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Cultural cohesion, p.25
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.25

           Clive James

  But the vagueness in Doyle is what the speculators like. And here is The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, pretending to be “a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., as edited by Nicholas Meyer.” This time Sherlock and Mycroft turn out to be repressing a shameful, nameless secret. In books like this, speculation is supposed to be veering towards the humorous. The transgression would be funny, if only it made you laugh. Mr. Meyer’s comic invention, however, is thin. But at least he is trying to be silly.

  . . .

  The most foolish book of the bunch, and quite frankly the loopiest stretch of exegesis since John Allegro dug up the sacred mushroom, is Naked Is the Best Disguise, by Samuel Rosenberg, which has been welcomed in the United States with reviews I find inexplicable. Mr. Rosenberg’s thesis, briefly, is that Moriarty is Nietzsche and that Doyle is acting out a psycho-drama in which Sherlock is his superego suppressing his polymorphous perversity. Even if it had been reached by a convincing show of reasoning, this conclusion would still be far-fetched: fetched, in fact, from halfway across the galaxy. But it has been reached by no kind of reasoning except casuistry. Mr. Rosenberg argues in one place that if a Sherlock Holmes adventure is set in a house with two storeys, that means there are two stories—i.e., two levels of meaning. His arguing is of the same standard in every other place.

  It seems that Mr. Rosenberg used to work as a legal eagle for a film studio, protecting it from plagiarism suits by finding a common literary ancestor who might have influenced both the plaintiff’s script and the script the studio had in the works. He must have been well worth his salary, because he can see similarities in anything. (His standards of accuracy spring from the same gift: he spells A. J. Ayer’s name wrongly on seven occasions.) It would be overpraising the book to call it negligible, yet both Time and the New York Times, among others, seem to have found it a meaty effort.

  Though Naked Is the Best Disguise considers itself to be high scholarship, it reveals itself instantly as Sherlockology by worrying over the importance of minor detail in stories whose major action their author could scarcely be bothered to keep believable. The chronology of the Holmes saga is indefinitely debatable because Doyle didn’t care about establishing it. Early on, Sherlock was ignorant of the arts and didn’t know the earth went around the sun: later, he quoted poetry in several languages and had wide scientific knowledge. Sherlock was a minor occupation for Doyle and he was either content to leave such inconsistencies as they were or else he plain forgot about them. Mysteries arising from them are consequently unresolvable, which is doubtless their attraction. Programmes for explicating Sherlock are like Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies, which George Eliot said was as endless as a scheme for joining the stars.

  . . .

  Uniquely among recent Sherlockiana, The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook, edited by Peter Haining, is actually enjoyable. It reproduces playbills, cartoons, production stills, and—most important—some of the magazine and newspaper articles which set Sherlockology rolling. (One of them is a piece of jokey speculation by Doyle himself—a bad mistake. If he wanted to trivialize his incubus, he couldn’t have chosen a worse tactic.) Basil Rathbone easily emerges as the most likely looking movie incarnation of Holmes. Sidney Paget’s drawings are better than anything else then or since. (What we need is a good two-volume complete Sherlock Holmes with all of Paget and none of Baring-Gould.) The whole scrapbook is a great help in seeing how the legend grew, not least because it shows us that legends are of circumscribed interest: too many supernumeraries—belletrist hacks and doodling amateurs with time to burn—contribute to them. As you leaf through these chronologically ordered pages you can see the dingbats swarming aboard the bandwagon.

  Doyle’s brainchild could scarcely survive this kind of admiration if it did not possess archetypal attributes. Sherlockology is bastardized academicism, but academicism is one of the forces which Doyle instinctively set out to fight, and Sherlock, his Sunday punch, is not yet drained of strength. Sherlock was the first example of the art Dürrenmatt later dreamed of—the art which would weigh nothing in the scales of respectability. Doyle knew that Sherlock was cheap. What he didn’t guess before it was too late to change his mind was that the cheapness would last. The only coherence in the Holmes saga is a coherence of intensity. The language is disproportionate and therefore vivid. “He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.” The images are unshaded and therefore flagrant. “I took a step forward: in an instant his strange headgear began to move, and there reared itself from among his hair the squat diamond-shaped head and puffed neck of a loathsome serpent.”

