If you haven’t read any Kafka, you probably should, just because he’s one of a kind. Nobody pitches the reader so effortlessly into a world that seems normal enough but turns out surreally nightmarish. That’s not to say he’s everyone’s cup of tea. If you like action, you’ll find precious little: ‘The Castle’ comes from the same school of plot development as ‘Waiting for Godot’, and you may be driven to distraction by the interminable witterings of the four women in the life of K (the central character) that pad out much of the book. But if your taste is more for Tarkovsky than Tarantino, you’ll adore Kafka’s way of getting nowhere very slowly. And you can take pleasure along the way in working out whether ‘The Castle’ is a satire of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy, or an allegory of the fruitless search for religious salvation, or just an answer to the question of life, the universe and everything. What’s certain is that, once you’ve visited Kafka’s world, you won’t forget it.
What I personally didn’t like about this production was the choice of narrator. Allan Corduner reads expressively and has a good command of German pronunciation. But he speaks with a lisp, and his voice has the soft edge of an older man. This makes him an ideal candidate to read Dickens; but, for my money, he makes ‘The Castle’ sound much less portentous than it should, and K nothing like grim enough. To be fair, there’s an academic school of thought that says Kafka had more of a sense of humour than you’d think, and his works ought to sound like he’s pulling legs. But, to me, it felt like casting Robin Williams as Hamlet: not inexplicable, but not that clever either. By comparison it seems churlish to mention that, though it’s ok that some locals are made to speak in a West Country accent and others a Welsh one in the same village, a teacher does flip in one scene from one to the other, and then back again. You’d have thought a good producer would notice such things.
Don’t imagine that ‘The Woman in White’ is just another florid, overlong Victorian novel. In truth, it’s more Conan Doyle than Mrs Gaskill: a mystery thriller, full of twists and turns, that until close to the end leaves you gagging to know how it will turn out.
That’s not to say that it’s only breathless action. Collins is immensely adept at painting characters so real that you feel you’ve met them: the bombastic Fosco, the dastardly Glyde, the indomitable Miss Halcombe, the nauseating Frederick Fairlie. But the author is not just showing off his writing skills: these well-rounded personalities are fundamental to the believability of an otherwise far-fetched plot. It’s just a shame that the only anaemic character is Laura, the insipid beauty around whom all the action revolves.
Ian Holm’s voice is almost made for the story: an avuncular Dickensian tone that adapts well to several very diverse characters. In fact, this is not just solid narration; it’s also a fine acting performance.
All in all, this book is strongly recommended to anyone who likes a well-told yarn and has the patience to wait for the outcome. I can’t wait to hear ‘The Moonstone’ next!
Having been much impressed by Collins’s earlier ‘The Woman in White’, I was really looking forward to this one. Consequently, it’s disappointing to have to report being slightly underwhelmed. There’s nothing new about the first example of a literary genre not turning out to be its greatest, and this first-ever detective novel in English has faced some very stiff competition in the interim; when you’ve read the likes of Raymond Chandler or Dorothy L Sayers, Collins’s plot is always liable to feel a trifle thin. From a purely literary perspective, it's also hard not to recall how compelling Collins's earlier work was by comparison. But don’t be put off: 'The Moonstone' is an interesting curiosity and not a bad story in its own right; and it does benefit from Collins’s masterly knack of characterisation, including a detective character as colourful as any I can remember.
What also makes this production is Peter Jeffrey’s wonderful performance. I only remember him as a competent bit-part actor on TV and in the movies, but here he reads like a true Victorian, and effortlessly manages to capture a whole gallery of characters in a variety of regional and social accents.
On reflection, I’d recommend listening to Collins’s two most famous works in reverse order. That way, you can enjoy ‘The Moonstone’ without making unfavourable comparisons, and will still have the excellent ‘The Woman on White’ to look forward to.