Is This Too Erudite For Modern Readers?

Reading & Writing

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Let’s talk about word power. And I don’t mean that page in the Reader’s Digest encouraging you to improve it.

One of the things I find so disappointing about books like the megahit ‘Gone Girl’ is the flatness of the language, and ‘Gone Girl’ is certainly one of the better-written popular novels of the year. I know many are written in the first person, which requires a certain flatness – Kenneth Tynan said ‘Dialogue is not conversation’ but you can’t have your characters waxing lyrical all over the shop. Still, there’s nothing more thrilling than experiencing the erudition of a well-turned paragraph.

To compare, take a look at the wonderful Michael Gilbert sometime. He wrote charming mysteries, his first concerning cathedrals and crosswords, layered with the kind of twinkling fun you find in the work of Edmund Crispin and other postwar mystery authors. With a poet father and a novelist mother it wasn’t surprising Gilbert wrote beautifully, but his interest in crime spread to both sides of his career; he tackled his first mystery while studying for a law degree.

He wrote during his train trips up from Kent to Lincoln’s Inn Fields each morning, eventually producing 30 novels, four plays and hundreds of short stories. During the war he had continued studying by riding around the Circle Line tube and using their electricity rather than his own. It was typical of his ingenuity, and he applied this talent to a series of whodunnits that won him acclaim. The most devious is ‘Smallbone Deceased’, in which the mummified victim is found in a deed-box, but the writing is a joy. Try this paragraph;

John had by now reached that well-defined stage of intoxication when every topic becomes the subject of exposition and generalisation, when sequences of thought range themselves in the speaker’s mind, strewn about with flowery metaphor and garlanded in chains of pelucid logic; airborne flights of oratory to which the only obstacle is a certain difficulty with the palatal consonants.

A bit nicer than saying he was pissed. 

However, few people (those who enjoy such blogs as this excepted, of course) are ever going to read these books, and modern editors would probably cut that paragraph, because thanks to the dumbing down of our language Gilbert’s prose is starting to look like Shakespeare. Even my spellchecker rejected pelucid and palatal. So according to my cultural imperialist Macbook Air, these words don’t exist. Someone in California has edited them out of existence. The good news is that thanks to e-reading, you can now look such words up instantly.

Which is just as well, because there’s a Gilbert word that’s unfamiliar on nearly every page. That isn’t to say that the books are hard to read at all. They’re joyous, especially his immediately postwar novels. Postwar Britain was filled with the kind of bureaucratic officials Gilbert found annoying, and he took revenge on them in novels. Although Gilbert’s works vaguely conform to the American description of ‘Cosies’ insofar as they feature English institutions and rituals, there’s a darker seam that surfaces most powerfully in ‘The Night of the Twelfth’, which concerns the murder of children and contains echoes of the Moors Murders.

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Surprisingly, his quality didn’t diminish with age, and he wrote one of his finest courtroom dramas, ‘The Queen Against Karl Mullen’, at the age of eighty. There remains the question of lucidity. There’s a place for ‘Gone Girl’ prose, on a beach or when you’re half-asleep – ‘Amy peered at the crepe sizzling in the pan and licked something off her wrist. She looked triumphant, wifely.’ (I hope I’ve remembered that right) but it’s not a book you’d put back on your shelf with an air of secret satisfaction, that you read it, that you can share it, that you’ll treasure it.

I’m not judging Flynn, who is simply responding to the market and doing it brilliantly – hell, she makes money from it, which is an achievement in itself. It’s just that good prose isn’t hard to read, it only requires you to make a bit of an  effort. Even Shakespeare gets easier if you just relax and listen for a bit; nobody can expect to understand everything at once, but it’s there to deepen with your own years.

Gilbert had an easier way of describing John’s hangover the next day; ‘I’m finding some difficulty in opening both eyes at once. And when I do, what do I see? A greyish-yellowish mist, and floating around in it like the corpses of men long drowned, are Things, frightful and indescribable Things.’ He goes off and has a coffee. A lightness of touch is all that’s needed from both reader and writer.

15 comments on “Is This Too Erudite For Modern Readers?”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Great piece and in my case timely. I read four Gilbert books (Patrick Petrella) while on vacation last month. I enjoyed the books immensely. (Many of his books are now published for you on demand.)
    Gilbert’s writing is as you say, a touch on the “cozy” side, but cozy with thorns, and the storyscape he draws is mostly the first half of the last century in London and southern Britain. His vocabulary is so very enjoyable and his people are polite.
    And I suppose you know Gilbert’s two collections of spy stories – the best spy stories I’ve ever read – and what delightful characters the two elderly spies are. They may have white hair, lined faces and need an afternoon nap, but they can quickly eliminate an obstacle when necessary. Ingenious.

  2. Bill Ticknor says:

    Great article. I enjoy the variety of his books. Perhaps my favorite deceased crime writer.

  3. Henry Ricardo says:

    Thanks for the comments. I am not familiar with Michael Gilbert, but I resolve to fix that.
    Does anyone here know the works of Andrew Garve?

  4. Adam says:

    Sold! Off to purchase a Gilbert right now….

