joy to listen to.
One of the other reviewers suggest that you should be familiar with this book in print before listening to this but I disagree. I suspect that if I had tried to read this from paper I would have made it t about page 12 before throwing it out of a window. It was made to be read out loud and if there is a better version available than this I'm not sure I would be able to cope with it.
Jim Norton gives each character just enough depth to make him distinguishable wthout creating any cartoon Irishmen in the process. There are a few sections read in a female voice. (Marcella Riordan - who should get a narrators credit). Double handed narration can be clumsy but this is perfectly judged. Overall - an excellent listen.