Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Reading Notes (Raymond Chandler’s Selected Letters)

Raymond Chandler, c. 1940

Dog days. Down to a solitary pocket in the raggy velveteen jacket stuffed with quotes. Chandler, who hoses down just about everybody, writing* about Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target (“I could use it as a springboard for a sermon on How Not to Be a Sophisticated Writer”):
      There is nothing to hitch to; here is a man who wants the public for the mystery story in its primitive violence and also wants it to be clear that he, individually, is a highly literate and sophisticated character. A car is “acned with rust” not spotted. Scribblings on toilet walls are “graffiti” (we know Italian yet, it says); one refers to “podex osculation” (medical Latin too, ain’t we hell?) “The seconds piled up precariously like a tower of poker chips,” etc. The simile that does not quite come off because it doesn’t understand what the purpose of the simile is.
      . . . When you say, “spotted with rust,” (or pitted, and I’d almost but not quite go for “pimpled”) you convey at once a simple visual image. But when you say, “acned with rust” the attention of the reader is instantly jerked away from the thing described to the pose of the writer. This is of course a very simple example of the stylistic misuse of language, and I think that certain writers are under a compulsion to write in recherché phrases as a compensation for a lack of some kind of natural animal emotion. They feel nothing, they are literary eunuchs, and therefore they fall back on an oblique terminology to prove their distinction. It is the sort of mind that keeps avant garde magazines alive . . .
Or writing** about critical japery in the boosting of Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot:
Frankly I don’t think the old girl was worth the effort but I can see that an English prof who has to dish out a book now and again is wise to champion a cause that is not too lost and not too won. . . . She has the sort of reputation that depends less on what she did than on what the intellectuals said about her. When I read Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party I wondered what all the fuss was about. But of course I knew. There are always enough sterile critics looping around hunting for a piece of stale cake they can wrap up in a distinguished name and sell to the host of snob-fakers that infest all semi-literate societies.
Or mimicking—in mock helpless disbelief and unsuspecting twenty-first c. usage (“Google . . . told me”)—“what they call Science Fiction” (“It’s a scream”):
It is written like this: “I checked out with K 19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”
Or diagnosing**** “the whole lousy racket” of “pre-publication plugs”:
The proper time to praise a writer is after his book has been published, and the proper place to praise him is in something else that is published. You must be well aware that there is practically a stable of puff merchants back in your territory who will go on record over practically anything including the World Almanac, provided they get their names featured. A few names occur with such monotonous regularity that only the fact of their known success as writers keeps one from thinking this is the way they earn their groceries. As a matter of fact I know that payment is sometimes made, because my Hollywood agent once called me up from New York and carefully propositioned me on the subject. . . . The currency of praise has been so depreciated that there is nothing to say about a really good book. It has all been said already about the second, third, and fourth rate stuff which appears, circulates briefly, and then is forgotten.
Concerning***** writers, tout court:
Their egos require too much petting. They live over-strained lives in which far too much humanity is sacrificed to far too little art. I think that’s why I decided years ago that I should never be anything but an amateur. If I had the talent to be first-class, I would still lack the hard core of selfishness which is necessary to exploit that talent to the full. The creative artist seems to be almost the only kind of man that you could never meet on neutral ground. You can only meet him as an artist. He sees nothing objectively because his own ego is always in the foreground of every picture. Even when he is not talking about his art, which is seldom, he is still thinking about it. If he is a writer, he tends to associate only with other writers and with the various parasitic growths which batten on writing. To all these people literature is more or less the central fact of existence. Whereas, to vast numbers of reasonably intelligent people it is an unimportant sideline, a relaxation, an escape, sometimes even a source of inspiration. But they could do without it far more easily than they could do without coffee or whisky.
And, concerning****** the limits (and stretches) of the biographical sketch (“a miracle of overstatement”):
What about my classical profile, my head of wavy brown hair scarcely thinning at the temples, my erect bearing, and smiling Irish eyes and my unfailing courtesy to my social inferiors? What about those early days in the back of a Fifth Street bar, cleaning spittoons with the tail of my shirt, dining off the debris of the free lunch mixed with sawdust. A butt of bullies, a familiar of courtesans, a whipping boy for shamed alcoholics? What about the time I spent under the shadow of Saint Sulpice in that short but intoxicating affair with a demoiselle from Luxembourg—the one that afterwards became known the world over—but no, that is dangerous ground. Even in Luxembourg they have libel laws—in three languages as a matter of fact. And what about the lost six months I spent in the Höllenthal, trying to persuade a funicular railway to run on the level? You fellows leave out so much that happened, and put so much in that didn’t. What about those May mornings outside the Dôme—Garcon, deux Pernods, s'il vous plait, and ask that gentleman with the calvados to tuck his shirt in and stop flicking the muleta in my eyes . . .
* In a letter to James Sandoe dated 14 April 1949.

** In a letter to James Sandoe dated 27 December 1951. Chandler’s initially referring to Donald Sutherland’s 1951 Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work (“seemed to me subtle as all hell, a bit over my head, in fact”).

*** In a letter to H. N. Swanson dated 14 March 1953.

**** In a letter to Charles Morton dated 5 July 1951.

***** In a letter to Hamish Hamilton dated 23 June 1950.

****** In a letter to Dale Warren dated 15 January 1950.