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Short Takes for Summer Listening

July 04, 1993|JOHN ESPEY

Whether or not the tradition of "light summer reading" survives, or, for that matter, ever truly existed, it seems only polite to salute it for listeners with a collection of short pieces, each unabridged, especially when this introduces some new sources for tapes. The Commuter's Library has recently issued three collections of short stories by Anton Chekhov and another three by James Joyce. Each unit consists of two cassettes, making for two hours or more of listening.

Chekhov, who for a time wrote a short story a day as a journalist, is the father, perhaps grandfather by now, of the modern short story. The translations here are by Constance Garnett (1862-1946), who was Victorian enough to withdraw from society during her pregnancy, but unconventional enough to undertake the study of Russian as she waited for the Garnetts' son, David, to be born. Purists in recent years have been critical of her work, claiming that she was at times prudish and inaccurate. It was she, nevertheless, who introduced, virtually single-handed, English and American readers to the great Russians, translating not only Chekhov but Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Herzen as well.

Each of the three sets opens with one of Chekhov's most characteristic stories and continues with others thematically related. For example, "The Black Monk," centered in spirituality, is followed by "Mire," a treatment of sexuality, and "An Artist's Story," which expands to include the nature of humankind. In the same way, "The Party," which deals with a husband and wife's disastrous misunderstanding, is followed by stories that shift from humor to pathos, including "Expensive Lessons" and "The Trousseau." The first and third sets are read skillfully by Richard Setlock, the second, by Susan McInerney.

The same format is used for the stories selected from Joyce's "Dubliners," his first book, which for years seemed destined never to be published because of the caution of English and Irish printers. Under British law, printers as well as authors could be prosecuted and heavily fined if they produced anything considered obscene in the narrowed eyes of the law. Strongly influenced by Chekhov's example of showing revealing moments in the daily life going on around him, Joyce treated with both scorn and affection what he considered the paralysis that had taken hold of Dublin, preventing the city he could leave but never forget from becoming a part of the modern world.

The opening stories of each set are "The Dead," "Grace," and "The Sisters." Again, the reader is Richard Setlock, who gives the right tone of tolerant involvement inherent in the text. If you are coming to Joyce for the first time, the set that opens with "The Dead," an extraordinary recreation of the present and how it is influenced by memory of the past, would be the best choice. It is followed by "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," which takes you into the political and social scene with both scorn and respect as it reveals the conflicting levels of current Irish politics and their derivation from the past.

On the other hand, if Joyce and Chekhov remind you of the classroom, as they must for many, you can escape with an off-beat cassette recently published: "Love, Groucho: Letters from Groucho Marx to His Daughter Miriam." A foreword by Dick Cavett explains the special feeling Groucho felt for Miriam, and Miriam herself comments, in a completely flat and unemotional tone, on what was happening to her at crucial moments. Rather than being "read" or "narrated," this cassette is "performed" by Frank Ferrante, and he does indeed perform, delivering everything in a remarkably accurate recreation of Groucho's rapid-fire, self-consciously comic voice that gallops along like a point-to-point steeplechase. Since this has been edited by Miriam Marx Allen herself, I can only assume that she approves. But for me it is almost too stagy. Groucho reveals himself in an unfamiliar way in these letters to his daughter, and it took me a second time around to absorb at least a part of the emotional confessions that he writes to his oldest child. Miriam is having problems of her own, and they are more effectively communicated by her almost deadpan delivery than is her father's embarrassed compulsion to explain himself as if from front and center. Even so, this is a touching piece of work, one that should not be missed by what must be myriad Groucho fans.

WHERE TO ORDER CASSETTES: For Chekhov and Joyce: Sound Room Publishers (800) 228-3462; P.O. Box 3168, Falls Church, Va. 22043; $17 per set, purchase only.

For "Love, Groucho": The Publishing Mills (800) 72-AUDIO; P.O. Box 481006, Los Angeles 90040; $10.95, purchase only.

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