  . . .

  But Sherlock’s world was all fragments, and no real world could or can be inferred from it. In The Valley of Fear the Scourers work mischief to no conceivable political purpose. Moriarty machinates to no ascertainable end. The Sherlockologists would like to believe that this abstract universe is concrete, and that large questions of good and evil are being worked out. But the concreteness is only in the detail; beyond the detail there is nothing; and the large questions must always lack answers.

  Doyle asked and tried to answer the large questions elsewhere, in the spiritualist faith which occupied his full mental effort. Eventually his seriousness went out of date, while his frivolity established itself as an institution. But since his mind at play could scarcely have played so well if it had not been so earnest a mind, there is no joke.

  New York Review of Books, February 20, 1975;

  later included in At the Pillars of Hercules, 1979


  Genre fiction presents the critic with an insoluble problem, because he is the last person it was written for. Writers of science fiction and crime novels, though they have always craved respectability, could once count on being smothered with learned commentary only in the fanzines. In the post-modern era, respectability for the genre writers has arrived with a rush: Hannibal got as much attention in the culture pages on one weekend as Kafka did in a lifetime. Things were probably better the way they were. In the genres, inventiveness counts most and writing counts least, which is lucky, because hardly anyone who can invent can write. The few who can do both (with Simenon as the outstanding example) are worthy of celebration, but those literary critics who celebrate too hard betray themselves as finding literature dull. When young I read and re-read almost everything by Arthur Conan Doyle except the historical romances. I can still remember the excitement of trekking back up to Kogarah’s house-sized public library to renew my take-out of The Complete Professor Challenger Stories, a chubby volume whose heft is imprinted so exactly in my brain that fifty years later I am reminded of it when I pick up something of the same weight. I was born in a small private hospital just around the corner, and in retrospect my trips to the library seem part of the same process.

  Youthful passion is the right kind of attention to give genre fiction. Mature consideration, especially if it has never been preceded by the youthful passion, is the wrong kind. I still think Doyle was some kind of great man. But to place him among the literary artists is bound to shrink the vocabulary we should have available for acknowledging those who really are. If we have to go back to the radiant books of our youth, it is better to go back as a comedian than a critic. What we will rediscover is the way we used to daydream, and our superseded daydreams of glamour, sex, bravery and deductive brilliance are always funny when they are not shameful. The best-ever traveller à la recherche du trash perdu was S. J. Perelman in Listen to the Mocking Bird. Paying his belated respects to The Sheik, Graustark, Black Oxen and Three Weeks, he hit a rich seam of comic stimuli. But not even he could mine it for long, because he soon ran out of bad books that he had once truly loved. Bad books that you merely liked won’t do. The present equipoise doesn’t work without the past madness.

  Reliable Essays, 2001



  “In the long run,” Raymond Chandler writes in Raymond Chandler
Speaking, “however little you talk or even think about it, the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.” At a time when literary values inflate and dissipate almost as fast as the currency, it still looks as if Chandler invested wisely. His style has lasted. A case could be made for saying that nothing else about his books has, but even the most irascible critic or most disillusioned fan (they are often the same person) would have to admit that Chandler at his most characteristic is just that—characteristic and not just quirky. Auden was right in wanting him to be regarded as an artist. In fact Auden’s tribute might well have been that of one poet to another. If style is the only thing about Chandler’s novels that can’t be forgotten, it could be because his style was poetic, rather than prosaic. Even at its most explicit, what he wrote was full of implication. He used to say that he wanted to give a feeling of the country behind the hill.

