Friday, January 13, 2012 - Balzac's Sarrasine - Jekyll and Hyde

When I was writing yesterday about Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, I originally started my piece with some buffoonery about it forming, "of course", the subject of Roland Barthes' S/Z. (I also speculated about how came by its name).

It can't be entirely a coincidence that, though I swear I didn't know it, I was actually in the middle of listening to the text that really does form the subject of Barthes' book - Balzac's Sarrasine, as read by Chip, a volunteer. (No wonder Barthes was interested, it's a very striking story.)

How all this happened, was that since I moved back to Frome (but still work in Swindon), I felt the desire to make some use of those 2.5 hours of driving every day by downloading some more audio books, a service formerly provided by Frome library. "Formerly" is unfair; they still do offer the service. The difference is that you can't get the audiobooks on MP3 any longer, but on some other format which is copy-protected. And that's no good to me. My car stereo will play MP3 off a USB key, but nothing else.

So I went looking for free audiobooks on MP3 and eventually turned to Project Gutenberg and found MP3s of some dismally ancient but well-loved favourite authors. All the ones I've heard are supplied by, a volunteer organization. They vary a lot, but they're generally fascinating. The other one I've heard in total is R.L. Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, read by Londoner David Barnes. Could a reader go wrong? Certainly. Barnes doesn't attempt doing the police in different voices, but he reads beautifully, gives us perfect atmosphere and pacing. As for the story, it opens more depths on depths every time I hear it.

Chip's Colorado Sarrasine is good too - better in some ways - more gusto, livelier drama in the dialogue - and the tale carries a punch like a horseshoe. Balzac's manner of (apparently) gushingly over-writing is at first alarming, but it's a huge trick. And at the end of the story, you look back over it and you realize that, once again, he's always been several steps ahead of you, and you smile in chagrin and in delight and total admiration. But how many readers it must have lost him! Not many people, at any rate, have downloaded Sarrasine from Project Gutenberg, - and perhaps even those who do are nearly all studying S/Z in their theory class.

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