A Criminal Assault on Great Prose

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), December 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

A Criminal Assault on Great Prose


Byline: CRAIG BROWN

The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters And Non-Fiction 1909-1959 by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane

Hamish Hamilton [pounds sterling]20/[pounds sterling]17 (0870 165 0870)

***** (EXCELLENT for Chandler's letters themselves * (DISMAL) for the editing

Raymond Chandler became a pupil at Dulwich College the term after P. G.

Wodehouse had left. As writers, the two had much in common.

Both were pooh-poohed as unserious by the literati of their day yet are now appreciated long after their cumbersomely 'significant' contemporaries have been junked. Both write an extraordinarily musical prose, their words dancing off the page. Both deal in a sort of heightened vernacular, reshaping colloquialism for comic or dramatic effect. Both create a fairytale world, attached to the real world yet at an oblique angle from it. And both delight in the self-consciously overwrought metaphor.

'A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.' 'A big chap with a small moustache and the sort of eye that can open an oyster at sixty paces.' The first sentence is by Chandler and the second by Wodehouse, but it could easily be the other way round.

Both men lived unsocial married lives in America, but in most other respects their characters were different. Whereas P. G. Wodehouse was a contented soul, Raymond Chandler was morose and alcoholic.

Afflicted with insomnia, he would stay up into the early hours, speaking long letters to friends and acquaintances into a Dictaphone.

You might imagine that the mixture of drink and dictation would be disastrous, but somehow it suited him.

Chandler's are among the great literary letters of the 20th Century, full of wisdom and humour, of passion and sadness and honesty.

Unlike Wodehouse, Chandler was a late starter. He wrote his first novel, The Big Sleep, when he was aged 51. As a young man, he had been a shop assistant, a fruit-picker and a tennis racket stringer, as well as fighting in the First World War.

For ten years he was the accountant and right-hand man to an oil tycoon, only to be sacked for alcoholism at the age of 44.

Out of necessity, he took up writing short stories for the pulp magazines.

By a happy chance, he was to discover that the world of the rundown private eye was an ideal match for his style and outlook. For him, the private detective was the perfect embodiment of 'the struggle of all fundamentally honest men to make a decent living in a corrupt society'.

Under the cloak of the thriller, protected from the demands for significance, he found the freedom to write an extraordinarily rich, exuberant prose. 'I am an intellectual snob who happens to have a fondness for the American vernacular, largely because I grew up on Latin and Greek. I had to learn American just like a foreign language,' he once wrote.

His letters display a fierce interest in the craft of writing, and particularly in those musical cadences that separate the good from the great.

He admired Fitzgerald for the charm of his prose, 'a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from string quartets'.

His dislikes were plentiful and forceful, yet always leavened by humour.

He complained of the Bible that it was 'the worst kind of overwriting. Whole chapters that you could have said in one paragraph.

And the dialogue!' Most of all, he resented being told by bigwigs such as J. B. Priestley that he was a good enough writer to try tackling a 'serious' novel. At one point, he wrote to an editor asking to write a piece called The Insignificance Of Significance in which 'I will demonstrate in my usual whorehouse style that it doesn't matter a damn what a novel is about, that the only fiction of any moment in any age is that which does magic with words.' Good writing, he believed, is defined by 'inner urgency'. …

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