Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre (1944)

There’s a whole nest of pitfalls that we can’t see. Everything here’s a booby-trap… (p.30)

Sartre’s most famous play is just one act and forty pages long. A man is ushered by a perfunctory ‘valet’ into a closed room, tastefully decorated with Second Empire furnishings. Shortly afterwards the valet ushers two more guests in, both women. The door is locked behind them. Polite and embarrassed, slowly the trio realise that they have died and are in hell.

Hesitantly, they reveal their stories.

The characters

Joseph Garcin is a man’s man, big and burly, a journalist in Brazil, who wrote for a pacifist newspaper. He was a brute to his wife, reeling home smelling of wine and women. One time he brought home a girlfriend and made love to her deliberately loudly so that his wife (in the spare bedroom) could hear them. Next morning he had his wife bring them coffee in bed. When war came and he was called up, Garcin fled to Mexico to evade conscription but was caught, brought back, and shot by firing squad for cowardice.

Inèz Serrano is a lesbian. She is arch and manipulative. She admits she seduced a woman (Florence) away from her husband, turning her against him. He was killed in a tram accident and the wife felt so guilty she gassed herself and Inèz in their sleep. ‘I can’t get on without making people suffer’ (p.26).

Estelle Rigault is posh and dim. She married a man three times her age for his money, but then had an affair with a man her own age, Roger. He got her pregnant and she could afford to go on an extended holiday to a hotel in Switzerland to sit out the pregnancy and birth. After she’d borne the child, with her lover watching, she attached the baby to a stone in a pillow and threw it into the lake to drown. Appalled, her lover committed suicide.

The play

So the fun, the entertainment, the interest of the play is how these three characters set about torturing each other, slowly, one by one, forced to relinquish any hopes that their time together might be bearable or redeemable, slowly coming to the awful conclusion that l’enfer, c’est les autres = hell, it’s other people.

Having just read Andy Martins’ book about Sartre. The Boxer and the Goalkeeper, I now know that Sartre thought there were only two ways for humans to relate to each other, as sadists or masochists; and that he confessed to having a sadistic attitude towards his fictional creations. It shows. Over the hour and a bit of the play they combine every possible way of irritating, upsetting and flaying each other, emotionally.

The play can very easily, then, be seen as an example of the Theatre of Cruelty which was popular after the war.

For example, towards the end shallow Estelle offers herself sexually to Garcin: she is only real when she has ensnared a man. This plays to Garcin’s sense of himself as a manly man but he discovers he can’t do it, get it up, unless Estelle really genuinely tells him that she respects him. He needs this because he has become – over the course of the hour – increasingly filled with self-loathing and self-doubt caused by reflecting on his cowardice. But neither of them can really rise to the occasion because it is taking place in front of Inèz, with her sharp tongue and cutting comments. Inèz, by virtue of her lesbianism, is revolted by big hairy Garcin – but can’t have Estelle, who she is strongly attracted to, because she is a dippy dolly bird who only fancies rough tough men.

Ensnared in a cobweb. Caught in a net. If any of them moves the other two are yanked along into further depths of mutual contempt and hatred. It is a terrifying triangle of eternal frustration and torment.

Thoughts

Or at least, it is if you’re French. From Racine in the 1660s, to Les Liaison Dangereuses in the 1780s, to Zola in the 1890s, the French take love, love affairs, affairs of the heart, with a staggering, baroque and ornate seriousness. Setting his play with rather dull modern-day characters is a Sartrean joke on this Grand Tradition but the seriousness with which they take their silly emotions is unmistakably French.

No longer a troubled teenager, and cursed by being English, I wasn’t remotely moved by Huis Clos, I was interested in details and themes.

Catholicism For example, it tends to confirm what I’d observed from Sartre’s novels, that his entire worldview only makes sense against the enormous backdrop of Roman Catholicism. You can only feel abandoned in a godless universe, if you at any time felt at home in a god-filled universe i.e. if you were a believer. Both Camus and Sartre only make sense as rebels against a stifling Catholic orthodoxy. But we Protestant English lack that intense religious background and so miss the intensity of the rebellion against it.

