Stephen Fry and Alan Moore: They Got Rhythm

Recently re-reading Stephen Fry’s autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, (I’m in a memoir mood following Oliver Postgate’s Seeing Things — I’m now reading Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater), I found myself thinking that, at its most florid, Stephen Fry’s prose style has certain similarities to Alan Moore’s.

Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry

They come from opposite ends of the social spectrum, of course. Moore was born and raised in Northampton’s poorest area; Fry went (mostly) through the public school system. But this sort of contrast only makes the similarities between the two all the more interesting. Apart from a few superficials (both are tall men, both have been described as “National Treasures”), the main similarity, to me, is in the character of their writing and their all-welcoming generosity of spirit. Both have a gourmet’s love of language, gleefully discarding traditional ideas of writerly propriety, such as brevity or concision, for the uninhibited joys of wordplay. Both use the full resources of their (large) vocabularies, swooping effortlessly from the literary to the archaic, the scientific, and the crudest Anglo Saxon, with perfect poise. Both use long, complex sentences but are never unreadable. In fact, these things add to the life, the vigour, and therefore the readability, of their prose. As writers, both have that Chaucerian/Shakespearean ability to include all aspects and levels of life in their writing, from the low physical to the high spiritual, from art as Art to art as entertainment, and from life as poor comedy to life as high tragedy.

So, having formed my theory, I tried to find some corroborative evidence. Here, for instance is Alan Moore, from the start of what I think of as one of his best pieces of non-fiction prose, a review of the works of occultist Kenneth Grant, published as “Beyond Our Ken” in Kaos magazine issue 14 (which can be downloaded here):

As fascinating and ultimately mystifying as a giant squid in a cocktail dress, what shall we make of Kenneth Grant? I know few occultists without at least a passing interest in his work, and I know fewer still who would profess to have the first idea what he is on about. What he is on. To open any Grant text following his relatively lucid Magical Revival is to plunge into an information soup, an overwhelming and hallucinatory bouillon of arcane fact, mystic speculation and apparent outright fantasy, as appetising (and as structured) as a dish of Gumbo. The delicious esoteric fragments tumble past in an incessant boil of prose, each morsel having the authentic taste of magic…

I know the sound of both Moore’s and Fry’s speaking voices (which is certainly something that helps them come alive in my mind as I read them), so I tried reading a few of the more characteristic passages of Stephen Fry in the voice of Alan Moore. This, for instance, is Fry in full flight:

For the English the words healthy and hale, at their best, used to carry the full-belief weight of florid good cheer, cakes and ale, halidom and festive Falstaffian winter wassail. By the end of the seventeenth century, the hale health of pagan holiday was expelled from the feasting-hall along with Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch by the sombre holy day piety and po-faced puritanism of Malvolio, Milton and Prynne. “Health!” became no longer a bumping boozer’s toast but a quality of the immortal soul. Health no longer went with heartiness, but with purity. (From Moab is My Washpot, by Stephen Fry, p. 156)

Read as Alan Moore, it’s completely wrong. And the vice is as true of the versa. Moore’s prose (after that “As fascinating and ultimately mystifying as a giant squid in a cocktail dress”, which I can imagine Stephen Fry saying) just doesn’t fit even Fry’s gorgeously eloquent audiobook-friendly voice.

What’s going on? What is this magic of words that the best, most characteristic writers have, which brand them indelibly as their own and no-one else’s? What is “style”, which is at once so uniquely characteristic yet so infinitely variable? How can a writer write so many sentences, each different, but each sounding undoubtedly like them?

Whenever I read people trying to analyse “voice”, or style (and I love reading the attempts), it usually breaks down with resort to a word like “rhythm” — the “rhythm” of a particular writer’s prose — which always annoys me as an answer, because it seems to be cheating by shifting gears from literary to musical terms of reference. And besides, it implies it’s just about the pattern of syllables in a writer’s sentences, when it’s obviously so much more.

But when I try to come up with my own answer, I can’t help but do the same shift in gear. “Music” is the best I can come up with — the music of the way a writer uses his or her words. Not just the rhythm, but the melody and the harmony and the counterpoint, the characteristic key changes, the riffs and runs, and everything else. It’s the particular brand of humour, the breadth of curiosity and interest, the way a writer relates to his or her readers, their ability to link disparate ideas, the way they say one thing while meaning another…

Writing contains so much. It’s amazing to think how a single stream of words, read one at a time, can create such rich, multi-layered music, such magic, and how every writer who takes up the task of putting a sentence together does so in a way that is characteristically branded as theirs and no-one else’s. And when a writer surrounds you with their world, their way of thinking and looking, of laughing and feeling, it really is magic. It’s the magic of looking at the same world you always knew, but through another person’s eyes, and seeing just how different — different yet the same — it looks.