Saturday, February 22, 2014
Elephants Can Remember
"This must be the worst Agatha Christie book ever."
"The math is off, so badly and so often..."
I heard a story on NPR the other day in which a professor had analyzed several of Agatha Christie's novels. He fed the text of a selection of them that spanned her career into a computer. He was looking at what he referred to as "indefinite words" (thing, something, anything, etc) and he also noted the number of different words used. Apparently in her penultimate novel, Elephants Can Remember, her vocabulary dropped by 20 percent and her use of these indefinite words spiked. It has been speculated that Dame Agatha suffered Alzheimer's disease.
I have loved her books. I read the Miss Marple series, then reluctantly read the Poirot series - start to finish. In order. (I ended up loving the Poirot books as well, but for entirely different reasons.) In the later novels a character named Ariadne Oliver was somewhat of a sidekick to Poirot. She was a writer, a scatty writer who seems very much to be a way for Christie to poke fun at herself through her novels.
I also read her Autobiography. Hers wasn't a glamorous, action-packed life that one would associate with a celebrity, but Autobiography was frank and sincere. She indicated that she wrote her first mystery because she had time on her hands and it was a kind of challenge her sister had given her. She had studied piano and singing. She had done needlepoint. Writing was sort of the next step. She referred to her work as "definitely low-brow". I never read that she began - or continued - writing because of a fire inside to write, a calling or an inner need to write. She looked at it financially. If she produced one book a year she could live on that. (Granted, she also said that she could write whatever she wanted to aside from that, which gave her time to write other non-mystery books that may or may not sell.) Ariadne thought to herself in Elephants Can Remember that she wasn't necessarily Noble, as one reader had called her, "She was a lucky woman who had established a happy knack of writing what quite a lot of people wanted to read."
Back to the novel. The NPR story indicated that she might have been expressing her mental situation in the book. (My goodness, she was 81 years old when she wrote Elephants Can Remember. I probably would have gotten bored of the whole thing much earlier than that.) I had already read this book, but hearing the story on the radio I had to read it again. This time it was different for me. That is to say that I took note of the atmosphere more than I previously had. It has a slight air of melancholy and even Hercule Poirot waxes nostalgic in thinking about his relationship with Ariadne. People complained that it was confusing trying to keep up with the disparate events and conversations, that there were discrepancies in the timing. The second time I read it I noticed those. Some of them were clearly discrepancies, but some of them were - it seems to me - part of the story.
The murder is one that happened in the past. How far back in the past is part of the question. Ariadne sets out to interview "Elephants" because elephants can remember. That is the way of this book - what people remember and why. How, even when people remember things incorrectly, it can be a good clue, because there is probably a reason that they remembered them that way. The events changed from one person's story to the next. The murder was 10 years ago, 15, 12. The ages of the people involved changed or were inconsistent with information that other people told Ariadne. But, that's the way of people who remember.
The murder in question was a tragedy; everybody agreed about that. And there seemed to be a certain sadness in everybody when talking about it. Even people who would love to gossip, even people who knew very little about it. Perhaps it was Ariadne projecting her weariness. Because she was weary. She was tired. It seems that she didn't want to continue investigating and even her natural curiosity wasn't enough to keep her going. Her goddaughter is why she continued. Her goddaughter feared that she might have inherited a genetic disposition to mental disorder and was hesitant to marry the man she loved.
If Christie was having trouble with memory, maybe this was her way of expressing it. So many people have said that it was one of her worst novels. But, maybe it is a better work of art if one looks at it from a different perspective. Don't look at it so much as a mystery. Set aside all of the other mysteries that she wrote, in which one took every little fact into consideration when trying to figure out whodunnit. Set aside the inconsistencies, or rather look at them in a different way. What if the book is not so much about a mystery as it is about memory. What if Dame Agatha was painting a picture of what life is like when one begins to lose their memory. The person is confused, lost in the details that are remembered incorrectly, tired from trying to think and remember, a little sad that they aren't as lucid as they once were. Of course she would present this painting in a mystery novel; that's what she was known for, that would be the best way to get people to read it. She had already established a character she could use to represent herself. It's brilliant, and beautiful and a little sad. But, she was woman who loved life. She did so much. And through it all, she kept writing.
Agatha Christie is my hero.