The gaze A more specifically Sartrean trope is the important of ‘the gaze’ and ‘the look’. Again, from the Martin book I know that Sartre was hyper-self-conscious from an early age of his appalling ugliness. Thus the act of looking is central in his fiction and his philosophy. People are engaged in an endless warfare of looking. To some extent people behave as they do because other people are watching: they want to conform to the watchers’ expectations or defy them but they can’t ignore them.

In another way, people watch and observe themselves acting and behaving, especially if there are mirrors around. So, in Huis Clos Estelle needs mirrors to reassure herself that she exists: she has six big mirrors in her house. But here, in the well-furnished room, there are no mirrors at all, not even hand mirrors. In a particular sequence she goes to put her lipstick on but has no way to see her reflection and so has to trust Inèz to tell her she’s doing it correctly. Except that half way through Inèz cruelly asks, what if I’m deceiving you? What if I’m deliberately making you look stupid? Which makes Estelle distraught but also clarifies how horrible life is going to be in hell where she will never be able to see herself. Already she feels herself, somehow, fading away…

[Estelle] When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself to make sure, but it doesn’t help much… When I talked to people I always made sure there was [a mirror] nearby in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as others saw me… (p.19)

And then again, people control and intimidate others through their gaze, as Inèz spitefully promises to watch Garcin wherever he goes, whatever he does:

[Inèz] Very well, have it your own way. I’m the weaker party, one against two. But don’t forget I’m here, and watching. I shan’t take my eyes off you, Garcin; when you’re kissing her, you’ll feel them boring into you…

In an interesting twist, that isn’t much reported in the summaries of the play I’ve read, all three characters can continue, for a while at least, to see how their partners and colleagues are continuing to live back on earth. Thus Estelle sees the mourners walking away from her funeral, while Garcin has a particularly vivid vision of all his colleagues at the newspaper lolling around and discussing what a coward he was. This makes him all the more want Estelle to SEE him, to bring him to the present with her gaze, to rescue from his inner consciousness with the power of her look.

[Garcin] Come here, Estelle. Look at me. I want to feel someone looking at me while they’re talking about me on earth… (p.38)

Women as slimy It’s a small detail, really, but having read the four novels of The Roads to Freedom involved reading lots of descriptions of slime and mucus and vomit. Sartre wants to debunk the smoothness of the traditional ‘bourgeois’ novel by including lots of bodily functions, but also just likes being revolting. So it’s a small but telltale moment when Garcin, in despair, makes for the bell by the door (which doesn’t work), Estelle goes to hug him and tell him everything’s OK, and Garcin pushes her away with:

[Garcin] Go away. You’re even fouler than she. I won’t let myself get bogged in your eyes. You’re soft and slimy. Ugh! Like an octopus. Like a quagmire. (p.41)

Andy Martin, in his book on Camus and Sartre, says the threatening symbol of the octopus appears in a number of Sartre’s writings as the terrifying threat of being sucked in, absorbed and digested by other life forms, part of Sartre’s ‘biophobic tendency’. Like the tree whose boley roots almost give Roquentin a nervous breakdown in Nausea. Like women who threaten to drown and swallow men in their gloop.

The BBC TV adaptation

In which the staggering thing, almost impossible to overcome, is the breath-taking poshness of the actors, in particular the ludicrously upper-class voice of renowned playwright Harold Pinter, here playing Garcin. To some extent many of the moments, the phrasing, the thoughts and the similes only really make sense when voiced by essentially very restrained middle-class characters. My kids watch Breaking Bad and The Wire. I showed them a snippet of this and they fell about laughing.

Academics have to continue solemnly judging that this kind of thing is ‘a searing tragedy of the human condition’ and so on – while the rest of us, who live in normal-people-land, can actually relax and admit that the whole thing is pompously ridiculous.


