Raymond Chandler

I just finished rereading the three early Raymond Chandler novels in the fabulous Library of American edition of his work. All three show the economy of language and spot-on descriptions and metaphors that made Chandler famous and made him deserve to be. Take these two examples:”I don’t like port in hot weather, but it’s nice when they let you refuse it,” about the wealthy black widow of The High Window, or “This room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall, and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead,” from The Big Sleep. I’m not the only one who notices the delightful metaphors in the work of Chandler and other thriller writers; in Steven King’s On Writing he cites two similes: “These favorites include ‘It was darker than a carload of assholes’ (George V. Higgins) and ‘I like a cigarette [that] tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief’ (Raymond Chandler).”

Chandler still resonates. Elmore Leonard is a direct descendant of Chandler, as are most latter-day crime writers, and it’s easy to see why he was influential. He took the laconic but powerful, reluctant and heroic hero of American myth—think Natty Bumppo plunked from the forest and put in the urban jungle with a great knowledge of the human animal rather than the great outdoors and you’re thinking of Philip Marlowe—and applied him to a grimy version of Sherlock Holmes. It also can’t be a coincidence that Marlowe is just an “e” short of Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness.

Chandler isn’t the kind of crime writer Leonard briefly parodies through a character in The Hot Kid: “The sky hung as a shroud over the Bald Mountain Club, gray and unforgiving, a day that dawned with an indifferent beginning, but would end in violent deaths for twelve victims of the massacre.” We’re convinced we’re in better hands than that, as both writing and character show. Leonard’s would-be writer shows what other people do wrong, but it’s hard to define what Chandler gets right; perhaps the ease of his style, which is so swift and lean but packed with vivid, crucial details. Marlowe also makes himself likable by being a, if not the, good but tough guy in a world of deceitful and petty losers. Being good doesn’t mean being weak, and Marlowe is never the patsy, but that doesn’t make him forget his sense of decency, even if it is a decency relative that’s held against the standard of foolish and cops and the L.A. underworld that I suspect still exists today, with the same characters even if the circumstances are different. Marlowe is complex enough to be interesting, and, like the reader, more interested in the story itself and the characters he meets than where the bodies are buried. Chandler is too easy to forget—he doesn’t have the ad budget or product placement of the detective du jour—but even sixty years later he’s still a writer of power and verve.

Edit: I just posted a piece on Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in which I discuss Chandler’s influence.


“When I went into a movie house to see something made by one of these great men, I felt that the half-darkness, the tunnel-like auditorium, spoke of that world of phantasmagoria and dream grotto of which I was aware as a part of my own life, which I could touch only in dreams or waking reverie. But film could open the door to it, for me; film therefore had a place in my life that I had never tried to define, for fear that too much definition might injure the fabric of the dreams.”

—Robertson Davies, Murther and Walking Spirits.

Substitute “novels” for “film” and you would lose nothing, and the movie house in this passage also functions as an excellent metaphor for writing, with the feeling of being aware of part of life that can only be touched in dreams of waking reverie of creation.

The Cunning Man

The Cunning Man was the last novel Davies wrote, and it seems a fitting cap, as it deals with many of the themes and structures developed in his other fiction: the growth of the individual, the necessity of recognizing the spiritual facets of life, and maintaining a sense of proportion.

Imaginative and thematic links run through his novels, which combine to form a larger commentary on life and art—separating the two seems futile at best for Davies. His novels tend to have protagonists whose most significant exploits and understanding occur when they are well into middle age, and yet their understanding and exploits is often rooted in earlier experience. Unlike many authors, Davies eschews elevating a youthful golden era that is wistfully examined through hindsight. (A recent author I cared little for used this method). Instead, youth sets the stage for additional revelations and intelligence.

If there are a few lines that can sum up Davies’ philosophy and ideas, it’s probably the last paragraph of The Cunning Man, which I will repost here, for they are as accurate a summation of existence as any: “This is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night.”

He is conscious of life being a show, as my earlier post on his biography indicates, and he has a theatrical sensibilities in his novels that comes out through techniques like habitually using odd narratives devices to comment on the action; in The Cunning Man a series of epistles gives perspective The Ladies, and in The Lyre of Orpheus a dead composer caught in a kind of purgatory or limbo steps in to speak at times. Two lesser demons comment in What’s Bred in the Bone. The latter two novels, both from The Cornish Trilogy, are both theatrical to begin with and the interruptions function as a chorus, which fits well with Davies’ habit of rehabilitating the past and making it his own, even if he ends up creating unfashionable and perfectly lovely art. In Murther and Walking Spirits a man is murdered in the first sentence and his ghost narrates the rest of the novel, which mostly consists of historical scenes in a movie theater.

