Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Long Good-Bye

“I knew the character of Marlowe had changed and I thought it had to, because the hardboiled stuff was too much of a pose after all this time. But I did not realize [he] had become Christlike, and sentimental, and that he ought to be deriding his own emotions.”

Chandler wrote this to his agent, Bernice Baumgarten, after getting her negative comments on the first draft of The Long Good-Bye. He was often bitter, feeling that his work was under-valued. “I might be the best writer in the country,” he wrote to his editor after sending him the second draft, “and with two exceptions I very likely am, but I’m still [considered just] a mystery writer.” He added, “You’d better do a damned sight better with The Long Good-Bye than you did with Little Sister.”

Chandler was near the end of his writing life when he finished The Long Good-Bye. He was ill, from the alcoholism which plagued him much of his adult life, he was in turmoil from the illness of his wife, Cissy, and he fretted, as he constantly did, that his work wasn’t properly appreciated.

Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888 and he lived in America until he was seven, when his father abandoned the family for good and his mother returned to her native England. As a young man, Chandler hoped to write urbane aesthetic essays in the manner of Oscar Wilde. He angered the uncle who had supported him by abandoning a promising Civil Service career for literature. After several fruitless years, in which he had a few reviews and essays published, he left England to return to North America. In later life, he looked back on his young self with a kind of bitter mockery: “Like all young nincompoops, I found it easy to be clever and snotty...”

He served with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces during the First World War. After the war, he spent two decades moving from job to job. He became a senior officer at various companies, but between his drinking, his restlessness, and his womanizing, he found it hard to stay anywhere long. And he still longed to make his name in fiction.

In the thirties, at the height of the Depression, laid off from the oil industry, he turned to the pulps. He labored hard over his early stories, determined not to fail a second time at a literary career. An admirer of Hemingway, Chandler outlined Hemingway’s stories and then tried to rewrite them. He finally, in 1935, began selling his own stories to Black Mask. And in 1938, he published the first of his seven Marlowe novels.

The Long Good-Bye is usually considered his most important, fully realized novel. Because it has the fewest elements of a true mystery, critics claim that it “transcends the genre,” that it is a real novel, and that it merit’s Chandler’s assertion that he was one of the great writers of the Twentieth Century.

At its heart, The Long Good-Bye expresses Chandler’s bitterness and his weariness. Although Marlowe is beaten, is sent to prison, and has his life threatened, these action scenes are small punctuations in a novel about men trying to make sense of a world where they don’t feel at home. The first part of the book is an almost dreamlike series of conversations between Marlowe and Terry Lennox, a man scarred by war and by money. The middle, where Marlowe is involved with Roger Wade and his wife, has long passages filled with Chandler’s own torment about the state of his writing.

In a letter to his Hollywood agent, written while he was struggling with the second draft The Long Good-Bye, Chandler said, “I am suffering from...atrophy of the inventive powers. I can write like a streak but I bore myself.” And he added to his British publisher, “If I can do it wrong once, I can do it wrong again.”

Chandler’s doubts, his suicide efforts, his drinking, all bubble beneath the surface of The Long Good-Bye. Perhaps because of them, the novel remains a haunting look at what war and peace do to men, at how hard it is to be creative, and how hard it is to be alone.

Sara Paretsky

Note: The quotations are taken from Allison & Busby's Raymond Chandler Speaking. Biographical data come from Baker & Nietzel's Private Eyes.


Libby said...

"But I bore myself..." How many times have we dumped on ourselves... well, ok.. I'll speak for myself... and yet Chandler's prose is at a level I can only dream of. If he's bored with his own prose, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I also love the fact that Chandler analyzed Hemingway so carefully. James Hall, himself no slouch as a writer, says that's what aspiring writers SHOULD do... he did it himself.. to teach himself the fundamentals of craft.

Wonderful post, Sara. You have, as usual, put Chandler and THE LONG GOODBYE into a fascinating perspective. At least for me.

Sara Paretsky said...

Libby, thanks. Am going through my own "my writing bores me" phase, and it's always helpful to know that others have suffered just as much, or maybe more. But do you have to suffer for it to count as good writing?

Sara Paretsky said...

Today is tax day, but what a day in history: Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers. In more horrible news, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865; in 1912 the Titanic sank. But for all us writers, the most important event was the publication of the first major English dictionary, Samuel Johnson's, in 1755.

Kelli Stanley said...

Great post, Sarah! I love how you tap into the loneliness that fueled the seeming contradictions in RC's character. I think it's safe to call him a man who never felt at home anywhere, literally in terms of his peripatetic moves, and socially with respect to his age and always minatory alcoholism.

Perhaps the diffidence he claims is because he was always a frustrated poet ... and felt trapped by the genre success that he (and Cissy, who was so much older and in ill health for most of the '40s and '50s) financially depended on.

BTW -- my most precious inanimate possession is an edition of the short works of Henry James (Chandler's favorite writer), which Chandler owned ... it was given to him and inscribed by John Houseman when RC wrote THE BLUE DAHLIA.

It helped me finish my first book. :)

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