From Ulysses to the latest fiction — a round-up of the best audio books

It’s a big year for literary anniversaries, and not merely because of the individual titles, but because 1922 crystallized the impact that modernism was to leave on fiction, drama and poetry. Perhaps the most significant centenary is of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. A recent audio version of the novel is the Penguin Classics from 2019 (32hr 38min), which is read by actor Patrick Gibson but very much worth hunting out is the older version by Naxos Audio (27hr 16min), read by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan , two Irish actors with huge experience in productions of Joyce’s work, including pieces of music and opera cited in the text.

Meanwhile, there is a brand-new production of another of 1922’s most celebrated works: TS Eliot’s The Waste Land & Other Poems (Faber & Faber, 47min), performed by actor Edoardo Ballerini, who has previously recorded all 135 hours of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.

What’s so impressive about Ballerini’s reading is the way he ducks portentousness — always a risk with Eliot — and captures the sense of play that runs throughout The Wasteland. Register and tone are constantly switching, the tempo alters, snatches of demotic English give way to German and French. Sometimes Ballerini proceeds trippingly, catching the gossipy, mocking, conspiratorial interludes in the poem; at other times he is mournful and beseeching. Also included here are poems including “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” and “Journey of the Magi”, all of which will repay repeated listening.

From Joyce to something a little more contemporary, and Brian Bilston’s Alexa, What Is There To Know About Love? (Picador, 1hr 8min), in which the pseudonymous poet, his identity carefully shrouded, narrates his characteristic ruefulness and self-deprecation to amusing and often comforting effect. As the title suggests, there are poems about love, the collection opening with “The Caveman’s Lament” (“Me say to her how much me love her de ella / She tell me de ella love invent not yet”). But Bilston’s real subject is the tricks that language plays on us, the fun we can have in return and the abiding importance of books (see, for example, “There’s a Supermarket Where Once the Library Stood”: “I asked them last week if they had any Flaubert/A blank look, then a shrug: ‘The cheese counter’s there’”).

Richard E Grant is surely the first call if you want a narrator for a preposterously tall tale, filled with outlandish characters, hints of debauchery and decadence and freewheeling adventures, and he does a tremendous job with James Birch’s memoir Bacon in Moscow (Profile Audio, 6hr 12min). The source material is highly promising, taking us to the heart of the 1980s art world, and gallerist Birch’s attempts to capitalize on the dawning age of glasnost and perestroika to mount an exhibition in a newly thawing Russia, aided by a family association with the painter Francis Bacon. What Birch hadn’t quite bargained for was managing the attentions of his KGB gatekeeper, Sergei Klokov, whose fondness for lobbing Birch curveballs Grant brings wonderfully to life.

The star turn, of course, is Bacon himself, remembered by Birch’s parents as a man with “a gentle disposition, and charming manners”, but heard here in rather more querulous, dyspeptic vein. With the constant question of whether the exhibition can possibly ever come off hovering over the narration, it’s also unexpectedly suspenseful.

Finally, one of the year’s most anticipated works of fiction is Monica Ali’s Love Marriage (Hachette Audio UK, 15hr 51min), her first novel for 11 years, and nearly two decades after her acclaimed debut Brick Lane. Love Marriage is perfect for audio in that it is an ensemble piece populated by idiosyncratic characters — most notably, the two mothers, Anisah and Harriet, whose children, doctors Yasmin and Joe, are shortly to marry.

Narrator Ayesha Dharker has a whale of a time shifting from vignette to vignette, animating terrifyingly upfront feminist icon Harriet at one moment, Yasmin’s quiet yet implacable father Shaokat the next, the two bewildered would-be newly-weds caught in between. Yet though Love Marriage has many comic interludes, it’s also a serious and often sad novel; and the chapters in which Joe sits desperately confiding in his psychotherapist are also ably and movingly depicted, as are the clashes between Yasmin’s brother Arif and his parents de ella, as he fails to live up to their expectations for him. It’s an ideal book to lose yourself in as the seasons begin to turn — although it’s probably not entirely suitable for those about to enter into a prolonged bout of wedding planning.

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