Can You Say 'War and Peace'? Great! It'll Only Take 23 Days.

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 11, 2007

NEW YORK -- Neville Jason can claim he's read every word, pondered every pause and mulled the inflection of every line of "War and Peace" and it would be unwise to call him a liar.

That's him, carefully enunciating each syllable of Leo Tolstoy's 560,000-word epic in an audiobook recently released by Naxos, an English publisher. Fifty-one CDs, roughly 70 hours of death, drama, history and philosophy. It took 23 days in the studio to record.

"As with so many jobs as an actor, when they asked if I was interested in doing it, I thought, 'How wonderful,' " says Jason, a remarkably young-looking 72-year old who speaks with the sort of British accent that makes you want to put on a tie. "Then you get into it and you think, 'What have I let myself in for' ?"

Jason could not have been that surprised. He is the audiobook world's unofficial marathon man, the guy who handles the long-slog classics. Before "War and Peace," he did a whittled down "Remembrance of Things Past" that filled 39 CDs, and he split narrator duties on "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (about 15 hours, in total). His abridged readings of "Lives of the Artists" (seven hours long) and "Gulliver's Travels" (a mere four) seem like sprints by comparison.

Given that pop culture is forever trending toward the condensed and the vapid, a 70-hour audiobook might sound like commercial folly -- a Mensa product for an Us Weekly world. And maybe it is. Naxos won't say how many copies have been downloaded directly from its site or sold in stores, where it retails for about $280.

But if the world has ever been ready for nearly three straight days of recorded Tolstoy it's ready now. A few years ago, publishers had to beg retailers to stock audiobooks longer than three CDs. Now, that's considered an ear snack. Unabridged is king. And abridged isn't just on the wane. It's basically stigmatized.

"We have readers who will get in touch with an author and express outrage if they see an abridged audio version of their book," says Ana Maria Allessi, who heads Harper Collins's audiobook division. "That drives authors insane."

Downloadable books make it possible to store a spoken-word rendering of a big fat tome on an iPod, eliminating the need to stuff 25 CDs in a glove compartment. Plus, publishers and retailers figured out that audiobook fans aren't semi-literates taking a break from "Two and a Half Men"; they are hard-core readers who consider abridgment a kind of cheating.

It was a revelation, too, how much these listeners were willing to spend. For a long time, it was assumed that $30 or so was the ceiling for an audiobook. But if an author is popular enough, and the book long enough, you can move a lot of product with far higher price tags.

Naxos caters to the Rolls-Royce end of the audiobook market, specializing in giants of the Western canon. Because works like "War and Peace" are in the public domain, the company doesn't have to pay for rights. The tricky part is finding someone who can tell a story as rich and densely populated as, for instance, "War and Peace," and narrate it in a way that isn't distracting.

"Audiobooks are a peculiar beast," says Nicolas Soames, Naxos's publisher. "You've got narration and you've got dialogue, and some readers are good at one and not good at the other. Only the best, like Neville, are wonderful at both."

Jason, who lives in London, recently visited New York, and one Friday afternoon, he sat in a cousin's law offices and explained the art of endurance reading. The hard part, he says, isn't keeping your voice in good shape -- it's keeping focused.

"People call these readings. They're not readings. They're performances. You're acting and you're not just doing one part, you're doing dozens of parts. And you have to know what is coming up. If the sentence reads, 'Get out of here, he said angrily,' you need to know that, or you won't sound angry."

To prepare for "War and Peace," he read the text for weeks. To keep his throat clear on days he recorded, he'd avoid dairy products and, for reasons that he can't fully explain, anything containing wheat. He'd start at 10 a.m. and knock off at 6, with plenty of breaks.

Did he ever get bored? Did he ever think, "Hey Leo, pick up the pace"?

"Not really. Sometimes he'll get on a hobbyhorse, as he does when he discusses the reasons that men go to war, but for the most part I was bowled over by the wisdom of Tolstoy. He's such a huge genius, such a great understander of human beings and the human condition. And he writes about universal things. Birth, marriage, sex, death. And whatever he writes on those subjects is a revelation. When one of my children was having a hard time a while back, I read her some passages of Tolstoy. I thought, there is nothing I can say that is as wise as the things I've read."

Jason, who is a married father of two, started out as a theater actor, though his first job was in an American movie called "Flesh and Fantasy," released in 1943 and starring Edward G. Robinson. Jason was 9 years old and living with his mother in Beverly Hills, where the family had moved to avoid the German bombing of London.

"My best friend's father was a British actor who was working in the movies, so I used to go to the studio all the time," he says. "One day they needed an English boy's voice for a scene they were overdubbing. So I did it."

His line, "Why doesn't he jump? Is he afraid?" was the first of a million, give or take a few. Jason studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and early in his career won a part in "Titus Andronicus" starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. He turned up in a James Bond film, "From Russia With Love," playing the son of a Turkish official.

"Spent a whole month in Istanbul," Jason recalls. "Luxurious circumstances."

Most of his subsequent work was in TV and radio. Soames heard about Jason through a friend and recruited him for "The Life and Works of Beethoven." The Proust books, which he began recording in 1996, turned him into a bit of a cult figure in England. "[I] have been recommending you to everyone," gushed one fan in a letter, "but every middle-aged woman I know seems to be listening to you anyway."

Exactly how many people have made it all the way through Jason's "War and Peace" is unknown. No one has contacted Naxos and claimed to have scaled the whole mountain, and the Sunday Times critic said in her (favorable) review that she had merely sampled five hours of the performance. Even Soames has yet to finish the entire production, though he says he's working on it.

"I went on holiday to Australia recently and I spent a lot of time with Tolstoy clamped on my ears," he says. "My wife said, 'Damn "War and Peace," come and talk to me.' "

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