I am, I admit, a fan of audiobooks. I always have a book in my ear, whether I’m walking to work or hiking across campus or doing odd jobs at home. I alternate between a professional book, a lecture series from iTunesU, and a librivox fan reading of a classic. I typically have earbuds in when I’m at the gym or in the car, though I never listen to audiobooks when I have the laptop open. I don’t have the gift (or curse) of listening to one thing and reading another; I doubt many people do.
Here on A Pilgrim in Narnia we are in the midst of a series on The Great Divorce. 70 years ago today the 4th installment of The Great Divorce. Getting ready for this series, and doing some work in the archive this summer at the Wade Centre in Wheaton and this fall at the Bodleian in Oxford, I needed to read this book a few times. I decided that getting the audiobook would give me a different kind of reading experience.
The Great Divorce is read by Simon Vance. Besides Ralph Cosham, Simon Vance is one of the most frequent voices of C.S. Lewis’ audiobooks, though he is often found under the name Robert Whitfield. Vance strikes a classic pose with The Great Divorce, fitting not only because of its WWII setting, but also because of the elevated content and style.
What I like most about Vance’s reading of The Great Divorce is the careful use of accent and pitch. The Great Divorce is a travelogue of characters, a shopping mall of intriguing stories voiced by a variety of figures. Vance uses the accents and characteristics that Lewis writes into the narrative to create an evocative audio profile of each. Usually the change in voice is slight, but it is enough to catch masculinity or femininity, pr class and region, as well as the attitude that comes lock-tied with each character. A less disciplined reader would be tempted to stretch out the caricatures of The Great Divorce to comical ends. George MacDonald, for example, is given a subtle Scottish lilt, rather than the buffoonish accents often placed on Scottish characters (at least since Scotty on Star Trek). This reading is never goofy.
That subtlety might have a cost, I suppose. I caught myself walking along in rhythm to Vance’s even-handed reading, and almost missing one of the more startling features of the book. And there are a few of those startling moments, where a quiet line betrays a heart-breaking reality. But I think that’s one of the reasons why this is Lewis’ strongest fiction. As is normal of theological and philosophical fiction, the characters in The Great Divorce are types of people. Yet in the writing of these stock characters, Lewis never makes them impersonal or detached. Many of the stories are moving; more than a few hit home to me each time I read the book. Vance’s reading only enhances that skilled dance between the extremes.
Bundled together with The Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce audiobook is an engaging way to reread this sublime little book. Strong accents, a great diversity of voices, and a sense of respect for the original allow this celebrated audiobook narrator the opportunity to highlight a forgotten classic.