Credit

Huis Clos was first performed in Paris in May 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus (1943)

I can’t bear to hear you talking like that, about crime and punishment… (p.105)
[Martha to her mother, Act 3, Le Malentendu]

Apparently, Camus heard the story this play is based on while on a holiday in Czechoslovakia in 1936:

When his father dies a young man, Jan,leaves home to seek his fortune. Years later he returns a rich man determined to surprise his old mother and grown-up sister, Martha, and asks to stay at their wayside inn without telling them who he is (he is so changed in appearance that they don’t recognise him). Little does he know that in the intervening years his mother (reluctantly) and sister (enthusiastically) have adopted the habit of murdering rich travellers who stay with them. Despite umpteen moments when he could have told them who he is, the son continues to conceal his identity and so the women murder him (giving him a sleeping draught in his evening tea, then dumping his comatose body in the river). The next morning, while going through his papers, they discover the truth – that he is their son/brother.

It has the feeling of a folk story, with the grim bitterness of folk wisdom. It certainly makes for a very taut if characteristically diagrammatic play.

In tune with the neo-classicising tendencies of between-the-war France (think the neoclassical works of Cocteau, Stravinsky, Picasso), Camus tries to give the language the clarity and depth of classical tragedy. The more abstract the action, the more allegorical the story becomes, capable of numerous interpretations. The most obvious interpretation is to see it as a demonstration of the ‘Absurdity’ of the world, and the preposterous vanity of human wishes.

Jan’s wife, Maria, has accompanied her husband on his pilgrimage back to his old home and begs him to reveal who he is, her feminine intuition (and the the genre of tragedy) giving her a premonition that something bad will come of keeping silent. But Jan refuses, he wants to get to know his mother and sister again as they naturally are, before revealing his identity, and – after some feverish dialogue – he sends Maria away before checking into the inn.

Above and beyond the schematic nature of the plot, Camus gives the play a kind of structural symmetry by having the daughter of the house, Martha, and the wife, Maria, mirror each other. Martha is motivated to murder rich men in order to fulfil her dream of being able to leave the rainy country behind and go and live in the hot south by the blue sea. Placed in the diagram opposite her is the young man’s wife, Maria. Martha, in her dialogue with Jan, paints rhapsodic pictures of the hot country by the blue sea where they live and which they have left behind on this fool’s errand – so that Jan can carry out what he thinks of as his duty, and share his money with his mother and sister.

One aspires to travel to – the other has come on pilgrimage from – the unnamed hot country.

Outcome

When Martha reads the passport which reveals that she has just murdered her brother, she doesn’t go wailing hysterical but stands numb. She hands it to her mother who breaks down and vows to kill herself. Martha doesn’t stop her mother as she exits the stage to go and throw herself in the self-same river where they disposed of her son’s body.

Then Maria enters asking where her husband is. There is absolutely no shred of psychology or any human touch in the way Camus has Martha tell Maria point blank: ‘He’s dead. We murdered him.’ She sounds like a robot, and the news gives rise to an entirely predictable outbreak of weeping and wailing on the part of Maria. But this doesn’t result in what you could call any believably human behaviour (like Maria attacking Martha, maybe, or smashing up a few things).

Instead, the pair remain more or less fixed in place and, through tears of anguish, discuss the philosophical issues this dreadful misunderstanding has raised. Well, shout about the philosophical issues.

Crime and punishment

Le Malentendu confirms the sense I’ve been developing that Camus’s over-riding concern is more about Justice, about the contrast between divine and human Justice, the (im)possibility of Justice in a godless universe – than about absurdist existentialism as such.

As in Caligula the terminology of crime and punishment dominate the characters’ dialogue – after all the entire play centres (as does his famous novel, The Outsider) on a murder. It is no accident that Dostoyevsky figures in both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, nor that Camus’s last work was a labour of love converting Dostoyevsky’s novel The Devils into an elaborate stage production. The more of Camus I read, the more I realise that crime and punishment seen in are his central concerns.

