Sunday, September 23, 2007
What a Book Would Be the Real Story
I am reading two biographies of Raymond Chandler, Frank MacShane’s & Tom Hiney’s. They each have their virtues. The Amazon reviewers note that Hiney got some summaries of the novels wrong, so they’re worried he might have got some other stuff wrong, but I think he does a much better job of creating a book out of the life story. MacShane’s is kind of shapeless, or at least heavily skewed toward the latter part of the life, after Chandler he was pretty much done writing everything except letters. & it’s odd how MacShane treats the alcoholism in passing remarks.
These books are interesting enough, but neither are as interesting as Chandler’s life was. I’m not thinking of his inner life. My post title, derived from a Stein comment about Hemingway, is misleading. I think there is plenty of evidence for the real Chandler in the biographies. No, what interests me more is his outer life.
What fascinates me about his outer life is its variousness. Here is a rudimentary summary of what is not well-covered in his correspondence: having been born to an absent, abusive, alcoholic father and an immigrant Irish mother, Chandler returns to England at the age of six to live with moderately monstrous Anglo-Irish relations. He goes to public school, spends a year in France & Germany, joins the civil service, but soon quits to work as a journalistic littérateur. He comes to the U.S., works an odd variety of odd jobs, such as fruit-picking in what I presume to be the Santa Clara Valley (my home turf). He joins the Canadian army, serves in the infantry, then trains as a pilot. Upon returning to the States, he does more odd jobs before studying accountancy, works as an accountant for an ice cream factory, then an oil company, where he rises to an executive position (how odd to think that Los Angeles had a gigantic resource extraction industry there in the middle of town, as exemplified by an oil derrick in the middle of La Cienega Boulevard), then gets fired because of his alcoholism. He decides to sober up, to isolate himself, and to train himself to become a pulp fiction writer. He slowly writes less than a dozen stories, then a handful of novels, which have a modest financial success. Hollywood calls, and he becomes a fabulously paid screenwriter, starts drinking and socializing again, then quits to isolate himself once again, this time in more posh accommodations in La Jolla.
Here we can see one advantage autobiography has over biography. The subject has access to the ephemera of life—a morning’s walk in an orchard, a business meeting, a stop at a filling station—that the biographer never could access. Not that these things would =not necessarily be available in memory, at some later, summing-up moment in the life. What I’d want then is not an autobiography but a diary. These small details would require a daily journal, one kept with a naturalist’s eye for minutiæ. If Chandler had been a different person (so it turns out what I want is not the real Chandler but one I imagine, an ureal Chandler), say, someone with the nerve to record what would otherwise be insignificant, say, a Barbellion, then we would have had a really amazing book, some kind of sprawling, picaresque account of the transition from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. I’d read it.
That book wouldn’t be particularly interesting - that’s the sort of life many writers led before unversity creative writing programs sprung up to offer employment and stability. Pretty much every other noir writer had a combination of somewhat strange odd jobs (Chandler’s were actually comparatively prosaic compared to Thompson’s oilfield jobs or Willeford as a horse trainer), journalism, Hollywood screenwriting, alcoholism, constant physical relocations and so on.
Also, before the modern corporation solidified it’s HR practices (in WWII), people bounced around in jobs extremely frequently, particularly if they were WASP men in Los Angeles (due to Los Angeles’ extreme racism, it’s pre-WWII business / professional class - outside of the entertainment industry - was probably the most exclusively WASP of any major city outside the South and thus WASP men with educations were in extraordinarily high demand). See Clark Davis’ Company Men.
Well, as I said, I would be interested. But no one got rich making products to please me.
& it makes sense that Chandler’s story wouldn’t be unique, but his ability to express himself was rare. & if my imaginary Chandler were to follow the short entry format of the Barbellion, the pithiness of his description could be especially effective.
Thanks for the mention of the Davis book. Part of what makes Los Angeles facinating (to me!) is its evil.