RARA-AVIS: Lethem on Chandler

From: Carrie Pruett ( pruettc@hotmail.com)
Date: 19 Jul 2002

I got this in an email from Borders. since I can't figure out how to link to it, and since it's pretty short, I'm sending the whole thing. He makes some interesting points, though I'm not sure why he's so critical and dismissive of series fiction.

Interview The Undisputed Master: Jonathan Lethem on Raymond Chandler Conducted by Trudy Wyss

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) didn't publish his first novel until he was 51. He only published seven in his lifetime (all Philip Marlowe mysteries), along with many short stories, but he remains in the estimation of many the standard by which all mystery writers are judged. This month, Vintage is releasing new paperback editions of Chandler's classic fiction. We asked Jonathan Lethem, author of the esteemed Motherless Brooklyn-and a huge Chandler fan-to talk about the man many believe to be the greatest mystery writer who ever lived.

I'm impressed that you're willing to talk to me not about your own books, but Raymond Chandler's. What draws you to Chandler?

Jonathan Lethem: If it was easy to say what obsesses me about Chandler it probably wouldn't be the case, because it's the complexity in a writer that keeps you going back and finding new layers. Thinking about it in advance of doing this interview, I've never had to articulate why Chandler is so stirring for me. But having written Gun, with Occasional Music and then Motherless Brooklyn, which are both very affectionately indebted to Chandler, I find that people will sometimes credit me for turning a twist on the hardboiled voice or updating it in some way. And, of course, I'm always flattered. But I also feel that there's something unfair about that. Chandler himself is so sophisticated and self-aware that he anticipates all of the satirical potential in the hardboiled detective. The Chandler detective is one who's self-aware to just a degree where he can see the absurdity of his own actions, and particularly of the urge to rescue other people. That's something Chandler was very tormented about: What does it mean to try to be a hero? To be a white knight in a kind of crumbling world?

And he's just also such a beautiful writer. The secret of Chandler is that he's really very romantic. Behind all that ennui there's this enormous yearning that causes him to reach, in this very precarious way, for all sorts of beautiful phrases and unlikely poetic comparisons. And then he's always making fun of himself for doing it at the same time. That's why writers obsess over Chandler-because he's found a way to have his lyricism and make fun of it at the same time. I also think there's a degree of self-loathing in Chandler that's really interesting. He was drawn to other artists who were attracted to the same material, like Hitchcock. After he and Hitchcock worked together on adapting Patricia Highsmith's novel into Strangers on a Train, if you read Chandler's letters he's denouncing Highsmith for her failure to do a good job with this material and he hates Hitchcock. It's like he has to thrust this material as far away from him as he can because his own attraction to it is so uncomfortable for him.

He wanted to be thought of as more literary.

JL: Oh, of course he did, but he also made it impossible. He did lots of self-defeating things, the most obvious one being writing about a series detective and never breaking out of that format. As high as his ambitions were, at some level he was also very afraid of trying another kind of novel. So with a book as great as The Long Goodbye, any reader who's unprejudiced can just see that that's one of the great American novels. He put all that ambition, feeling, literary skill, and also yearning to be literary into this book, and it's a great novel. But the fact is it also has his detective, Marlowe, as the protagonist. That format was freeing for him. Somehow it unlocked his ambition and it unlocked his writing voice, but it was also a kind of prison he created for himself because he never got to write outside of that box.

What do you think about the films that were made from Chandler mysteries?

JL: There are two that I think are among the greatest American films, and they're at either end of the attempt to film Chandler. The first is Howard Hawks's version of The Big Sleep. And the second is Robert Altman's version of The Long Goodbye with Elliott Gould. In each case the filmmaker used Chandler as a platform to then go into his own obsessions. I can't recall now what Chandler's impression of the Hawks film was. If I'm remembering correctly, all he had to say was some sort of snide comment about Lauren Bacall's performance. Which is very typical of Chandler. Again, it's that self-loathing that arises around people who are celebrating the crime genre. And I doubt he would have been able to appreciate what Altman did with his hero, because it's a very irreverent, hippie-ish version of Marlowe. But those are wonderful movies. I don't think there are any other adaptations that really touch the greatness of the books. But, you know, that's hard to do.

- Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked - Jane Austen

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