Religion

But they are crime and punishment seen, as in Dostoyevsky, from a religious point of view. Cross Purpose tends to confirm my sense for the centrality of Catholic religion in Camus. On the last page the two women, Martha and her opposite number Maria, reach a crescendo of hysteria, Martha (the murdering sister) yelling at Maria that love is futile and life is pointless, we all end up in the wet mud of the grave eaten by worms:

What do they serve, those blind impulses that surge up in us, the yearnings that rack our souls? Why cry out for the sea, or love? What futility! Your husband knows now what the answer is: that charnel house where in the end we shall lie huddled together, side by side. (p.114)

And she yells in contempt at Maria to pray to her useless God. But despite this atheist harangue, pray to God is just what Maria proceeds to do in the final gesture of the play:

Oh God, I cannot live in this desert! It is on you that I must call, and I shall find the words to say. [She sinks on her knees.] I place myself in your hands. Have pity, turn towards me. Hear me and raise me from the dust, oh Heavenly Father! Have pity on those who love each other and are parted. (p.115)

‘Ayez pitié de moi,’ is the cry at the end of Racine’s searing tragedy, Andromache, but Racine’s characters believed in God. Here the very idea of God, or calling on him, is heavily mocked because Maria’s agonised prayer is, apparently, answered by the old serving man. This figure has been absolutely mute throughout the play, shuffling here and there in silence to tidy up the dishes and so on. Now, as Maria, stricken, on her knees, begs for mercy, the door opens and the old man comes in and -for the first time – speaks:

THE OLD MANSERVANT [in a clear, firm tone]: What’s all this noise? Did you call me?
MARIA [gazing at him]: Oh!… I don’t know. But help me, help me, for I need help. Be kind and say that you will help me.
THE OLD MANSERVANT [in the same tone]: No.

These are the last words in the play. I think it is intended to sear your soul with the futility and meaningless of life and to be a really bitter satire on the complete absence of God or divine love from the world – rather the opposite, the ironic presence of mocking humanity. But, as Oscar Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, I think the modern reader would have to have a heart of stone not to burst out laughing at its preposterously pompous self-importance.

The translation

The translation is, frankly, dire. I can’t imagine it being used on a modern stage; to be remotely usable it would have to be comprehensively rewritten.

Unhappily one needs a great deal of money to be able to live in freedom by the sea. (p.68)

Do please let us take the chance of someone’s coming and my telling who you are. (p.71)

On such occasions one says, ‘It’s I,’ and then it’s all plain sailing… There are situations in which the normal way of acting is obviously the best. If one wants to be recognised, one starts by telling one’s name; that’s common sense. Otherwise, by pretending to be what one is not, one simply muddles everything. (p.72)

I have not been given my rights and I am smarting at the injustice done to me… Let every door be shut against me; all I wish is to be left in peace with my anger, my very rightful anger. (p.108)

Algeria

It is of passing interest that the hot southern land which Martha longs for and which Jan and Maria come from is pretty obviously Algeria. Camus was effectively exiled in mainland France during the Second World War, when he wrote Le Malentendu, and he pined for his hot homeland and also for his wife, who had stayed there to pursue her career as a teacher.

Martha imagines her hot sun-bleached paradise, and Jan describes to her the sound of the waves and the colourful flowers of spring, and his wife Maria laments having to leave the blue skies of home – all of them quite obviously describing Camus’s Algeria,

that southern land, guarded by the sea, to which one can escape, where one can breathe freely, press one’s body to another body, rolling in the waves… (p.108)

But having processed this fact – Algeria = sunny paradise, Europe = rainy prison – it doesn’t really add much to your appreciation of the play except to make it seem even more schematic.

And having recently read Edward Said’s post-colonial critique of Camus makes the informed reader notice that in all three characters’ fantasies of this hot country there are no people, certainly no dirty impoverished Arabs to clutter up the scenery. As in L’Etranger and La Peste Algeria is a depopulated allegory of a country rather than a historic place.


