Monday, 11 March 2013

In praise of Chandler

‘It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.’ – Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) was born in Chicago, but his family left that city of thieves and vagabonds when he was still too young to notice. The family settled in a nowhere town in Nebraska for a while, before Chandler’s violent and unstable father decided he’d gone right off the whole family idea and left them to it, taking with him the only thing to which he had ever made a genuine commitment – a bottle of booze. With a mother’s perspicacity, Mrs Chandler decided that there was no future for her boy in that small town, so they upped sticks again and made for England. Here they were supported by a well-to-do uncle, a Quaker who, like so many of those of that particular persuasion, combined his unwavering faith with a robust engagement with the seamier side of life (he was a lawyer). Educated at the celebrated Dulwich College, Chandler the young man gave university a miss in favour of experiencing life at first hand, imbibing deeply from the cup of culture on the Continent. Returning to England, he took English citizenship and settled down to a life of the dullest conformity as a public servant. He remained settled in this way for precisely one year. Fleeing this death-in-life existence, Chandler then began a career of many things: journalism (unsuccessfully), writing romantic verse (the folly of youth), reviewing books, stringing tennis racquets, picking fruit, and shooting at Germans in WWI. Back in the United States after the War, he married a woman eighteen years his senior, with whom he would happily spend the remainder of her days (the remainder of his days were less happy). By 1931, he had inadvertently become a senior executive, well remunerated, of an oil company. But this was to be his last moment as a man of business: his own commitment to alcohol, a related failure to turn up to work every day, his rather too forward manner with the secretaries, and his entirely unsettling habit of threatening to commit suicide led to his being let go just a year later. And so he turned to what he loved best, writing.

In Philip Marlowe, Chandler created the perfect alter ego for his own view of the circus of life. Marlowe is a man of few words, but those he speaks are like an assassin’s stiletto that pierces to the quiddity of being. He sees through the light to the darkness, while his wisdom is that of one who has suffered and expects nothing more. He drinks alone and he plays chess against dead men. And he’s surprised by nothing that people will do to themselves and to others.

His books teem with drunks and adulterers and hard men and women of the kind of beauty that makes those hard men suddenly very weak. And they teem with lines of startling originality so apt you have to pause to wonder at the genius that could create them seemingly without end. Everything is like something else, and yet like nothing else. It’s obvious once Chandler has shown it to you, but you’d never have thought of it yourself in a million years of floundering in the dark.

Those seeking to imitate Chandler face two hurdles, each as intractable as an heiress on her third martini. The first was his ability, which seemingly never ran dry, to find that perfect likeness between two things no one had ever previously thought to bring together. It’s easier enough to say the clouds look like cotton-wool, or that the tough guy who’s just walked into the bar looks like he could tear doors off hinges; it’s not so simple to see that dead men are heavier than broken hearts. And the cumulative effect of all this is to create a literary vision that hits you harder than any right-hook from the heavyweight champ.
Chandler - a sharp-eyed alcoholic.
The second problem for would-be imitators is that Chandler’s noir is not merely noir, and anyone who writes a book like that isn’t coming close to doing what Chandler was doing. The noir in Chandler is the vehicle with which he delivers the goods; it’s essential, but it’s far from everything. The goods which Chandler delivers are nothing less than his sharped-eyed alcoholic’s take on the human condition, the frailties and weaknesses and foibles and aches and lost dreams which beset anyone who breathes. But the imitators don’t see this, they see only the noir, and they think that the secret is there, that all you need is a laconic shamus chasing up dead-beats and wasters and the idle rich who have enough money to buy the time they need to be truly miserable. And so all they achieve is the weakest verisimilitude, if that (I say ‘if that’ because most can’t even fashion a reasonable simile or metaphor, so there’s not even that to commend them).

We can read Chandler merely to be entertained by the sort of intoxicating yarn with which the best storytellers have been captivating audiences since humankind began telling itself stories. And we can read him to be astonished and surprised and beguiled by his verbal dexterity. And, finally, we can read him because he tells us so vividly and humanely about life and what it means to be human, with all the concomitant suffering and failure and disappointment which that kind of being entails.

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