Monday

May 27, 2013

Heights of Folly

by Charles Simic

O crows circling over my head and cawing!
I admit to being, at times,
Suddenly, and without the slightest warning,
Exceedingly happy.

On a morning otherwise sunless,
Strolling arm in arm
Past some gallows-shaped trees
With my dear Helen,
Who is also a strange bird,

With a feeling of being summoned
Urgently, but by a most gracious invitation
To breakfast on slices of watermelon
In the company of naked gods and goddesses
On a patch of last night's snow.

"Heights of Folly" by Charles Simic, from The Book of Gods and Devils. © Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of novelist Dashiell Hammett (1894) (books by this author), born Samuel Dashiell Hammett in St. Mary's County, Maryland. In 1915, he got a job as a detective for the famous Pinkerton Agency, and this experience provided fodder for his later novels. He enlisted in World War I, but contracted tuberculosis, and that — combined with his distaste over the increasing Pinkerton involvement with strike-breaking — effectively ended his gumshoe career. He tried writing, using his Pinkerton experiences as a source for stories, and published his first story in 1922. It was published in a society magazine, The Smart Set, but his stories were really better suited to pulp detective magazines, and that's where they found a home. They weren't intellectual brain-teasers in the "Sherlock Holmes" mold; they were gritty and unsentimental and cynical — what came to be known as "hard-boiled." His first two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse (both published in 1929), starred a character known only as the "Continental Op."

In his third book, The Maltese Falcon (1930), Hammett created an iconic character called Sam Spade, a loner who manages to be both cynical and idealistic, and who in turn served as the inspiration for Raymond Chandler's private eye, Philip Marlowe. The Maltese Falcon was made into a film three times; the second one, made in 1941 and directed by John Huston, is the best known, and stars Humphrey Bogart as Spade.

In 1931, Hammett began a 30-year affair with a script girl who would eventually become a playwright: Lillian Hellman. Their relationship inspired the characters of Nick and Nora Charles, the heavy-drinking, wisecracking, crime-solving couple at the center of his final novel, The Thin Man (1934). The Charleses and their terrier Asta turned into a six-film franchise starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, and later a radio play, a TV series, and a Broadway musical. Author Donald Westlake later said of The Thin Man, "It was a sad, lonely, lost book, that pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship, and I hadn't known you could do that: seem to be telling this, but really telling that; three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess."

After The Thin Man, Hammett turned his attention to helping Hellman with her playwriting career, and to various leftist political pursuits. He re-enlisted during World War II, in the Signal Corps, and apart from his military service as a journalist and editor, he didn't do much writing. In 1951, he was jailed on contempt charges; he served as a bail trustee on a committee to free jailed Communists, and refused to give the names of people who had provided bail money. He served five months and when he was released, he was served with a bill for $140,000 in back taxes. He died in 1961, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, against the wishes of J. Edgar Hoover.

In his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler wrote of Hammett, "He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that never seemed to have been written before."

It's the birthday of John Cheever (books by this author), novelist and master of the short story, born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1912. Called by some "the Chekhov of the suburbs," most of his stories feature middle-class Americans on New York City's Upper East Side, or its Hudson Valley suburbs. He's best known for his short stories, especially "The Enormous Radio" (1953) and "The Swimmer" (1964), but he also wrote four novels, including The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), Bullet Park (1969), and Falconer (1977).

In 1961, he wrote in his journal: "I have been a storyteller since the beginning of my life, rearranging facts in order to make them more significant. I have improvised a background for myself — genteel, traditional — and it is generally accepted." Part of the image he crafted was that of the man in the suit who rode the apartment building's elevator downstairs with all the other men in suits who were leaving for work in the morning. His daughter Susan later revealed: "From the lobby he would walk down to the basement, to the windowless storage room that came with our apartment. That was where he worked. There, he hung up the suit and hat and wrote all morning in his boxer shorts, typing away at his portable Underwood set up on the folding table. At lunchtime he would put the suit back on and ride up in the elevator."

His journals reveal that he was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder; as one might expect, he writes volumes about himself, with little about his family or friends. The journals also reveal that he enjoyed going to church and was conflicted about his bisexuality, and they also show his ability to find significance in ordinary things, something that shaped so much of his fiction.

From his journals:

"In town for lunch. The air-conditioning, the smell of perfume and gin, the attentions of the headwaiter, the real and unreal sense of haste, importance, and freedom that clings to the theatre. It was a beautiful day in town, windy, clear, and fresh. The girls on the street are a joy. A girl with bare arms by the St. Regis; a girl with bare shoulders on Fifty-seventh Street; dark eyes and light eyes and red hair and above all the wonderful sense of dignity and purpose in their clear features. But there is the imperfect joining of the carnal world and the world of courage and other spiritual matters. I seem, after half a lifetime, to have made no progress, unless resignation is progress. There is the erotic hour of waking, which is like birth. There is the light or the rainfall, some ingenuous symbol by which one returns to the visible, perhaps the mature world. There is the euphoria, the sense that life is no more than it appears to be, light and water and trees and pleasant people that can be brought crashing down by a neck, a hand, an obscenity written on a toilet door. There is always, somewhere, this hint of aberrant carnality. The worst of it is that it seems labyrinthine; I come back again and again to the image of a naked prisoner in an unlocked cell, and to tell the truth I don't know how he will escape. Death figures here, the unwillingness to live. Many of these shapes seem like the shapes of death; one approaches them with the same amorousness, the same sense of terrible dread. I say to myself that the body can be washed clean of any indulgence; the only sin is despair, but I speak meaninglessly in my own case. Chasteness is real; the morning adjures one to be chaste. Chasteness is waking. I could not wash the obscenity off myself. But in all this thinking there is a lack of space, of latitude, of light and humor."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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