Credit

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus was written in 1943 in occupied France, and performed and published in liberated Paris in 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948. Cross Purpose was brought together with CaligulaThe Just and The Possessed in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Caligula by Albert Camus (1938)

‘This purity of heart you talk of – every man acquires it, in his own way. Mine has been to follow the essential to the end… Still, that needn’t prevent me from putting you to death.’ [Caligula laughs.]
(Caligula p.58)

Camus began writing a play about Caligula in 1938, completing a three-act version by 1941, and a final, four-act version was published in 1944. The play was part of what the author called the ‘Cycle of the Absurd’, along with the short novel The Stranger (1942) and the long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).

Theatre of ideas

Theatre in France has always been more philosophical and intense than in England. The tragedies of Jean Racine (1639-1699) have a purity and a terror with no match in English literature.

Like much modern French theatre, Caligula is a play of ideas, or maybe of one idea, in which the characters mostly exist as types or foils for the psychological and philosophical debate.

The character of Caligula

Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus was the third emperor of the Roman Emperor. ‘Caligula’ means ‘little boots’ and was a nickname given him by Roman soldiers when he was on campaign as a boy.

Caligula succeeded his adoptive grandfather, the emperor Tiberius, in 37 AD. For the first eight months of his reign he ruled wisely. But after his sister, Drusilla, died in 38, the 24-year-old Caligula abruptly changed character, becoming, in the words of the Roman historian, Suetonius, ‘a monster’. He instituted a reign of terror, having leading patricians murdered, their sons killed and their daughters forced to work in public brothels.

So much for the historical record. In Camus’s hands Caligula becomes a demented philosopher-emperor who takes most of the leading philosophical themes of Camus’s time and pushes them to extremes. He seeks:

a philosophy that’s logical from start to finish. (p.19)

but in seeking it, time after time reveals the absurdity at the core of human hopes and ambitions.

Take the theme of freedom – Caligula realises that, by having complete power over every human in the Roman Empire, he has in effect become ‘the only free man in the world’.

Or the idea of ‘power’ – for Caligula the only point of having power is to abuse it i.e. to have the power to use power senselessly and in the face of all rational limits or protest.

Or take Camus’s central preoccupation of the 1930s, the Absurd. By carrying his wishes to their logical conclusion, Caligula demonstrates at some points the absurdity of human wishes; at others, the absurdity of having wishes which the real world cannot deliver. Right at the start of the play he says he wants the moon, he wants to possess the moon, why can’t he have the moon? — establishing the absurdity of his romantic longings, the impossibility of his desires.

So the play isn’t much concerned with character, let alone incidental touches of humanity or humour. Everyone talks as if they’ve just swallowed a philosophy textbook, and almost everything Caligula says seems designed to be quoted in a textbook about existentialism.

I wish men to live by the light of truth. And I’ve the power to make them do so.

All that’s needed is to be logical right through, at all costs. (p.7)

This world has no importance. Once a man recognises that, he wins his freedom… You see in me the one free man in the whole Roman Empire. (p.12)

A man can’t live without some reason for living. (p.19)

One is always free at someone else’s expense. (p.25)

I’ve merely realised that there’s only one way to get even with the gods. All that’s needed is to be as cruel as they. (p.37)

There’s no understanding Fate; therefore I choose to play the part of Fate. (p.38)

Logic, Caligula; follow where logic leads. Power to the uttermost; wilfulness without end. (p.43)

What I want it to live, and to be happy. Neither, to my mind, is possible if one pushes the absurd to its logical conclusions. (p.45)

Other artists create to compensate for their lack of power. I don’t need to make a work of art; I live it. (p.56)

The only variation from the sweeping generalisations about life and the universe, fate and freedom, is when Caligula’s soliloquies rise to a pitch of hysteria reminiscent of Racine’s tragedies:

I want to drown the sky in the sea, to infuse ugliness with beauty, to wring a laugh from pain. (p.14)

Ah, if only in this loneliness, this ghoul-haunted wilderness of mine, I could know, but for a moment, real solitude, real silence… (p.32)

Not many laughs here (although Caligula’s cynical brutality occasionally amuses him). Instead the play sustains an exhausting tone of continuous hysteria, reflecting the subject matter.

