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The Knight of Sunset Boulevard

The classic British public school prepares its inmates expertly for taking on (or over) the world, and not at all for that half of the world known as the opposite sex. Its charges are trained, in effect, to see women as a foreign country (most of the old boarding schools are still all-male), and even as they are taught just how to give or take orders, and how to bring their curious blend of stoicism and fellowship to Afghanistan or Arabia, they receive no instruction in what to do with that alien force that awaits them every night at home. Much of twentieth-century English literature comes, not surprisingly, from products of these half-military, half-monastic institutions (not least because self-discipline and getting things done are part of what they impart), and the result is a grand corpus of books written by men who seem at once fascinated and unsettled by that mysterious other known as woman.

The archetype of this tradition might be said to be Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, about a crippled young medical student and sometime artist who is so determined to act in the chivalric mode, and so unused to dealing with real women in all their complication, that he alights upon a waitress who clearly has little time for him and sets about trying to rescue her, even if the consequences are disastrous for everyone concerned. Throughout the works of Philip Roth, a similar tangle between weak, too trusting men and manipulative women is often central, but the tone is strikingly different, if only because Roth’s men want merely to be good boys. They are just regular, somewhat bookish, largely bewildered young men, in love with their parents and not with their schools and a code of Tennysonian valor.

Or—to take an almost random example from Graham Greene—look at Wilson in The Heart of the Matter, composing love poems for his old school magazine while in Africa and blurting out “I love you” to a woman he’s met just once; his roommate, from the same public school, confesses, “To tell you the truth, women scare me.” It is in fact the very heart of Greene’s creed of paradoxes that it is the impulse to help or save others that always condemns us, and that “innocence must die young,” as he puts it in the same novel, “if it isn’t to kill the souls of men.” In works like The Quiet American the action turns upon the dialogue between an older man who barricades himself behind a pretense of not caring and a much younger man whose chivalry the older man mocks because he feels its vestiges so strongly in himself. Reading John le Carré, also, the clear heir to this tradition, one often comes away thinking that in his work, too, the author seems to know about all the esoteric conspiracies and hidden currents of the political world, on every continent, and yet to be moony and even helpless when it comes to women. His character George Smiley can solve any problem of espionage, but in trying to deal with his misbehaving wife, he’s generally at a loss.

For those intrigued by this distinctly British type, played in the movies these days by Ralph Fiennes or, for Wodehousian moments, by Hugh Grant, Raymond Chandler offers a casebook of evidence. Though born to an American father and an Irish mother in Chicago, Chandler was brought up in England and sent by a rich uncle to Dulwich, the public school from which Wodehouse (who seemed to live in the cloudless, protected world of school well into his nineties) graduated the year of Chandler’s arrival, and from which the explorer Ernest Shackleton had graduated only a few years before. Though he moved to California at the age of twenty-four, in 1913, and lived there until his death at seventy, Chandler held on to his Englishness as if it were all that could protect him in the rapacious and anarchic Los Angeles that was then taking shape; much of the poignancy and intensity of his depiction of the crooked world around him comes from his sense of himself wearing tweeds that smelled of mothballs and shopping for antiques with his wife, bringing the courtly code of Rupert Brooke to a hungry young society that had no European past and was determined to set up its own hierarchy based on real estate, oil, and motion picture images.

In every Philip Marlowe novel the action seems driven by a woman, usually an easy, alluring woman who at once attracts and unnerves Marlowe; the first page of the first novel, The Big Sleep, finds him looking up at a “knight in dark armor” on a stained-glass panel who is trying to rescue a naked lady, and thinking that the knight himself could do with some help. Marlowe’s power comes from the fact that he is tilting single-handedly against the corruptions of Los Angeles and usually trying to rescue a princess in a tower suite from the squalor and compromises all around; and yet, of course, it is the woman who is usually playing him, and who proves at least as corrupt as the society around her. In six of the seven Marlowe novels a murder is committed by a woman; and in none of the great books till the last, The Long Goodbye, does Marlowe even spend the night with a lover. When once a woman is shown in the nude, we meet the words “shame,” “shamelessly,” and “unashamed” in just two sentences.