The contrast between later novels like Murther and The Cunning Man and Davies’ first novels shows his own growth. The Salterton Trilogy is clearly Davies’ weakest collection of novels, though the last one, A Mixture of Frailties, demonstrates increasing mastery of both form and content. Davies better expresses complex emotion and growth in A Mixture of Frailties than in the earlier two novels, which lack the control and advanced characterization; his protagonist, Monica Gall, is more of a person and less of a placeholder or type than the characters in the first two.

Davies traces Gall’s journey away from rural Canadian roots, which is a theme treated still more heavily in The Deptford Trilogy. In both parallels to his own life are evident, as he went from Canada to Oxford and back, learning much of European sophistication while retaining an essentially Canadian mindset while there. Perhaps this is why the best writing in A Mixture of Frailties comes out through the most important passages of Monica in London. But the novel still demonstrates some of the immaturity of the first two Salterton novels in the frame story surrounding the circumstances of Monica’s financing in England. The first sections surrounding the will of Mrs. Bridgetower, the passively domineering mother of newly minted professor Solly Bridgetower, portended more of strained highjinks of Tempest-Tost and Leaven of Malice. But A Mixture of Frailties swiftly transcends the weaknesses of the first once the action shifts to London because Monica is so much more real, and the events seem much more significant.

The plot is hardly new: country girl goes to the Big City (London in this case) and leaves much, but not all, of her old life behind, and in particular she discards puritanical morality in favor of the city’s mores. But the twisted morality of church and country never fully leaves her, as one can no more fully leave one’s past than leave the bonds of time. Monica falls for a genius composer whose wild and randy life she cannot fully enter, and the denouement requires some resolution of their relationship. The end is unusual, and I will that there is no marriage as there were in old-fashioned comedies and many Victorian novels, but the marriage plot that arises is delightful and natural. The ambiguous end leaves open as to whether there might be marriages later.

The Cunning Man follows the life of a doctor who synthesizes Western medicine and spiritual/indigenous ways of fighting disease. This peculiar doctor’s work helps transcend Western medicine while not bashing it. The medical plot itself, however, represents a deeper movement or growth into understanding of human beings, who the Cunning Man of the title would not acknowledge cannot be nourished by bread alone and are creatures whose heads affect their stomachs and all other parts of them. Understanding and applying that to often recalcitrant or unusual or dilatory patients that cannot be fixed by other doctors is his specialty, and in that way he acts as an advisor beyond the traditional doctor’s interest merely in the body. The last novel effectively continues the themes developed in his earlier works while expanding on them. It is the work of a master and I can only read in awe at such a performance after so many other remarkable novels.

Book reviews in newspapers

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece (subscription required) about the paucity of advertisements placed in newspaper book sections by publishers, and the Journal cites that problem as a reason for the tendency to cut back independent book sections as publishers apparently favor of spending ad dollars in places like prominent displays in book stores. The Los Angeles Times‘ recent decision to fold its once-independent book review into other pages is a primary example of the trend. Perhaps the most interesting quote comes in the penultimate paragraph:

“I think it’s time to relaunch [a book review],” Mr. Wilson [of the Philadelphia Inquirer] says. “I don’t understand why newspapers, when they want to cut space, they immediately think of depriving people who like to read.”

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to that point of view, but on the other, I feel like the train has long since left the station (or, for a science fiction metaphor, the ship has already been launched into orbit). Like music aficionados who want hipster blogs and p2p networks, book people have probably already moved substantially online to book blogs and Amazon.

In the time I’ve been alive—which, at 23, isn’t all that long in the grand scheme of things—I can’t remember the Seattle Times or PI having an independent book review section. These days, however, I’d be unlikely to read it even if they did: I get most of my book news from blogs, and now that I write one of my own, I sometimes get the goods about items of interest sent straight to me.

And Jessa Crispin of Bookslut makes another useful observation: “Part of me while reading this article […] was thinking “None of the ‘endangered’ book sections listed here are even very interesting.” Aside from the much maligned New York Times Book Review—I don’t share the widespread hostility so many book blogs have toward it—I read few newspaper reviews. The most interesting stuff too infrequently shows up in newspapers.

BookDaddy, meanwhile, has a slightly different take: the absence of ad dollars is business as usual, and publishers just can’t get the budget to pay for ads. This seems odd—if movies can get ad budgets, why can’t books? Although some of the discrepancy is no doubt due to the fact that movie big movie studios release dozens or at most a few hundred movies a year while publishers release thousands of title, it doesn’t follow that publishers can barely spend anything—unless they’ve realized that those ads don’t move books. And in my case, they’re right because I don’t read book reviews in newspaper, so those ads just can’t move me to buy a book.


“One reason we have professional novelists is that tales told by amateurs are frequently pointless, dull and inconclusive.”

