Friday, April 23, 2010

The brotherhood of the traveling ...

The New York Times (October 23, 1908) thinks one should enjoy The Wind in the Willows in private: "There are certain books which are nearly always read furtively -- at most, two congenial and properly grown-up souls may pour over their unexpurgated treasures in secret and behind locked doors, far away from a solemnly disapproving world. It would not do at all to give a list of these books ... It is necessary to be a bit cryptic, for if Mr. Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" (Scribner's, $1.50) should fall into the wrong hands it might suffer great indignities." (Among the many amusing things about this review [retrieved from ProQuest] is that it is printed in the same column as a book featuring a baccalaureate essay at Princeton University by none other than Woodrow Wilson, as well as a biography of Abraham Lincoln, both of which are long forgotten.)

Well, it just doesn't get much better than this (such a relief after the previous listen). I don't remember this book at all (beyond this cover) from my childhood, but what a joy it is. I was giggling aloud all the time I listened. Not much happens in the bucolic setting surrounded by the Wild Wood: Mole and Ratty become friends, Mr. Toad goes a bit batty over automobiles (poop-poop!), wise Badger steps in to help out and soon all is aright again in the world. The intervention by Toad's friends (and its consequences) to rid him of his obsession with the internal combustion engine might well be the funniest thing I've ever read -- with eyes or ears.

The English playwright, essayist, actor, comedian (and many other things besides, no doubt) Alan Bennett reads the book. Evidently, Mr. Bennett (who has declined a knighthood!) wrote and acted (as Mole) in a stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows in the 1990s at the National Theatre, which was subsequently made into an animated film. He clearly has some love for this story, and it shows in his narration.

Despite a significant number of "mouth sounds" (loud inhales, lip smacks, etc.) and a strange buzzing interference that occurred in the version I downloaded, Bennett is really terrific. He gives Toad a missing "r" sound that makes him sound even more tut-tut, noblesse-oblige than just simply reading in a straight English accent. Badger is a wonder: a deep, working class voice that brooks no nonsense from the hoity-toity Mr. Toad. Mole is the innocent wanderer and Ratty's little ditty about messing around in boats is worth treasuring as well. Bennett's got a bit of a high quaver in his speaking voice that really adds to the storytelling. It's got an old-fashioned sweetness that places him neatly in this little corner of rural England.

Among the seven downloadable choices for this title (an embarrassment of riches) was the dramatized adaptation by Bennett. Well, I couldn't tell (from the somewhat uninformative "cataloging") if it was a "full cast" audiobook, or the play, so I made the conservative choice. And the right one I think. You'll want to listen to this one too.

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