If I owned a cell phone, right now you’d be looking at a photo of Eddie Muller, rendered speechless. Which I think might have been a first. But I don’t own a cell phone. So there is no photo. You’ll just have to let me explain, and use your imagination.
We were taking a break during Seattle’s Noir City film festival, and conversation that evening might have run thin. After all, my total expertise in things noir wouldn’t fill one of his intros for TCM’s Noir Alley. (My enthusiasm is another matter. It’s the great thing about enthusiasm - you can splash it around in total ignorance). But I needn’t have worried, since it turns out we share an interest in decent writing in general, and more especially just lately in Raymond Chandler. Eddie Muller because he’s working on a film account of Chandler’s last years. Me because I’ve been doing my bit for Hill, Jackson and Rizzuto’s splendid Annotated Big Sleep, in an article for The Rap Sheet. And the reason for the speechlessness? Well, it was this. Tell me, I asked about our mutual interest, Do you hear Chandler as American?
It was and is a serious question. You see, reading and adoring the Marlowe novels as a teenager those many years ago, Chandler’s prose never did strike my internal ear as being all that American. And this young European who watched movies, thought she knew all about how Americans ought to sound.
A pause here for something that now occurs to me. In those days I was reading the Marlowe novels in their English editions. Meaning with British-English, not American-English spelling. Did it make a difference? I really don’t know, but I think it might have. Years later, writing Shamus Dust in the voice of an American in London, it seemed absurd to use British English. The shamus of the story may be a long-term expatriate, but his orthography reflects his language and thinking as narrator, and all three were made in America.
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Back to Chandler ...
With all this in mind it’s worth remembering that, as I devoured everything Marlowe, I had no ideas whatever at the time about his creator. No idea, that is, that practically all the Chicago-born Chandler’s education had been English - and classically English at that, at a ranking public (as in fee-paying) school. No idea either that he identified himself as English throughout a lifetime, and was a British not an American citizen for most of it. But especially, I hadn’t read his collected letters, where he writes that on his return to the United States - just before the First World War, he was in his mid-twenties - he set about relearning American as a foreign language.
I knew nothing of all this until many years later. And yet I believe I was picking up on his Englishness from the first: something in the vocabulary, the meter, the rhythms, that tilts the prose and keeps it always a little off-balance. Marlowe’s is not an English voice, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t seem so obviously all-American to me either. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a complaint. For me, the slightly off-key voice mirrors Marlowe’s own distance from the mean streets he’s forever walking down, and it works beautifully. Actually, I think it might be Chandler’s lasting gift to hardboiled fiction.
So now you see where my question came from. And the reason for the Eddie Muller look that said, Is She Out of Her Mind? The thing is, my English-born internal ear never does let me hear Chandler as wholly American. What I’d really like to know is what an American ear makes of it.