I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of style. In my ambitious youth I teased myself with Homeric Greek, Dostoyevskian Russian and Flaubertian French in an effort to become more intimate with my idols. But then, in my twenties, came the devastating realisation that my native English style, despite years of patient effort, was still glaringly deficient. Writing stories was very difficult for me, writing business documents even harder. I struggled to put one sentence after another in anything like a coherent pattern.
I started to read books on how to write. All my foreign novels went up into the attic and I refused to read anything in translation. I sought out the purist English stylists and eschewed anything showy or slipshod.
Iris Murdoch became a favourite, followed by Terry Pratchett.
I was appalled when I saw a television interviewer ask Iris Murdoch, “How do you account for your status as one of Britain’s best living novelists, given that you don’t really have any style to speak of?”
“I like to think I have quite a neat little prose style,” she said.
That was telling him!
One of the things about great style is that it often goes unnoticed. All the craft is hidden. What emerges instead is the meaning, which the reader flatters himself he has grasped easily because he is clever.
What makes Dostoyevsky great is his lucidity. It doesn’t matter that his work is mediated by an imperfect translator or that he tells his stories in a rambling, discursive style with lots of digressions and debates. The souls of his characters appear luminously before you and their moral and spiritual preoccupations are laid out with comprehensive candour. Nobles and peasants, cynics and idealists are all given equal treatment. There is breadth and depth in his novels. Yet everything unfolds with apparent ease.
The style of The Brothers Karamazov, his last and greatest novel, is the effortlessness of a professional man of letters who knew that the hardest challenge was to set everything before the reader in such a way that it could be readily understood. Reading it is one of the easiest and most pleasurable things in the world only because it’s the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to the craft of writing.