This is an abridged version of the first volume of Niven’s memoirs, read by Niven himself. The edition I have is 2 CDs, with a running time of about 2 1/2 hours.
It says something about Niven’s talent for storytelling that as a teenager I utterly adored my parents’ copies of Niven’s memoirs, even though I had no idea who he was and had never seen any of his films. I picked them up because they were books and they were there, and I had a marvellous time. His anecdotes were frequently hilarious, occasionally desperately sad, and always entertaining. The books offered a fascinating insider view of Hollywood in the thirties to sixties, although I now know that some of Niven’s stories were closer to fiction than fact in his quest to entertain his audience.
The audiobook of A Moon’s a Balloon was recorded in 1977, and Niven is charming, funny, and a superb reader. It starts with his school and Sandhurst days in the 1910s and 1920s, and then covers his first military career (with some hair-raising stories about his antics in the Highland Light Infantry). It moves on to his initial move to the US, and how he ended up in Hollywood. Niven’s later career was a glittering one, but as he entertainingly describes, he started at the bottom of the ladder, and was not the most promising of new actors when he first had a chance to break out of the ranks of the extras. The audiobook also covers his return to the UK on the outbreak of war and his (eventually successful) attempts to rejoin the armed forces — though Niven was always reluctant to talk about his war experience, and says very little about his time with the Commandos in the print book, and even less in the audiobook. Then there’s a passage about his return to Hollywood after the war.
Though some of his anecdotes were embroidered, or re-told as his personal experiences when in truth they happened to his friends, he has a knack of making the listener feel as if they could have been there. And there’s real emotion as he reads some of the passages — most movingly, you can hear him holding back the tears as he reads the passage about the death of his first wife, even though she had died some thirty years before this recording was made.
Unreliable narrator though he may be, from the perspective of a reader/listener in the early twenty-first century this is a fascinating slice of history. Fascinating, and hugely enjoyable. I’m very glad I bought this.