  5. Helen Martin says:

    ahem. Not to drop a wet blanket on the enthusiasm but while I like “strewn about with flowery metaphor” (a little Lady Chatterly, that) and “garlanded in chains of pelucid logic”, “airborne flights of fancy” jar a little since chains and airborne don’t fit very well together. The airborne flights and the difficulty of the palatal consonants make a lovely discordant sound, however, and made me laugh. (Spell check here accepted palatal but not pelucid.)

  6. Terenzio says:

    It may not necessarily be a dumbing down of language. Agatha Christie published her first book a good 25 years before Gilbert published his first book. And throughout her writing career she used common words and employed a simple structure for sentences and paragraphs. Her works were and still are quite accessible to a great number of people from different educational and social backgrounds. This cannot be said of Gilbert’s books who even back in the 1950s he was writing for a particular segment of the population. No, it has more to do with what one might call “flowery language” and the use of more complicated words and descriptions that not every one will get or appreciate. Today people like brevity when it comes to the written words. Perhaps in the future this will change and people will go back to enjoying the writing of Gilbert or Michael Innes. I did enjoy Gilbert’s books – in particular is earlier ones like Closed Quarters and Smallbone Deceased, but some of the ones from the 70s I found dated. This might due to the fact I was only a wee lad back then and didn’t really follow what was happening in the world at the time. In consequence reading stories written in the 1970s in the 2000s as an adult I didn’t get some of the inside jokes or the commentary on social institutions and world events that time were happening at the time. One particular book from the early 80s called – I think – The Killing of Katie Steelstock I found offensive due to the inclusion of a really nasty negative comment about a lesbian. I can tolerate such comments in books from the 40s, 50s or earlier and chalk it up to the time it written in, but I cannot tolerate it from a book written in the 1980s.

    I shall retire to the boudoir with a cup of Mariage Frères Earl Grey Impérial Tea, a couple of Walkers Shortbread cookies and perhaps some light reading material ….the one in the exquisite purple dressing gown and lovely velvet slippers.

  7. Terenzio says:

    While munching on a cookie I thought of Colin Watson. His first book was published in 1958 called Coffin, Scarcely Used. He continued to write books into the 1970s. They feature Inspector Purbirght of the Flaxborough police and are quite hilarious.

  8. Vivienne says:

    Have read Smallbone Deceased. I’m afraid I didn’t notice the language being particularly flowery, but I thought it absolutely summoned up the atmosphere of the time which I just touched on when I started work.

    Also, some time ago, I started a list of ‘forbidden words’ that spellcheck wouldn’t approve. I think liaise was one of the first I came upon.

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    Colin Watson is very funny, particularly in the early books, although the last couple were a bit less so. (This may be because I’d read all the previous books and how many changes can be rung without loss of freshness?) The funniest book for me has different titles in the U.K. and U.S.A., and I don’t remember now which is which. The U.K. title, I believe, is “Broomsticks Over Flaxbough”. There is a lovely set piece in the first 3rd describing a very proper Church of England bus tour for seniors. A day trip to find and identify wild flowers in the countryside. Unfortunately for decorum, there is a country-raised, plain-spoken woman along who knows all the country names of the plants and loudly announces them to all. What glorious names she uses to the mortification of the tour guide. Look for it when you have time to split a side and bust a gut.

  10. Terenzio says:

    I read Broomsticks Over Flaxbough aka Kissing Covens and I don’t remember a scene with a group of oldens on a bus tour, but it has been a while since I read the book so I might be mistaken Though I do remember a hilarious black mass with the respectable citizens getting totally wasted on some home-made brew. At least I believe it was home-made, but people definitely got a little sauced. One of the woman thought she was Salome and did a version of the Dance of the Seven Veils. In the 70s there was a really good television adaptation of four of the novels with Anton Rodgers as Purbright and Brenda Bruce (who later went on to play Aunt Dahlia in Jeeves and Wooster) as a delightful Miss. Teatime. The series is available though Netflicks on DVD.

  11. Terenzio says:

    Murder Most English is the name of the series.

  12. Jo W says:

    I have read quite a few of the Michael Gilbert books and can’t remember any difficulty with the ‘flowery’ prose. Coming across new or unfamiliar words in a book is for me an opportunity to get out the dictionary and learn its meaning. Never too old to learn! The collection of Colin Watson books I have on the bookshelves are well read and I cannot read them without Anton Rodgers’ face and voice before me. That series of adaptations was great and just how I had imagined Inspector Purbright to look.

  13. Dan Terrell says:

    Terenzio – You are correct. A trip to the book shelves supports you.
    The scene is in “The Flaxborough Crab” (aka “Just What The Doctor Ordered”).
    If you go to the Wikipedia entry for Watson and go down to the external links, you can click to a 2004(?)exhaustive post on Watson’s books. It has a section of the flower game scene, which I read way back when it was originally published and has never left me, even if the book’s title was elusive.

  14. Michael coulson says:

    Im not surprised your spell check rejected pelucid; my Concise Oxford spells it pellucid. I frequently retread Gilbert’s earlier books, and have always thought it a pity that he largely abandoned the genre later in his career for adventure novels, which were always entertaining, but little more than jolly romps. His sporadic reversions to genuine crime novels were always a delight

  15. Michael coulson says:

    Damn spell correctors! Retread shd of course be reread!

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