Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

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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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