Apr. 18, 2003

In Love with Raymond Chandler

by Margaret Atwood

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"In Love with Raymond Chandler," by Margaret Atwood from Good Bones And Simple Murders (Doubleday).

In Love with Raymond Chandler

An affair with Raymond Chandler, what a joy! Not because of the mangled bodies and
the marinated cops and hints of eccentric sex, but because of his interest in furniture. He
knew that furniture could breathe, could feel, not as we do but in a way more muffled,
like the word upholstery, with its overtones of mustiness and dust, its bouquet of
sunlight on aging cloth or of scuffed leather on the backs and seats of sleazy office
chairs. I think of his sofas, stuffed to roundness, satin-covered, pale blue like the eyes of his
cold blond unbodied murderous women, beating very slowly, like the hearts of
hibernating crocodiles; of his chaises longues, with their malicious pillows. He knew
about front lawns too, and greenhouses, and the interiors of cars.
        This is how our love affair would go. We would meet at a hotel, or a motel,
whether expensive or cheap it wouldn't matter. We would enter the room, lock the door,
and begin to explore the furniture, fingering the curtains, running our hands along the
spurious gilt frames of the pictures, over the real marble or the chipped enamel of the
luxurious or tacky washroom sink, inhaling the odor of the carpets, old cigarette smoke
and spilled gin and fast meaningless sex or else the rich abstract scent of the oval
transparent soaps imported from England, it wouldn't matter to us; what would matter
would be our response to the furniture, and the furniture's response to us. Only after we
had sniffed, fingered, rubbed, rolled on, and absorbed the furniture of the room would
we fall into each other's arms, and onto the bed (king-size? peach-colored? creaky?
narrow? four-posted? pioneer-quilted? lime-green chenille-covered?), ready at last to do
the same things to each other.

Literary Notes:

On this day in 1775, Paul Revere made his famous ride from Boston to warn the patriots that the British troops were on the march. The Minutemen were ready the next morning on Lexington green for the battle that launched the War of Independence. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about the day in a ballad, "Paul Revere's Ride":

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

On this day in 1906, the Great San Francisco Earthquake struck just after five a.m., measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale. San Francisco was poorly prepared for the quake, with thousands of un-reinforced brick buildings and closely-spaced wooden Victorian houses. It was the worst disaster ever to hit a North American city. Over three thousand people died. Sleeping people were trapped in their beds, gas mains exploded, and cattle stampeded through the streets. A fire broke out that lasted three days and swept through the entire downtown area, destroying 514 city blocks -- water mains were broken, and firemen were helpless. There was looting, and an outbreak of bubonic plague spread by rats.

It's the birthday of publisher Clifton Keith Hillegass, born in Rising City, Nebraska (1918), the man behind Cliff Notes, the black-and yellow-striped pamphlets that students have used for literary study guides or substitutes for the real thing since 1958. In each one, Hillegass used to include a signed note to readers that said: "A thorough appreciation of literature allows no shortcuts." When the company was bought for $14 million in 1998, the new owners kept the bumblebee-striped design but dropped the note.

It's the birthday of lawyer and writer Clarence (Seward) Darrow, born in Kinsman, Ohio (1857). Darrow fought for unions, racial equality, and the poor, and he became famous for defending some of the most unpopular people of his time. He once said: "I never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of pleasure."

It's the birthday of beat poet Bob Kaufman, born in New Orleans, Louisiana (1925). He was a great improvisational poet in North Beach, San Francisco. He was so dedicated to spontaneous poetry that he rarely wrote down any of his work; some critics call him one of the great-undiscovered geniuses of the Beat generation. In 1963 he was so moved by the assassination of John F. Kennedy that he took a vow of silence. He kept it for twelve years, until the day the Vietnam War officially ended in 1975.

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