Thursday, September 17, 2015

In Praise of Grammar

I recently reread a favorite book from my youth, Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. Originally published in 1868, it is considered to be an early classic of detective fiction. An unscrupulous British officer stationed in India plucks the Moonstone, a massive diamond, from the forehead of a Hindu idol and carries it back to England. Misfortune, reputed to be the effects of a curse, dogs the man until his death, whereupon the gem becomes a bequest to his niece upon her eighteenth birthday. On the very night Rachel receives the stone, however, it disappears from her bedroom. Broken engagements, assaults, scandal, madness, illness, despair and death follow, as the mystery becomes increasingly tangled.

The first time I read The Moonstone, I was caught up in the story. That was long before I began my career as a writer. During this more recent reading, I found myself at least as conscious of Collins' style and craft as I was of the plot.

The novel unfolds in sections narrated by different individuals, each of whom (according to the framing conceit of the tale) has been asked to report on the events he or she personally witnessed relating to the loss of the diamond. Some of the narrators are major actors in the mystery, while others are peripheral. Collins does a magnificent job giving each one a distinctive voice. The various sections not only propel the plot, reveal clues and cleverly misdirect the reader's attention, they also create surprisingly three dimensional images of the characters – their motivations, prejudices and peculiarities. My pleasure upon this second reading of the book came as much from appreciating these unwitting self-portraits as from the gradual unraveling of the secrets of the stone. And much of the richness of these vignettes derives from the characters' differing use of language.

The experience started me thinking about the wonders of English grammar. Victorian prose tends to be far more complex grammatically than what you will find in modern novels. Sentences are longer, with multiple clauses, adverbial modifiers, rhetorical questions and parenthetical asides. Of course, some authors of the period produced sentences so pedantic and labored that they're painful to read. A more skilled writer (like Collins) uses these linguistic variations to express nuanced relationships that would be difficult to communicate with shorter, more direct sentences.

Consider the following passage, chosen more or less at random. The narrator (Franklin Blake) is a young gentleman, educated in Europe, and hopelessly in love with Rachel.

I might have answered that I remembered every word of it. But what purpose, at that moment, would the answer have served?
How could I tell her that what she had said had astonished me and distressed me, had suggested to me that she was in a dangerous state of nervous excitement, had even roused a moment's doubt in my mind whether the loss of the jewel was as much a mystery to her as to the rest of us – but had never once given me so much as a glimpse of the truth? Without the shadow of a proof to produce in vindication of my innocence, how could I persuade her that I knew no more than the veriest stranger could have known of what was really in her thoughts when she spoke to me on the terrace?

Complex indeed! We have both simple past (“I remembered”, “I knew”) and past perfect (“had said”, “had astonished”, “had suggested”). Blake is describing a past conversation with Rachel, in which they discussed another conversation that occurred the day after the diamond disappeared (a time previous to the first conversation). Even more intricate are the connections between facts and the counter-factual or hypothetical, both in the simple past (“might have”, “could I”) and more distant past (“could have known”). The tense inflections and adverbial modifiers elucidate relationships not only between different stretches of time but also different degrees of reality.

How many of us could pen a paragraph so complicated and yet so clear?

As an exercise, I tried to translate the passage above into simpler, more modern prose.

I could have told her I remembered every word. But I doubt she would have believed me.

I could have said that she astonished and distressed me. She had been in a dangerous state of nervous excitement. I had even wondered whether she really knew more about the loss of the jewel than the rest of us. But when we spoke, she hadn't given me the slightest hint of the truth. Since I had no proof of my innocence, there was no way I could convince her that during our conversation on the terrace her accusations were as much a mystery to me as they would have been to a stranger.

Even this reworking requires the past and past perfect. There's no way to get around them, since the distinction between the first and second conversations is crucial to the sense of the paragraph. I didn't manage to completely remove counter-factual expressions (“could have”,”would have been”), either. If I had, significant chunks of meaning would have been lost. As it is, I feel that the translation doesn't begin to compare with the original in terms of expressing subtleties of both logic and emotion.

Authors today have a tendency to view grammar as a necessary evil, a set of incomprehensible rules designed to trip them up as they proceed in telling their story. I look at it differently. Grammatical structures (and punctuation) exist in order express linguistic distinctions. As writers, we're fortunate. English is capable of communicating a bewildering variety of such distinctions, in wonderfully precise ways.

By comparison, I've been studying a foreign language where there's no grammatical difference between present and past tense, or between singular or plural, a language without articles or grammatical mechanisms for indicating that something is contrary to fact. Native speakers manage to understand one another, but I find the language frustrating in its lack of specificity.

I'm sorry to see the changes that are stripping English of some of its grammatical richness. One rarely sees the subjunctive anymore, even in written communication. Semi-colons are practically extinct. Indeed, one of my publisher's house style prohibits them, along with parenthetical asides.

Since I began publishing, my own writing has followed the popular trends. I've learned to limit subordinate clauses to no more than one or two per sentence. I've been trained to avoid long passages in the past perfect and to eschew adverbs. I won't say that my writing has necessarily suffered; my early work definitely tends to be overly prolix. Still, I sometimes feel like rebelling against the starkness and simplicity of modern prose.

When that happens, I sometimes write something pseudo-Victorian. Here, for instance, is a passage from Incognito, ostensibly from a Victorian woman's secret diary:

I scarcely know how to begin this account of my adventures and my sins. Indeed, I do not fully understand why I feel compelled to commit these things to writing. Clearly, my purpose is not to review and relive these experiences in the future, for in twenty minutes’ time these sentences will be invisible even to me. Perhaps in the years ahead, I will trail my fingers across the empty parchment, coloured like flesh, and the memories will come alive without the words, coaxed from the pages by my touch like flames bursting from cold embers.

I have a secret life, another self, and that secret has become a burden that I clutch to myself, and yet would be relieved of. So, like the Japanese who write their deepest desires on slips of rice paper and then burn them, I write of secret joys and yearnings, and send that writing into oblivion.

Let me begin again. My name is Beatrice. The world sees me as poised, prosperous, respectable, wife of one of Boston’s leading merchants and industrialists, mother of two sweet children, lady of a fine brick house on fashionable Mount Vernon Street, with Viennese crystal chandeliers, Chinese porcelain, French velvet draperies, and Italian marble fireplaces. I devote myself to the education of my dear Daniel and Louisa, the management of my household, works of charity, cultural afternoons. In sum, the many and sundry details of maintaining oneself in proper society.

Though I have borne two children, I am still considered beautiful. Indeed, with my golden locks, fair skin, turquoise eyes and rosy lips, I am often compared to an angel. How little they know, those who so describe me. For in truth, I am depraved, wanton, and lecherous, so lost that I do not even regret my fall.

Ah, the glorious grammar!

Am I the only one out there aroused by this structural intricacy, as artful and constraining as shibari?

(By the way...I'm in the process of re-editing and expanding Incognito, for a release early next year!)

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