Structure of the play

The play doesn’t so much have a plot as consists of a sequence of scenes each one designed to give examples of Caligula’s insanity i.e. his realisation that he can do anything he wishes. Thus we have scenes where he humiliates the patricians (the ruling class of Rome) who live in a constant state of terror; he forces them to invite him to dinner, forces them to let him sleep with their wives. If he feels like it he has their sense murdered, and, when he’s bored, he has them poisoned or executed on a whim.

For Caligula, with absurdist logic, points out that, since all men must die, it is only a question of when not if and therefore it doesn’t much matter whether it’s now, or tomorrow, or in ten years’ time.

This is an example of him pushing human logic right to its limits and exposing its absurd consequences. But it is also – when you step away from the play and ponder his speeches and actions along these lines – very immature. Sure, all men must die. But that makes life all the more precious, all the more worth saving, all the more worth living well. To point out that all men must die and then burst into tears about it or howl against the injustice of fate are both essentially immature, almost childish, responses.

The message of Shakespeare’s tragedies – that it’s the readiness, the ripeness, the preparedness to die, without hysteria or melodrama, which counts – is the philosophy of a much more worldly-wise and mature man.

Camus, born in 1913, was only 25 when the first draft was completed, much the same age as Caligula, who achieved all the mayhem which made him notorious for all time, before he was finally assassinated by his own bodyguard at the age of 28.

The play’s climax

Having tortured, executed, debauched and manipulated as many men and women as he can, Caligula discovers that the Total Freedom he sought is empty, brings him no joy or release.

And so, when he discovers there is a plot to kill him, he carries his Absurdist logic – his repeated theme that life is meaningless – to its logical conclusion and chooses to ignore it.

Right at the very end of the play he murders Caesonia, the only women who ever loved him, strangling her despite her pleas of love, and then allows himself to be stabbed to death by the conspirators.

Assessment

The play works examines, dramatises and takes to the limit the absurdist logic inherent in the figure of ‘the tyrant’ – the human who has complete power of life and death over everyone else in his society.

Assessing the play amounts to assessing whether the dramatisation, the showing-forth of Caligula’s madness in the series of short scenes which Camus has assembled, is adequate to the theme.

Well, there’s no doubting that many of the scenes are powerful – there is no shortage of cynical cruelty and occasional black humour but – despite much intense melodrama – the play is actually not very dramatic.

Gérard Philipe was just 20 years old when he starred as Caligula in the successful 1945 production of the play

Gérard Philipe, just 20 years old when he starred as Caligula in the 1945 production of the play

There are no reversals or surprises, Caligula just sets out on a quest to become a monster – and succeeds. He starts off spouting high romantic ambitions to conquer the moon and outface fate and achieve his freedom, and the play never departs from this high, airless, often hysterical tone.

Which makes it all the more surprising to learn that Caligula was a great success when first staged in 1945 with the 20 year-old actor Gérard Philipe making his name in the title role.

The success or failure of plays is much more complex than poems or novels. It is dependent on innumerable contingent factors like the staging, costumes, lighting, music, on the ability of the actors, and, above all, on whether the production captures the often intangible spirit of the times.

Theatrical history is littered with plays which were smash-hit sell-outs in one season or year and which, only a few years later, seemed dated, badly made, creakily plotted or over-written, their one-time success now inexplicable.

Philipe was a talented new face, that probably helped, theatre has its own fashions and rising stars. But it also seems reasonable to guess that the play’s absurdity matched the post-war mood, as people tried to rebuild lives (and cities and countries) devastated by years of was, and as the broader culture caught up with the mood of black nihilism unleashed by the terrible revelation of the Nazi death camps, and almost immediately afterwards the revelation that humanity had created new, atomic weapons which could potentially wipe us off the face of the earth. Not to mention, of course, the lingering memory of the last days of the Nazi regime and the mad rantings of the megalomaniac at the heart of it.

