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Cool Dark Eyes
I periodically need to refresh my mind by reading a book that's clearly not related to the projects I'm working on. For reasons that are hard to pinpoint, I have often selected a Japanese novel to serve this function as intellectual lemon sorbet. This year, I have Soseki's The Wayfarer ready for that purpose. But when I returned from my trip to California, I wasn't in the mood for it.

I picked up Raymond Chandler's The High Window instead. Although I've taught The Big Sleep, I saw both cuts of the film version first. This is my first experiencing reading Chandler's prose on its own terms, without cinematic filtering. And I'm more impressed than I had expected to be.

Here's one of my favorite passages so far:
I went over and opened the single drawer of the reed desk and took out the photo that lay all alone in the bottom of the drawer, face up, looking at me with cool dark eyes. I sat down again with the photo and looked it over. Dark hair parted loosely in the middle and drawn back loosely over a solid piece of forehead. A wide cool go-to-hell mouth with very kissable lips. Nice nose, not too small, not too large. Good bone all over the face. The expression of the face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I don't know what to call it. The face looked too wise and too guarded for its age. Too many passes had been made at it and it had grown a little too smart in dodging them. And behind this expression of wiseness there was the look of simplicity of the little girl who still believes in Santa Claus.
As I sad to Eric last night, Chandler has a real gift for using the sentence fragment to convey the dispassion of the homonymic I. In this case, the absence of verbs signals our narrator Philip Marlowe's reluctance to close the case on the object of his scrutiny, even while he floats preliminary conclusions.

I like the repetition -- "cool," "loosely," face," even "too" and "it" -- and the delineation between "wiseness" and "wisdom" implied by Chandler's use of the former. My favorite sentence, though, is the one that historicizes the concept of "breeding." I love the idea that the "something" lacking in her face exceeds the bounds of a particular worldview, that the lack is waiting patiently to be fixed in another interpretive scheme.

The High Window certainly isn't Japanese, but it pares things down to a similar fineness.

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Muse: Global A Go-Go - Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros - Global A Go-Go

4 comments or Leave a comment
masoo From: masoo Date: July 6th, 2004 07:58 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I guess since Chandler was a chapter in my diss, I should chime in here.

Read The Long Goodbye. Don't watch the movie version of The Long Goodbye until you've read the book a few times. Then, perhaps, maybe, you'll be able to process what Altman does to the genre. Me, I have the ultimate love/hate relationship with that damn movie ... it's terrific, and it's vile.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 7th, 2004 09:30 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

More Chandler

I'll remember to read the book first. It may be awhile, though, since the Soseki will probably be my last summer reading and I'm too much of a traditionalist to forego something Japanese.

After I finish The High Window, I'll have to check in with you.
kdotdammit From: kdotdammit Date: July 6th, 2004 08:50 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

"a solid piece of forehead"

"a solid piece of forehead." That is so cool. What amazing writing.
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: July 6th, 2004 09:05 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

I was going to write you an email on verblessness when your inbox cleared but...

I'm reading along and yes yes yes a man who steals my heart--were you expecting less?--those verbless fragments, how the noun suspended asks you in ways that a verb never can to ask if it's subject or object. I mean without the hinging of subject to predicate, without case endings or other signs, a noun can float unlatched like you wouldn't believe.

Are these facial features object-like, what Marlowe gazes at, or are they what act on him, to take from him his gaze?

Chandler drives it one point farther: You think if you track him back you'll find that grammar's stable, that there's a verb implied from the very start to prove Marlowe master of all these objects. He looks the photo over, yes, but just before that it looks at him, and in the end there's a look behind its looking that no gaze from him can penetrate.

Chandler's women often look--and not just back but out, away. I'm so teaching Chandler and Cain when I do American gothic/noir sometime next year.
4 comments or Leave a comment