It is the inspired idea of the novelist Judith Freeman, played out in her atmospheric and unusual The Long Embrace, to try to tease out something of Chandler’s nature by looking at his relations with women, and particularly with his wife of thirty years, Cissy. The book, Freeman stresses at the outset, will not be a biography (at least two solid Chandler biographies, by Frank MacShane and by the English journalist Tom Hiney, have already been published); nor does she pick apart the novels for clues as many of his admirers—who include W.H. Auden, Albert Camus, and Edith Sitwell—might do. Hers is, at heart, a more personal and curious mission: she confesses that she is obsessed by both Cissy and the man she habitually refers to as “Ray,” and drawn to them for reasons she can’t explain. The book becomes, therefore, a series of desultory, brooding, solitary meditations in which she drives around contemporary Los Angeles, looking, often in vain, for the places where Cissy and Chandler lived, and seeing what little she can dig up of a relationship that has always been mysterious.

Cissy Chandler was born Pearl Eugenia Hurlburt, in Perry, Ohio, and from an early age she seems to have had a rich sense of the theatrical. Even when she first got married, at twenty-seven, Freeman discovers, she was taking four years off her age, having by then rechristened herself with a name (“Cecilia” and then “Cissy”) that sounded more up-to-date and coquettish than Pearl Eugenia. She was on her second marriage by the time she met Chandler, among a group of bohemians in L.A. who called themselves the Optimists, and had studied piano in Harlem and posed, sometimes in the nude, for painters and photographers.

In all these respects she could not have been more different from a man eighteen years her junior who may have been a virgin when they met and who had grown up living with his mother Flossie after his father deserted them when he was just seven. After his mother took him to England, Chandler was something of an outsider, and even at Dulwich he was a “day boy” who returned to his mother’s house every evening, a devoted only child. When he came to L.A., he brought Flossie over to join him there and lived with her for four years, while Cissy lived nearby, even after he and Cissy had become a couple (two weeks after his mother died, he took Cissy to the altar). One does not have to suggest, as Freeman does, that Cissy and Flossie bore, in certain photographs, a passing physical resemblance to see something eerie in a young man courting a woman who is almost his mother’s age and calling her at times “Momma.”

Cissy gave Chandler something to adore—“Marriage is a perpetual courtship,” he wrote toward the end of his life—and every year on their anniversary he filled a room with red roses, while serenading her throughout their years together with flowery poems (“The touch of lips too dear for mortal kisses/The light of eyes too soft for common days”) that even he could see were “grade-B Georgian.” Almost every evening they listened to classical music on the radio together, and every afternoon took a ceremonial tea. Moving more than thirty times around southern California in their years together, as if to take in all the city’s angles, and to see Chandler’s constant antagonist in the round, they all but created and inhabited an out-of-place, out-of-time society of two. Their movements kept them from having many friends and instead of children they had cats and glass animals to whom (Freeman’s research in Oxford’s Bodleian Library discloses) they gave individual names, such as Snowflake and Violet and Walter.

You can make all sorts of jokes about sex,” Chandler wrote in characteristic terms near the end of his life,

but at the bottom of his heart every decent man feels that his approach to the woman he loves is an approach to a shrine. If that feeling is lost, as it seems to have been lost (in this country at the moment) all of us are lost with it. The glory has departed. All that is left is to die in the mud.

Yet the man who repeatedly voiced this creed of stainless romanticism, and who liked to refer to his own “exceptional sexual purity,” was also the man who devoted many of his pages to nymphomaniacs and who all but patented the image of the overwhelming blonde (giving Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake some of their defining roles). Had he remained only fearful and disdainful of the voracious society he saw around him, his books would have had none of their power. It is precisely his ambivalence toward the seductions that confront him, the fact that he is drawn to the fleshly temptations that he goes out of his way to condemn, that give both Philip Marlowe and his creator their uneasy psychological charge.

It wouldn’t be hard, in fact, to say that it is the shadow side of Marlowe, and of his creator (a heavy drinker at the time of Prohibition), that give the books much of their poetry. And much of the complication of the novels comes from the fact that Marlowe is afraid of vulnerable women, too, because he knows that he’s defenseless against his temptation to protect them. The sound that Chandler made his own was a mix of incantatory lyrical poetry and the rude vernacular of people who mocked all that such poetry traditionally described. His predecessor in hard-boiled writing, Dashiell Hammett, was a former detective. Chandler, much more dangerously, was a romantic poet with a gun.

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