THE “box-set” has become as much part of the vocabulary of radio as it is of television, encouraging us to “binge” over many consecutive hours on a series of increasingly compulsive episodes. Whatever kind of box-set is formed by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Radio 4, Bank Holiday weekend), it is not of this kind. The Sopranos it ain’t; and I can’t imagine anybody turning up to work red-eyed on Tuesday morning because they couldn’t wait to find out how the verbose, self-obsessed writer whose tale this is might find his authentic authorial voice.
The ten-hour adaptation of Proust’s formidable novel is the work of Timberlake Wertenbaker, whose excellent War and Peace was released in a similar format — ten hour-long episodes — in early 2016. On that occasion, the full might of the BBC website was employed to help us with background and dramatis personae, and dedicated listeners might have benefited from similar resources here.
In other respects, also, the approach was very different. In the case of the Tolstoy, Wertenbaker told the stories without recourse to a guiding narrator. So integral is Proust’s own voice to his semi-autobiographical story that a narrator is here indispensable; and the book’s entire raison d’tre would disappear without the author’s reflections on the nature of time and memory.
One might have thought that Sir Derek Jacobi would be a shoo-in for the part; and there is no doubting his expressive range, and the lyricism and pathos with which he can invest a phrase. But what this narrator crucially lacked was a variety of pace to break up the enervating andante that was Sir Derek’s default. It did not help that his narration was accompanied unremittingly by Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” and Fauré’s “Après un rêve” on languid cello. Since the first hour of the adaptation was particularly narrator-heavy, I fear that many listeners may not have made it past the first taste of tea-moistened madeleine.
That would have been a shame; for when the dramatisation moved from recitation to drama, things picked up. The team effort here was exceptional, so much of the story unfolding, as it does, in the party tittle-tattle of the Verdurins and Guermantes. There is not a character here that is entirely likeable, and yet their vanities and malice are as fascinating to us as they are to the young Marcel, the massive ego at the heart of the drama, around whose consciousness all are forced to revolve. This is surely the hardest role to pull off; and Blake Ritson managed, just about, to remain credible while his character soared to breathtaking heights of self-indulgence.
Any version of Proust will be haunted by the Monty Python sketch in which contestants in a holiday-camp competition are asked to summarise the mighty novel in one minute. It might as well be ten hours: this is a novel which will yield only so much, even to the devoted reader, let alone those of us who crave the quicker fix of a radio précis. You have to spend time to appreciate a book about how it is lost.