The Portrait of a Lady. Penguin, four cassettes, pound;9.99. Naxos, four cassettes, pound;9.49; 4 CDs pound;11.99
The Odyssey. Penguin, 12 cassettes pound;35, unabridged; six cassettes pound;21. Naxos, three cassettes, pound;7.99; three CDs, pound;9.99
The audio-book is a new art form. The narrator must convince as a multitude of characters; the teller is as important as the tale. Released coincidentally with Jane Campion's much-acclaimed film starring Nicole Kidman, two audio versions of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady thus invite comparison.
Isabel Archer is a beautiful and spirited American girl who is both enchanted and bewildered by sophisticated Europe and Europeans. From her many suitors she chooses a husband whom she discovers has married her for her fortune. Isabel's future is ruined, her innocence corrupted; she be-comes utterly disillusioned.
For Penguin, Claire Bloom gives as lovely a reading as one would expect, but in this context her elegant English diction is unconvincing. For Naxos, Elizabeth McGovern does a perfect job. Her reading has authenticity, and she impersonates the characters on both sides of the Atlantic with relaxed and easy grace; Mendelssohn's music underscores the drama.
We can also contrast three versions of Homer's Odyssey. Robert Fagles's translation for Penguin seems designed, like the New English Bible, to appeal to contemporary colloquial tastes. Properly used, slang has powerful virtues, but when Ian McKellen asks "Catch my drift?" and "Why so dead set against Odysseus?" in stagey RSC style, it sounds laughably incongruous. And if this is meant to appeal to students, its 13-hour length seems way beyond their reputed attention-span.
Penguin also presents a nine-hour version in E V Rieu's 50-year-old - but eminently accessible - translation. This is read with unaffected authority by Alex Jennings, while Barbra Jefford provides the linking narration.
Better still is Naxos's four-hour version, in which William Cowper's 1791 translation is thrillingly read by Anton Lesser. It has real beauty, of a sort appropriate for Homer's epic poem. Moreover, while McKellen's utterances are preceded by atonal squeals, Lesser's reading is laced with Debussy. All three versions have explanatory booklets.