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Neville Jason gives voice to Tolstoy tome

February 16, 2007|David Segal | Washington Post

NEW YORK — Neville Jason can claim he's read every word, pondered every pause and mulled the inflection of every line of "War and Peace," and it would be unwise to call him a liar.

That's him, carefully enunciating each syllable of Leo Tolstoy's 560,000-word epic in an audiobook recently released by Naxos, an English publisher. Fifty-one CDs, roughly 70 hours of death, drama, history and philosophy. It took 23 days in the studio to record.

"As with so many jobs as an actor, when they asked if I was interested in doing it, I thought, 'How wonderful,' " Jason says. "Then you get into it and you think, 'What have I let myself in for?' "

Jason, 72, could not have been that surprised. He is the audiobook world's unofficial marathon man, the guy who handles the long-slog classics. Before "War and Peace," he did a whittled down "Remembrance of Things Past" that filled 39 CDs, and he split narrator duties on "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (about 15 hours, in total).

Given that pop culture is forever trending toward the condensed and the vapid, a 70-hour audiobook might sound like commercial folly -- a Mensa product for an Us Weekly world. And maybe it is. Naxos won't say how many copies have been downloaded directly from its site or sold in stores, where it retails for about $280.

But if the world has ever been ready for nearly three straight days of recorded Tolstoy it's ready now. A few years ago, publishers had to beg retailers to stock audiobooks longer than three CDs. Now, that's considered an ear snack. Unabridged is king.

The art of endurance reading, Jason says, isn't keeping your voice in good shape -- it's keeping focused.

"People call these readings. They're not readings. They're performances. You're acting and you're not just doing one part, you're doing dozens of parts. And you have to know what is coming up. If the sentence reads, 'Get out of here, he said angrily,' you need to know that, or you won't sound angry."

Did Jason ever get bored?

"Not really. Sometimes he'll get on a hobbyhorse, as he does when he discusses the reasons that men go to war, but for the most part I was bowled over by the wisdom of Tolstoy. He's such a huge genius, such a great understander of human beings and the human condition. And he writes about universal things. Birth, marriage, sex, death. And whatever he writes on those subjects is a revelation. When one of my children was having a hard time a while back, I read her some passages.... I thought, there is nothing I can say that is as wise as the things I've read."

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