  Since Chandler was already well into middle age when he began publishing, it isn’t surprising that he found his style quickly. Most of the effects that were to mark The Big Sleep in 1939 were already present, if only fleetingly, in an early story like “Killer in the Rain,” published in Black Mask magazine in 1935. In fact some of the very same sentences are already there. This from “Killer in the Rain”:

  The rain splashed knee-high off the sidewalks, filled the gutters, and big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying little girls in silk stockings and cute little rubber boots across the bad places, with a lot of squeezing.

  Compare this from The Big Sleep:

  Rain filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the pavement. Big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places. The rain drummed hard on the roof of the car and the burbank top began to leak. A pool of water formed on the floorboards for me to keep my feet in.

  So there is not much point in talking about how Chandler’s style developed. As soon as he was free of the short-paragraph restrictions imposed by the cheaper pulps, his way of writing quickly found its outer limits: all he needed to do was refine it. The main refining instrument was Marlowe’s personality. The difference between the two cited passages is really the difference between John Dalmas and Philip Marlowe. Marlowe’s name was not all that more convincing than Dalmas’s, but he was a more probable, or at any rate less improbable, visionary. In The Big Sleep and all the novels that followed, the secret of plausibility lies in the style, and the secret of the style lies in Marlowe’s personality. Chandler once said that he thought of Marlowe as the American mind. As revealed in Chandler’s Notebooks (edited by Frank McShane and published by the Ecco Press, New York), one of Chandler’s many projected titles was The Man Who Loved the Rain. Marlowe loved the rain.

  Flaubert liked tinsel better than silver because tinsel possessed all silver’s attributes plus one in addition—pathos. For whatever reason, Chandler was fascinated by the cheapness of LA. When he said that it had as much personality as a paper cup, he was saying what he liked about it. When he said that he could leave it without a pang, he was saying why he felt at home there. In a city where the rich were as vulgar as the poor, all the streets were mean. In a democracy of trash, Marlowe was the only aristocrat. Working for twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses (Jim Rockford in the TV series The Rockford Files now works for ten times that and has to live in a trailer), Marlowe was as free from materialistic constraint as any hermit. He saw essences. Chandler’s particular triumph was to find a style for matching Marlowe to the world. Vivid language was the decisive element, which meant that how not to make Marlowe sound like too good a writer was the continuing problem. The solution was a kind of undercutting wit, a style in which Marlowe mocked his own fine phrases. A comic style, always on the edge of self-parody—and, of course, sometimes over the edge—but at its best combining the exultant and the sad in an inseparable mixture.

  For a writer who is not trying all that hard to be funny, it is remarkable how often Chandler can make you smile. His conciseness can strike you as a kind of wit in itself. The scene with General Sternwood in the hothouse, the set piece forming chapter 2 of The Big Sleep, is done with more economy than you can remember: there are remarkably few words on the page to generate such a lasting impression of warm fog in the reader’s brain. “The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom.” It’s the rogue word “larded” which transmits most of the force. Elsewhere, a single simile gives you the idea of General Sternwood’s aridity. “A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.” The fact that he stays dry in the wet air is the measure of General Sternwood’s nearness to death. The bare rock is the measure of his dryness. At their best, Chandler’s similes click into place with this perfect appositeness. He can make you laugh, he gets it so right—which perhaps means that he gets it too right. What we recognize as wit is always a self-conscious ­performance.

  But since wit that works at all is rare enough, Chandler should be respected for it. And anyway, he didn’t always fall into the trap of making his characters too eloquent. Most of Marlowe’s best one-liners are internal. In the film of The Big Sleep, when Marlowe tells General Sternwood that he has already met Carmen in the hall, he says: “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.” Bogart gets a big laugh with that line, but only half of the line is Chandler’s. All that Chandler’s Marlowe says is: “Then she tried to sit in my lap.” The film version of Marlowe got the rest of the gag from somewhere else—either from William Faulkner, who wrote the movie, or from Howard Hawks, who directed it, or perhaps from both. On the page, Marlowe’s gags are private and subdued. About Carmen, he concludes that “thinking was always going to be a bother to her.” He notices—as no camera could notice, unless the casting director flung his net very wide—that her thumb is like a finger, with no curve in its first joint. He compares the shocking whiteness of her teeth to fresh orange pith. He gets you scared stiff of her in a few sentences.