—A.O. Scott in his review of Ten Days in the Hills. The link goes to the New York Times’ walled garden, so in two weeks you probably won’t be able to read it, but you don’t need to—he thinks little of Smiley’s new novel because he says its characters exhibit the traits of amateurs’ stories. Regardless of the merits of the novel, I do like Scott’s succinct and accurate defense of the novelist’s craft.

Robertson Davies: Man of Myth

I’ve continued moving through the Davies oeuvre and even into an authorized biography called Robertson Davies: Man of Myth by Judith Skelton-Grant. It doesn’t appear to be available in paperback in the U.S., and I retrieved it from the stacks of the Seattle Central Library, which are too new to be properly dusty yet. The biography probably hadn’t been moved since it was first placed, and it will probably be years before someone moves it again.

Grant’s biography shares the strengths and weaknesses of most literary biographies in that the writer of the biography is not as captivating and imaginative as the work of the subject even as she helps illuminate the subject’s works. Admirable parts of Man of Myth are written in the plain style employed by Davies in fiction but put to nonfiction uses here. The biography started slowly due chiefly to Davies’ parents lack of color or interest except as they related to him and fueled the family drama in his novels. Their stories are only remarkable in that they somehow produced Robertson. Once he appears seriously on the scene the biography starts to canter at stories about his school days and run when discussing his novels.

Davies’ life provided important fuel and theme: “When suffering boredom from [Upper Canada College], Davies had thought desperately: ‘there’s got to be something better than this.’ He’d wished that reality were sharper, brighter, more intense emotionally, more splendid… at bottom he was sure that he was missing something; life must be more vivid than it seemed.” Many of us feel this way at times, I suppose, and I’m certainly one of them, but I also often think it when reading biographies—if only they could be brighter and more vivid. The biography isn’t as splendid or as emotionally deep as Davies’ novels, which he sees as describing his own spiritual and intellectual development better than a biography of the events of his life ever could. To Grant’s credit she makes the biography a study in the development of both, but even so it can only supplement the novels in a mean way and captures only a small part of the man.

Grant says: “Facts—even his own facts—do not come alive for him until they are transformed by imagination. Striking the balance, establishing a distanced context, checking for accuracy—such exercises hold little appeal to him.” In this paragraph Grant suggests that novels are Davies’ form of autobiography, and that one can track the most important part of his growth—his imagination—through reading them, rather than through the dry facts of his life. Davies’ does not rank among the debacherous and fascinating, as artists sometimes (but do not always) do.

As for Davies’ literal life, something better did come along in the form of fiction, but it only came along through work. The need to work at something as a way of creating identity and exploring the self is a constant theme in Davies’ novels and an implicit theme in Man of Myth. Sections of it also offer insight on Davies and his creative process in a way far deeper than the innumerable people inquiring about where authors “get” ideas, as though they can be picked up at the grocery store with milk and vegetables on the way home from work. Davies talks about the transformation process and the way unleavened fact holds little appeal to him. Yet the process itself I do not describe here, and Davies does not or cannot fully describe because there is a mythological element to it. Unlike, say, building a house, the process of a novel cannot be fully described, and so any reader looking for such a thing will be disappointed, just as those questioners at author events are.

I find writing about Davies difficult because his novels feel like they resist literary inquiry, which seems so banal and pale next to the stories. This may be in part by design; Davies was an academic at Massey college for many years, and “he raised a few hackles in advocating that people should read less, that they should read feelingly rather than critically, and that they should read only what they like.” In other words, he was an academic for a time but also a rogue or outsider, and wrote, whether consciously or not, in a style that makes him unpalatable to contemporary literary criticism. Maybe this is part of the reason he is not better known in the United States, where I have never heard of him in classes or elsewhere. He also links himself to the past in a way likely to make modern academics uncomfortable:

“Painting, fiction, and faking,” a lecture given in 1984, describes how Davies believes the modern artist has a problem because the artists “have lost access to an important resource… the shared myth and religion whose wisdom has captured imaginations and commanded belief across the western world from the time of the ancient Greeks until the present century. The stories of the classical and Judaeo-Christian heritage gave earlier artists a vocabulary that their viewers understood, in which they could frame their most profound insights. Lacking this shared language, modern artists paint the things that arise from their unconscious in a multitude of private forms. In such circumstances it is easy for an artists to fake inspiration, while the viewers, confronted with this multiplicity of new symbols and forms, are faced with extraordinary challenge.”

The process is explicit in The Lyre of Orpheus and What’s Bred in the Bone, two books in which artists make what seems new old, in a manner of copying that is not stealing but rather working within a style of old masters. They are clearly explanations of Davies’ own methods, and his work is no doubt rich in commentary about itself that I was unaware of prior to reading Man of Myth. For that reason the biography is worthwhile, even if parts of it lag and Davies’ novels are of more interest in learning about his life and art than what he did outside of writing.

%d bloggers like this: