As any child knows, one of life's great pleasures is tucking up in a heap of covers while someone--preferably one's mother--reads a long, wonderful book aloud.
As the growing popularity of books on tape suggests, many adults are rediscovering this pleasure--both as entertainment and as a solution to a lack of reading time.
Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd," a new addition to the Listen for Pleasure series, works well on both counts. As colorfully read by actress Julie Christie (who starred in John Schlesinger's 1967 film version), the taped book is lively, action-packed and a lot shorter than Hardy's original. It is also, of course, less deeply satisfying than the real thing.
One of Hardy's sunnier works, the novel lends itself well to being read aloud. The story, about an English country girl-turned-farmer and the three men who love her, is full of twists and turns and loaded with noisy, appealing characters and frequent comic relief. Sound plays an important part in its richly particularized world--the tinkling sheep's bell; the haunting shepherd's pipe--evoking the frailty of human effort against the vastness of nature.
Christie reads with an Englishwoman's ear for Hardy's music and an actor's sensitivity to nuance. Her narrative phrasing underscores the juxtaposition of the poetic and the prosaic throughout the book. One moment, she lingers gently over a woman's "ropes of black hair," as seen by an admiring man; the next, she gives an earthy snap to the man's recognition of "the woman who owed him tuppence."
Given a formidable cast of characters--male and female, high- and low-born--she renders voices admirably distinctly and can fill a room with volleys of country talk like wagons rattling over cobblestones.
Through Christie, Hardy's heroine, Bathsheba Everdene, speaks with saucy confidence that mellows with time and hardship. Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba's first suitor, talks the terse sense of a farming man ("Oil ma' 'er moi woif or upon moi soul I shall be good for nothing!"). Suitor 2, Farmer Boldwood, is the joyless monotone of the depressive.
Christie is equally at ease with minor characters, particularly Hardy's comedians--the crusty old malthouse keeper; the bumpkin Cainy Ball, who insists on eating, running and bragging about his adventures all at once, to the detriment of both narration and digestion.
Regrettably--in the interests of fitting the story onto two audio cassettes--the taped version eliminates some of the book's funniest moments, as well as pivotal scenes that make the plot more comprehensible. The camaraderie of the malthouse, where much ale-warmed philosophizing takes place, is given short shrift, as are the antics of local boys, forever knocking heads in their eagerness to be of use.
More critical perhaps are ellipses that confuse--that rob us, for example, of the reasons behind Boldwood's plunge into obsessive love, or the knowledge that Oak, come what may, continues to love Bathsheba too--a fact crucial to the book's narrative tension.
Naturally, when a book is edited for plot, the smaller moments must go; dialogue must be preserved above description. In Hardy's case, however, to chop descriptions of a storm's rage or of a teeming country spring is to distort his novelistic aim. Never, in his panoramic view of life, does human effort dominate. Rather, the human drama is just one of many unfolding against the backdrop of a capricious, powerful, and sometimes cruel nature.
Very likely, unless the listener is quite familiar with the novel, he won't know what he is missing as the story spins out of his car stereo during the rush-hour crawl. Certainly, the tape preserves Hardy's very good yarn. What it scales down is his grand world view, his presentation of toiling humanity, finding strength in endurance and humility; redemption in humor and camaraderie.
And Hardy's novel, while not as dark as the taped book, is also, paradoxically, more suspenseful in its leisurely telling, as any storytelling buff might guess.
There is a necessary rhythm to a tale, a proper buildup to revelation, without which the whole may seem a flat compilation of facts. As Hardy himself puts it in the novel, during a windy tale-swapping session at the malthouse, " . . . a true narrative, like time and tide, must run its course. . . ."
Perhaps hearing the tape, as entertaining as it is, will move some listeners to read the book. Possibly, if demand continues to increase for books on tape, publishers will release more unabridged editions on the theory that listener/readers, while pressed for time, understand that books are not rapid-fire television shows, and are prepared, under the guidance of a master, to let a story run its course.