Today was the first day of classes for me, and I’m still reeling from the day. The first day of classes is never difficult — just introductions and going over the syllabus and maybe an activity or exercise or something — but it’s always a shock to be back in school again. I suppose it didn’t help much that I went on a 50-mile bike ride before heading off to class. That’s maybe not the best way to get myself ready. But it was so much fun. I went with Hobgoblin and one other friend, and we stopped to get cupcakes halfway through the ride, and the whole thing was lovely.
But on to books … my mystery book group met last Saturday to discuss Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, and it was a great meeting, as usual. I was glad to read Chandler this time around because he’s such an important figure in the genre and someone I hadn’t yet read. We had already read a number of books you might call hard-boiled — Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Cornell Woolrich — and it was time we got to Chandler.
I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and finished it feeling that I’d like to read Chandler again soon (although, of course, it probably won’t happen, given everything else I want to read soon). The funny thing is that this is SO not the kind of book I like. It’s plot-driven, first of all, and without much in the way of character analysis or direct discussion of ideas, and also without any complex, non-stereotypical female characters (well, arguably — there’s one who might count). It’s very stereotypically male and violent.
But still, it’s nice to read something different from the kind of thing I usually like. I won’t even try to tell you much about the plot, as that would be way too complicated. Basically, the main character Philip Marlowe follows a strange-looking, very, very large man into a bar, just because the situation looks interesting, and mayhem and murder ensue. In the course of investigating the violence — Marlowe isn’t actually hired to do this, but he doesn’t seem to have much else going on — he gets himself into a whole mess of trouble. He is attacked, drugged, warned away by the police, seduced (well, seduction is attempted, at least), attacked again, and attacked again.
The great thing about Marlowe is that he just keeps going. I think it’s his character and especially the way his character is portrayed through the first-person narration that I enjoyed so much about the book. There’s a bitterness and anger about how messed up the world is that keeps him going — that and the fact that he has to make a living somehow, although surely there are safer ways? As a private detective, though, he can work on his own, make his own rules, take the cases he wants, and look into things he wants to even if no one has hired him to do it. There’s a jaded, world-weariness about him, along with cleverness and surly quick-wittedness that seem to mask an inner, very well-hidden sentimental side. Why else would he put himself at risk for such an uncertain, ill-paid job, if he didn’t believe in the work, somehow, and think that what he is doing is worthwhile? Or maybe it’s just that he’d be bored otherwise. Or maybe he likes the danger and the excitement of it. There’s something mysterious about his motivation, and that mysteriousness is part of the appeal.
The other great thing about the book is the writing. Chandler gets the tone exactly right — lyrically bitter. He’s especially good with metaphor and simile:
I sat there and puffed my pipe and listened to the clacking typewriter behind the wall of my office and the bong-bong of the traffic lights changing on Hollywood Boulevard and spring rustling in the air, like a paper bag blowing along a concrete sidewalk….
I looked at my watch once more. It was more than time for lunch. My stomach burned from the last drink. I wasn’t hungry. I lit a cigarette. It tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief….
A girl passing me on the way from the elevators back to her work turned and gave me one of those looks which are supposed to make your spine feel like a run in a stocking.
He also has a great sense of humor, and I laughed out loud at a lot of passages. Here’s how one chapter opens:
I was sitting on the side of my bed in my pajamas, thinking about getting up, but not yet committed. I didn’t feel very well, but I didn’t feel as sick as I ought to, not as sick as I would feel if I had a salaried job. My head hurt and felt large and hot and my tongue was dry and had gravel on it and my throat was stiff and my jaw was not untender. But I had had worse mornings.
It was a gray morning with high fog, not yet warm but likely to be. I heaved up off the bed and rubbed the pit of my stomach where it was sore from vomiting. My left foot felt fine. It didn’t have an ache in it. So I had to kick the corner of the bed with it.
There’s something exhilarating about the language in the book — exhilarating as Marlowe’s adventures are, maybe. It’s such a pleasure listening to him wise-crack and swagger in such wonderfully poetic language.