  Carmen is the first in a long line of little witches that runs right through the novels, just as her big sister, Vivian, is the first in a long line of rich bitches who find that Marlowe is the only thing money can’t buy. The little witches are among the most haunting of Chandler’s obsessions and the rich bitches are among the least. Whether little witch or rich bitch, both kinds of woman signal their availability to Marlowe by crossing their legs shortly after sitting down and regaling him with tongue-in-the-lung French kisses a few seconds after making physical contact.

  All the standard Chandler character ingredients were there in the first novel, locked in a pattern of action so complicated that not even the author was subsequently able to puzzle it out. The Big Sleep was merely the first serving of the mixture as before. But the language was fresh and remains so. When Chandler wrote casually of “a service station glaring with wasted light” he was striking a note that Dashiell Hammett had never dreamed of. Even the book’s title rang a bell. Chandler thought that there were only two types of slang which were any good: slang that had established itself in the language, and slang that you made up yourself. As a term for death, “the big sleep” was such a successful creation that Eugene O’Neill must have thought it had been around for years, since he used it in The Iceman Cometh (1946) as an established piece of low-life tough talk. But there is no reason for disbelieving Chandler’s claim to have invented it.

  Chandler’s knack for slang would have been just as commendable even if he had never thought of a thing. As the Notebooks reveal, he made lists of slang terms that he had read or heard. The few he kept and used were distinguished from the many he threw away by their metaphorical exactness. He had an ear for depth—he could detect incipient permanence in what sounded superficially like ephemera. A term like “under glass,” meaning to be in prison, attracted him by its semantic compression. In a letter collected in Raymond Chandler Speaking, he
regards it as self-evident that an American term like “milk run” is superior to the equivalent British term “piece of cake”. The superiority being in the range of evocation. As it happened, Chandler was inventive, not only in slang but in more ambitiously suggestive figures of speech. He was spontaneous as well as accurate. His second novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940)—which he was always to regard as his finest—teems with show-stopping metaphors, many of them dedicated to conjuring up the gargantuan figure of Moose Malloy.

  In fact some of them stop the show too thoroughly. When Chandler describes Malloy as standing out from his surroundings like “a tarantula on a slice of angel food” he is getting things backwards, since the surroundings have already been established as very sordid indeed. Malloy ought to be standing out from them like a slice of angel food on a tarantula. Chandler at one time confessed to Alfred A. Knopf that in The Big Sleep he had run his metaphors into the ground, the implication being that he cured himself of the habit later on. But the truth is that he was always prone to overcooking a simile. As Perelman demonstrated in Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer (a spoof which Chandler admired), this is one of the areas in which Chandler is most easily parodied, although it should be remembered that it takes a Perelman to do the parodying.

  “It was a blonde,” says Marlowe, looking at Helen Grayle’s photograph. “A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” I still laugh when I read that, but you can imagine Chandler jotting down such brainwaves à propos of nothing and storing them up against a rainy day. They leap off the page so high that they never again settle back into place, thereby adding to the permanent difficulty of remembering what happens to whom where in which novel. The true wit, in Farewell, My Lovely as in all the other books, lies in effects which marry themselves less obtrusively to character, action and setting. Jessie Florian’s bathrobe, for example. “It was just something around her body.” A sentence like that seems hardly to be trying, but it tells you all you need to know. Marlowe’s realization that Jessie has been killed—“The corner post of the bed was smeared darkly with something the flies liked”—is trying harder for understatement, but in those circumstances Marlowe would understate the case, so the sentence fits. Poor Jessie Florian. “She was as cute as a washtub.”

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