Is This Too Erudite For Modern Readers?
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.
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.