Thursday, December 02, 2004

Alzheimer's and literary style

Most of yesterday's broadsheets, e.g. the Guardian, carried a report of some research carried out by Peter Garrard, of the institute of cognitive neuroscience at University College, London. Garrard and his colleagues compared the early novels of Iris Murdoch with her final work, and concluded that, towards the end of her life, her vocabulary had dwindled and her language had become simpler. This, they suggested, provided evidence of Alzheimer's disease some time before the writer was actually diagnosed as suffering from that condition.

Well, there seems to be no doubt that Iris Murdoch did suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and I am quite prepared to believe that this showed up in the way she wrote. However, there are a couple of points which I would like to make in relation to Garrard's research and in relation to Iris Murdoch's writing generally.

First, it would come as no surprise to me if, over the course of a writing career lasting twenty or thirty years, a writer's style did become simpler, using a larger proportion of short words. From casual, rather than scientific, observation, it seems to me that young writers, particularly in the literary genre, do tend to think it clever to use great long rambling sentences (the Faulkner influence) and to employ words with a multiplicity of syllables. Their style, in short, is consciously and deliberately sesquipidalian. And ten to one you've had to go to the dictionary to find out what that means. Young people think it's clever to do that sort of thing, and it isn't. It is entirely possible, I hope, that in the course of doing a few books, and listening to some wise advisers, a writer might learn to write in a more readily comprehensible manner.

After all, the whole point of fiction is to create emotion, and the whole point of non-fiction is to convey information. Neither objective is achieved by being long-winded and obscure. Faulkner once criticised Hemingway on the grounds that he never used a word which would oblige the reader to consult a dictionary. But Hemingway's response, which I fully endorse, was that he was trying to produce emotion, and you don't do that by using words that the reader can't understand.

In non-fiction, exactly the same applies, of course. Some decades ago there was a famous American journalist called Ed Murrow. Towards the end of his career, Murrow was told by an eminent professor of English that the prof had identified the secret of Murrow's success. It was short sentences. Murrow's comment was that he didn't think short sentences were much of a secret.

So, back to Iris Murdoch. Yes, Peter Garrard and his friends are probably right. Iris's last book probably does reveal early signs of Alzheimer's. But it is at least possible, in theory, that she had decided to write in a way which could be understood by people who don't actually have a PhD and an IQ of 175.

The second point I want to make relates to the actual examples of Iris Murdoch's prose which Garrard quotes. The Guardian gives us two sentences (only), one from an early novel, The Sea, The Sea, and one from her last book, Jackson's Dilemma. Here is the first sentence (and I am assuming that the Guardian quoted it correctly, though with the Grauniad you can never be quite sure):
The chagrin, the ferocious ambition which James I am sure quite unconsciously, prompted in me was something which came about gradually and raged intermittently.
This, I repeat, is just one sentence, presumably chosen at random but intended to be fairly typical of Iris's early style. It would be grossly unfair to read too much into one sentence, but what can we say about it?

Well, if I had read this sentence in isolation, not knowing who had written it, I would say that it seems thoroughly sloppy. It is a sentence written by someone who is writing on automatic pilot, putting down the thoughts pretty much as they popped into her head, and not bothering to arrange them in a sensible order once they were set down on paper. Furthermore, the punctuation stinks. It is the kind of construction that you might expect to find in a letter dictated by a busy estate agent.

What on earth is the woman on about? Chagrin seems to me to have nothing to do with raging ambition, though the connection may be clear if you read the sentence in context. Even so, the whole thing screams out for an editor's pencil, or, better still, a complete rewrite on the part of the author, who suddenly realises (as you do) that what she has written down in the full flood of inspiration doesn't actually make much sense.

Let us now look at the sentence quoted from her last book, Jackson's Dilemma.
Owen had laid out a little table with whisky and red wine and orange juice and ham sandwiches and plums and cherry cake.
Dr Garrard tells us (and I believe him) that the sentence from The Sea, The Sea contains 24 tokens of 22 different word types, and that the second sentence contains 25 tokens of 20 word types; over the course of a large text these differences become highly significant.

Stylistically, however, the second sentence seems to me to be an improvement. Admittedly, all those 'ands' are a bit odd -- almost childlike -- but they don't bother me unduly. And at least the meaning is crystal clear. The difference between the two styles is, however, ascribed in this case to incipient Alzheimer's, rather than a conscious decision to adopt a simpler style.

Unfortunately, Iris Murdoch had little incentive to change anything. Ever. She was told, by a host of sycophantic critics, early in her career, that she was a terrific writer, and was frequently described as 'the most brilliant woman in England'; so why consider change? The fact that there were masses of people, like me, who tried to read one of her early books, found it impenetrable, and never bothered to try again, doesn't seem to have disturbed Iris or anyone on her team.

So, at the end of her life Iris has become another of those well known literary figures (such as Sylvia Plath) who are talked and written about a great deal but are hardly ever read. Such is the fate of writers who believe their own publicity.

In 2001 a film was made about Iris Murdoch's life. The young Iris was played by Kate Winslet, and the older, sick woman was played by Judi Dench. In interviews both actresses revealed that, although they admired Iris Murdoch enormously, neither of them had actually got around to reading any of her books. Kate claimed that she didn't have time. Well you don't do you, being an actress and that.

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