Around the time of the Gates, I began walking to school. Past the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, into Central Park at its north end, out at the Guggenheim Museum and, voila, I’m there. It is a lovely route, but I’m a runner and cyclist, not a walker. No doubt it is a reaction to the weekend spaziergangs of my childhood when my parents, in order to get my sister and me through them with minimal whining, had to promise kaffee und kuchen at the end.
Cake being no longer an enticement (especially at 7 AM), I bought an Ipod and found audible books instead. Since my regular book reading is largely children’s books because of my responsibilities as chair of NCTE’s Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts Committee, I’ve been listening to adult books with one notable exception.
This is Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Some readers of this blog already know of my complete and total adoration of His Dark Materials. I’ve read the books many times and even traveled to London especially to see the stage production. This summer, needing to revisit The Golden Compass for Children’s Literature New England , I decided to treated myself to the first of the audio version of the trilogy which Kelly at Big A little a touts as the best audio book out there.
I haven’t listened to enough audio books to be able to determine which is best; however, there is one thing that makes this one stand out for me from all the others I’ve listened to. And it isn’t the full-cast, wonderful as that; it is that author Philip Pullman, that third person omniscient narrator himself, is the narrator. I felt, as I listened, that I was being taken through the story by the teller in a way that would be completely different with a different sort of narrator. I mean, here I was listening to Philip Pullman tell HIS story which is also Lyra’s story.
Pullman is a partisan of the third-person omniscient narrator which he thinks of as a character in itself—a disembodied “sprite.” This ringmaster of many a nineteenth-century novel can, as he told me, “go anywhere and do anything and see anything, and is both male and female, both old and young, wise and foolish, cynical and credulous, all these contradictory things at once. The narrating voice that tells ‘Middlemarch’ is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mr. Casaubon.”
Until recently I thought there were only two possible narrators: first person or third person. That a third person narrator could be a character in the way a first person narrator is was not in my consciousness. Perhaps it was when I fell in love with Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux or the works of the mysterious Lemony Snicket that I started to be aware of this type of narrator. Certainly, once Philip Pullman himself began discussing his preference for this narrator on child_lit and elsewhere (such as in the above New Yorker profile), I began noticing it more and more. In 2005 I did a talk on literary fairy tales in which I featured George MacDonald’s The Light Princess which has a wonderful narrator of this ilk and then there’s Charles Dickens, someone whose works I’ve been listening to a lot lately, who is a literary master in so many ways, including this one.
But I’ve got to say Mr. Pullman gives Mr. Dickens a run for his money. Listening to The Golden Compass after A Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House, I was blown away by the assurance of the narration. Oh yes, the actual assurance of Philip Pullman reading, but even moreso that narrator. He is steady and true throughout. The full-cast simply makes it even more striking. There are moments throughout, big ones and tiny ones, where the narrator strikes with extraordinary deftness.
For example, at the start of Chapter 8, “Frustration,” Lyra is weaving one of her wild tales to the captivated gyptian children. “…His skin was all withered like an old apple, and his eyes were starting from his head. In fact, they had to push ’em back in the sockets….” At this point she is interrupted by the clearly irritated narrator with the terse paragraph, “And so on.” after which he moves us readers away from the hyperbolic Lyra and on to what is happening in the fen country. (p. 131 in the 2002 Knopf paperback box set edition.)
As Rachel Ray is wont to exclaim, “How cool is that?” (I think I need to stop with this particular tangent right here as a woman who chirps “yummy” every other minute and a man who writes about the death of God are simply not in the same universe. Any of them, mind you. )
I’m almost done listening to Great Expectations (poor old Pip) and will start George Eliot’s Middlemarch next. While I’ve read most of the Dickens more than once, this will be my first time with the Eliot. Hmm..what would it be like to hear one of those two reading their works with a full cast?