RARA-AVIS: Noir again

From: Kerry Schooley ( gsp.schoo@skylinc.net)
Date: 17 Feb 2003

I've enjoyed catching up on this latest edition of Rara Avis' semi-annual Noir Definition Debate. It's hard to disagree with anything that's been written this go-round, which suggests that perhaps the term noir might have become too generalized to be of value?

But something specific and different did happen in the novels that became movies that went to France to claim a name as a genre, and I think it helps to remember that this was an American literary movement. I suggest the early works of the hardboil school mark a change in the attitude of the rugged individualist heralded of the Western genre, in which the protagonist tried to escape, or distance himself from the corruption of the big cities to the east by heading out to the wide-open spaces of the west.

In early noir, this individualist turns to confront the corruptions inherent in urban, communal life often discovering in the process that those evils, temptations, compromises spring from within. This focus has since been applied to other settings, and recognized in numerous precedents, but I think it might be this American loss of innocence at the heart of what we call noir.

Having said that, I'd like to consider the early Canadian influences on the genre, through two founding authors. Chandler was educated in England, spent most of his life in the US, but served during the First World War with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. We've all discussed the influence of war on the genre, and it should be worth noting that the experience of Canadians in the trenches was different from that of the Brits, under whose command they first served. It wasn't until after Canadian troops were put under the command of more innovative Canadian officers that they achieved their battle successes, often where others had previously failed. Under the upper-class Brits, Canucks had been expendable cannon-fodder like everyone else. I've always felt this influenced the way Chandler portrayed the warm but firmly distant relationship between Marlowe and the Colonel in The Big Sleep. Sure, the kids were a trial, we can sympathize with the parent, but who raised them? We confront the evil inherent in social class structures.

It's also worth noting that the Canadian western experience did not herald the individualism as in the US. Literature here paid more attention to the distinct possibilities of freezing, starving or madness through the isolation of a long, cold, Canadian winter. The emphasis was on survival, often achieved by desperate attempts to maintain social relationships and communities in sparsely populated regions. In the twentieth century the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan elected the first socialist government in North America, and then became the first to institute Medicare. People knew the value of looking out for one another on the sparsely populated province. In many cases, Canadian settlers were desperate to get off the land and into the cities. The darkness of the literature from rural experience in Canada is more gothic, with evil resident in the landscape.

The noir of Ross MacDonald owes more to Ontario repression, where MacDonald grew up. Ontario was the last place in the British Empire where the sentence for treason, hanging, drawing and quartering, was literally carried out. It's more than ironic that the sentenced were Americans, in the early stages of the War of 1812. Their heads were piked on a distinctive geological formation in the community where I now live, as warning to visitors. That war heralded a bit of a social revolution in Upper Canada whose first European settlers were actually American refugees from the War of Independence in the 13 colonies. During the war of 1812 these folks were often deemed untrustworthy, because many were in fact members of pacifist religious sects and not loyalists, and many still had U.S. family and social connections. English and Scots from the homeland began to dominate the local power structure, instituting a feudal cabal, called the Family Compact, that was more repressive and closed than anything in Britain itself at that time.

Sorry for the history lesson, but there are elements of that Toryism in Ontario politics today. Much of what gets done in the world gets done here, but quietly, behind a polite smile because we're a kinder, gentler folk than those ruffians to the south, don't you know. I think it is that kind of quiet, ingrained corruption that MacDonald's unattached, individualist confronts in the Archer novels.

I've gotten a lot for my 2 cents here, doncha think?


------------------------------------------------------ Literary events Calendar (South Ont.) http://www.lit-electric.com The evil men do lives after them http://www.murderoutthere.com

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