"I'm afraid this letter may seem to you too personal. If so, may you forgive me? Sometimes I feel terribly alone." T
HIS FINAL SENTENCE of a letter
written by Raymond Chandler to a virtual stranger supplies the key to much of the material included in this collection of letters written during the last 20 years of Chandler's life and edited by his biographer, Frank MacShane.
This is particularly true of the first part of this volume which contains correspondence from the '40s and early '50s when Ray's wife Cissy was in her seventies and ailing. His life had been uneven and hard. A hybrid, born in Chicago of an American father and an English mother, he was educated in England where he attempted a brief, unsuccessful literary career. After World War I, in which he served in combat with the Canadian army, he migrated with his mother to California and made a meager living for some years before achieving substantial success as an accountant and office manager for independent oil companies. It was not until after he left his job for reasons that included restlessness and alcoholism that, in desperation, he turned once again to writing. He approached the task methodically and, before long, he had sold his first story to the pulps--18,000 words for $300. Soon he had become a regular contributor to Argosy and Black Mask. These were, in fact, the most creative years of his life. Most of the books that later brought him fame and unexpected wealth--among them, The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1949), The Long Goodbye (1953) --were combinations, expansions, and refinements of stories he had written years earlier for the pulps.
Further prosperity came when he began to work in films, but this added success did not seem to bring him satisfaction or peace. "I have been praised too much . . . I live a lonely life and have no hope of anything else from now on." The letters he wrote in those years are the ruminations of a man sitting alone in his study at night --some typed with aching hands (he suffered from an allergy that caused the tips of his fingers to crack and bleed) and some dictated onto discs for transcription by a secretary in the morning. In them this frail, irritable man gave expression to his dreams and resentments in letters that are more like a writer's notebook than ordinary correspondence. They are the soliloquies of a man fighting "that horrid blank feeling of not having anyone to talk to or listen to."
In contrast to the desperate, repetitive garrulity of the letters written years later, after Cissy's death, these communications of Chandler' middle age are generally impersonal; they are addressed to a small number of professional recipients, almost all male: publishers, editors, agents and, occasionally, fellow writers. What passion they reveal is almost all literary; his most intimate autobiographical confessions are made in a letter to his tax lawyer in which --for the benefit of the Internal Revenue Service--he gives a frank and detailed account of the cannibalization of those early works into the books that made him rich.
Throughout, there is a recurrent and almost obsessive preoccupation with his own position in the world of letters and with the status of the detective story as a literary genre. He has no illusions about the kind of writing he is practicing:
"For Christ's sake let's not talk about honest mysteries--they don't exist" and "The novel of detection little by little educates the public to its own weaknesses, which it cannot possibly remove, because they are inherent."
Yet he is remarkably eloquent in its defense: "When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature. The intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone. . . . It may also be perfection of control." And he finds "a peculiar kind of satisfaction in taking a type of literature which the pundits regard as below the salt and making it something which the fair-minded among them are forced to treat with respect." He also writes:
"The Detective Story (I prefer the term mystery story) is a completely integrated thing if it is any good; most novels are sloppy by comparison. It has the elements of tragedy without being tragic and the elements of heroism without being heroic. It is a dream-world which may be entered and left at will and it leaves no scars. . . . It allows you to live dangerously without any real risk. . . . If you have to have significance (the mark of a half-baked culture) it is just possible that the tensions of a novel of murder are the simplest yet the most complete pattern of the tensions in which we live in this generation."
On one subject he maintained a defensive attitude--that of his creation, Philip Marlowe, with whom he seems to identify in a strange, subterranean way. The only brief rift in my long friendship with Ray occurred as the result of some slighting remarks I had made in an article in Vogue about the new American anti-hero--the private eye created by Dashiell Hammett and Chandler--of whom I had written that he was "a drab, melancholy man of limited intelligence and mediocre aspiration; a zombie who is satisfied to work for ten bucks a day and who, between drinks, gets beaten up regularly and laid occasionally."
