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The Independent Culture
IT'S A neat - but, I'm fairly confident, accidental - piece of scheduling that has brought Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy to the air in the same week as Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu: two great novels about the difficulty of remembering, and the difficulty of turning what we remember into stories, which both model the workings of the mind through digression, association and repetition. Another thing they have in common, by the way, is that the narrator is asthmatic.

The most obvious difference between them is that where Sterne takes our muddled consciousness as an excuse for comedy, Proust takes a more melancholy tone. At any rate, he does in all the versions of Proust I've come across, including a Radio 3 broadcast of Harold Pinter's The Proust Screenplay about 10 years ago. (Meanwhile, the Penguin Proust I got for Christmas 2003 is sitting pristine on the shelves, about three-quarters of the way towards the back of the long queue of great works of literature I really ought to have got round to reading by now.)

Melancholy was certainly the keynote in the first episode of In Search of Lost Time, the new Classic Serial (3pm, Sunday, Radio 4), which opened with emphatically solemn, sweeping music. Nothing wrong with a theme tune, of course; but a thing that irritated me about this generally thoughtful production was the way the theme music kept coming back. At several key points, the narrator, Marcel (James Wilby), returned to the central problem of memory and fact: he draws a distinction between facts that he can "recall by will, but are dead to me in reality", and the "precious and authentic" facts that spring to mind without the mediation of will. But this music turned statement of fact into editorialising, wrecking all the hard work done by Michael Butt's script.

John Taylor's production fell down at other points, notably Marcel's epiphanic taste of a madeleine, which (even we non-Proustians know) brings childhood memories flooding back. Suddenly, the air was filled with a babble of echoing voices, and a soprano voice singing an enigmatic melody in the background. You could hear how this worked as a representation of flooding; but the echo effect to represent memory is a dismally overused cliche, and it undermined any sense of precision. Other ideas worked better, notably the way a bell kept drawing the narrator back to this theme. The same device was used in the radio version of the Pinter script, if my memory serves. Which it probably doesn't.

The performances were mostly BBC Classic standard: unemphatic, intelligent enough, but oddly familiar - the same voices, with the same general tones, could turn up in a month or two doing Dickens or Balzac or Fielding or Dostoevsky. The exception was Imogen Stubbs as Odette, the teasing object of Charles Swann's obsessive passion. She brought a breathy ingenue quality that at moments came over like one of the pretty girls who gets wooed by Jim Dale in Carry On films; but at least she sounded fresh, as if she was exploring the part.

By contrast, Tristram Shandy, on Woman's Hour, (10am, Monday-Friday, Radio 4) sounds a bit rough and ready. Whether Sterne's masterpiece of digression and distraction counts as readable is perhaps open to argument, but you do get a sense that the narrative fits and starts are a product of energy - it moves at such a helter-skelter pace that sometimes it jumps the rails.

Neil Dudgeon's Tristram sounded as if he was digressing through timidity, a reluctance to get to the point. Later in the week, the pace picked up; but, as with so many serials in the Woman's Hour drama slot, the attempt to combine narration and dialogue was fumbled, with a cast that had no unity of style or purpose. It would have made more sense to do it all as monologue. Creditable try, but finally forgettable.