ars adeo latet arte sua
To such an extent does his artistic skill conceal his artistic skill.
Ovid Metamorphoses 10.252
When I finished reading “Death in Holy Orders” (2001) by P.D. James, I was prompted to jot down the following observations.
Aside from spinning an intriguing tale – that is, being a great story teller – she also has a marvelous way with words – that is, she is a stylist. You don’t find too many writers who are popular today who can also write well. For sure, they churn out page-turners with interesting plots, and one reads them, but their use of the English language, though banausic enough, tends to get short shrift in the process.
But in the case of P. D. James, you are always feeling that here is a writer who loves English and relishes playing with the words, the phrases, the structures of which the language is capable. I appreciate the crisp precision of her English – she understands, for example, the difference between the verbs ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ (cf. here) and she knows their principal parts, and she is aware of the functional distinction between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ (see here). Small but not trivial matters! This kind of linguistic aestheticism, if you will, that once was taken for granted in a writer — but no longer can be — has great appeal for me, and it is in no small measure responsible for my fondness of her novels. If you like mysteries but from time to time grow weary of the pedestrian use of language to which most writers of the genre have recourse (Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are obvious American exceptions from earlier generations), you could do a lot worse than picking up a P.D. James mystery.
Another thing I like about her writing is that I learn new vocabulary. Here are some of the words I did not know or was not sure of that popped up in “Death in Holy Orders:” anglepoise, aubergine, biretta, cafetière, cassoulet, castellated, chivvy, groynes, gules, mortice, musquash, niblick, ogee, oriel, oubliette, pannier, paten, plinth, podgy, ruch, shriven, wanker. How many of those do you know? Well, I looked up most of them (some were not even in my small dictionary and I’ll have to go to the OED) and added them to my private dictionary, where I list all new words I come across – how else to expand one’s vocabulary? — always a useful and, I think, inherently interesting project to have on hand.
In this particular novel, which is set in a religious college on the chill and barren east coast of England overlooking the truculent North Sea, James is especially adept at verbal picture painting of scene and mood. Talk about the pathetic fallacy! But it is all seamlessly integrated into the narrative and the characterizations of the motley group she has assembled, and you never have the sense — that is so often the case, especially with young and inexperience writers – that this ‘device’ is just thrown into the mix in order to illustrate the writer’s awareness of technique. As the Roman poet Ovid once (some 2,000 years ago) said (Metamorphoses 10.252) of the sculptural artist Pygmalion, ars adeo latet arte sua (‘to such an extent does his artistic skill conceal his artistic skill’. A valid bon mot for any aspiring writer.
Well, just some desultory thoughts for today.