Ray found my piece "artistically patronizing, intellectually dishonest and logically unsound." His letter to me continued:
"(Marlowe's) is the struggle of all fundamentally honest men to make a decent living in a corrupt society. It is an impossible struggle; he can' win. He can be poor and bitter and take it out in wisecracks and drinks and casual amours, or he can be corrupt and amiable and rude like a Hollywood producer. Because the bitter fact is that . . . there is absolutely no way for a man of this age to acquire a decent affluence in life without to some degree corrupting himself, without accepting the cold, clear fact that success is always and everywhere a racket. . . . Marlowe is a more honorable man than you or I. I don't mean Bogart playing Marlowe and I don't mean because I created him. I didn't create him at all; I've seen dozens like him in all essentials except for a few colorful qualities he needed to be in a book. . . . They were all poor; they will always be poor. How could they be anything else.
When you have answered that question, you can call him a zombie.
Ray" His next letter to me was shorter, and showed that he did not bear a grudge:
"I may do a picture in the near future, and would rather do it with you than with anyone else. Shall I hold off or don't you care?"
Among the many causes of Chandler's irritability was a growing sense that he was being widely plagiarized and a constant concern with criticism, particularly from "the mob of snob-fakers" who, in his view, had misunderstood or underestimated his work and who showed "a constant haste to deprecate the mystery story as literature for fear the writer of the piece should be assumed to think it important writing."
In a letter to Erle Stanley Gardner in 1946, Chandler wrote, "The critics of today are tired Bostonians like Van Wyck Brooks or smart-alecks like (Clifton) Fadiman or honest men confused by the futility of their job, like Edmund Wilson." Wilson, who once classified him in a New Yorker piece as "sub-literary," is also variously described as "ill-natured and bad-tempered," a "fat bore" and "a damp fart." Even W.H. Auden fared little better: "Here I am halfway through a Marlowe story and having a little fun (until I got stuck) and along comes this fellow Auden and tells me I am interested in writing serious studies of a criminal milieu."
He writes a fawning letter to Somerset Maugham (whose Ashenden he sincerely admired) and his references to Hammett are consistently friendly, but his estimates of his peers and competitors, most of whom he regards as "smooth and shallow operators," are generally caustic and ungenerous. "Very likely they write better mysteries than I do, but their works don't get up and walk. Mine do." Of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter he reports that "it has everything in it that makes literature except verve, wit, gusto, music and magic; a cool and elegant set- piece, embalmed by Whispering Glades."
His appraisal of his own writing is egotistical but realistic:
"I am not just a tough writer. I am tough only incidentally as a matter of projection. Substantially I am an original stylist with a very daring kind of imagination. . . . As a mystery writer I am a bit of an anomaly, since most mystery writers of the American school are only semi-literate and I am not only literate but intellectual. . . . It would seem that a classical education might be a poor basis for writing novels in a hard-boiled vernacular. I happen to think otherwise. . . . I had to learn American like a foreign language; I had to study and analyze it."
In fact, his most creative period was over before those letters were written. By the '50s his energy was flagging. "I write when I feel like it. I am always surprised at how easy it seems at the time and by how tired I feel afterwards." Indeed this problem of inertia and atrophy of the inventive powers (coinciding with the progressive deterioration of his own and his wife's health) preoccupy him increasingly with the years. The despair he often feels is "no mood in which to produce writing with any lift and vitality." In one letter he reports that his greatest problem in life now is to do any work; in another, that the last doctor he saw told him he would probably die of exhaustion.
After Cissy's death, in 1954, "by half- inches," a sudden change occurs in Chandler's life and, even more, in his letters. His first reaction to his loss was an attempted suicide followed by a nervous breakdown. Then, almost overnight, this tired and sedentary man is transformed into an eager, tireless traveler, shuttling between La Jolla and London (about which he still had strangely ambivalent feelings). He reverts sporadically to his drinking and, after years of ascetic fidelity, becomes an active and ardent ladies' man:
"I had been married so long and so happily that after the slow torture of my wife's death it seemed, at first, treason to look at another woman and them suddenly I seemed to be in love with all women."
His correspondents were now mostly female; his letters were addressed to: "Darling Jessica," "Darling Helga" and "Darling Deirdre." (Deirdre was a young Australian girl whom he never met; Helga Greene, for whom he developed intense respect and affection, became his literary agent and, later, his executrix and heir.)
The tone of these letters, written not long before his death, is completely different from that of the earlier ones: They are sentimental, frivolous, intimate and nostalgic--laced with yearning tributes to the dead wife-mother who was 17 years his senior and with whom he had lived "for 30 years, 10 months and four days":
"She was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything else I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at. . . . It was my great and now useless regret that I never wrote anything really worth her attention, no book that I could dedicate to her."