All these factors maybe explain why what appears to us, now, 70 years later, such an extended exercise in shrill adolescent hysteria, at the time perfectly caught the mood of a culture and a continent in ruins.


Credit

Caligula by Albert Camus was published in France in 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948. Caligula was brought together along with translations of Cross PurposeThe Just and The Possessed in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Lady in The Lake by Raymond Chandler (1944)

Fictions offer escape. Through figures in the story, through their actions and thoughts, we readers live vicariously, acting out lives and experiences we’ll never have in our ordinary safe existences. In the crudest genres male readers identify with triumphant heroes, with James Bond or Jason Bourne, while women maybe project themselves into attractive heroines or strong clever women like VI Warshawski or older shrewd figures like Miss Marple etc. In fact the range of characters we can identify with is vast, endless, and our attention can wander within any given text, sympathising now with one character, now with another, maybe with many at the same time, maybe dramatising conflicts in our minds and arguing now for one side, now for another.

It used to be argued that the humanising, civilising effect of reading fiction is precisely the way it can help us empathise with others, giving us insights into other lives and beliefs and experiences, opening our hearts, making us better members of an ideal liberal, tolerant, multicultural society. Maybe…

Authorial competence

But we readers not only identify with characters. Implicitly we identify with the author, or the narrator, or the text, while we are reading it. We ‘immerse’ ourselves in a text. We ‘lose ourselves’ in a book. An aspect of this pleasure is savouring not only character and plot, but the skill of the author or narrator and their ability to describe, to evoke in language, to ‘paint’  descriptions of landscape and setting, along with – if it’s that kind of book – their opinions, insights, reflections about life… To identify with what has been called the ‘implied author’ the picture of the person telling the story that we build up as we experience the text.

One distinguishing feature of the crime novel or thriller as a genre is its uncanny precision. The narrator, even if they don’t know everything that’s going to happen, nonetheless situates events in a world dense with precision and certainty. (A symptom of this is the way so many post-war thrillers give precise timings to their narratives. ‘CIA Headquarters Maryland, Thursday, 8.07am‘ is the kind of datestamp you meet in thousands of thrillers.)

Seems to me this precision does at least two things:

  • Its immediate purpose is to give pace to the narrative, a sense of speed and momentum.
  • Just as importantly but maybe less obviously, it offers a deep consolation and reassurance to the reader. Someone is in control. No matter how grisly the events described, the text is policed and ordered (from this perspective the datestamps I mentioned are one of the ways that control is signaled at regular intervals). In a world more than ever beyond the control of us little people, where huge forces seem to overwhelm the average citizen, the precision of the thriller gives the reader a spurious and consoling sense of order and control.

Setting the scenes

There are no datestamps in Chandler, who was writing before their introduction (by whom and when? I wonder). Instead, Chandler’s control is signaled at every point of his prose by its tautness and precision and understatement – qualities which are emphasised by the his occasional deployment of the opposite, the highly-wrought poetry of the similes and metaphors which light his prose like flashes of lightning. This paragraph demonstrates this quality of control – the precise and thorough description – which leads up to a boom-boom punchline.

I went past him through an arcade of speciality shops into a vast black and gold lobby. The Gillerlain Company was on the seventh floor, in front, behind swinging double plate-glass doors bound in platinum. Their reception-room had Chinese rugs, dull silver walls, angular but elaborate furniture, sharp shiny bits of abstract sculpture on pedestals and a tall display in a triangular showcase in the corner. On tiers and steps and islands and promontories of shining mirror-glass it seemed to contain every fancy bottle and box that has ever been designed. There were creams and powders and soaps and toilet waters for every season and every occasion. There were perfumes in tall thin bottles that looked as if a breath would blow them over and perfumes in little pastel phials tied with ducky satin bows, like little girls at a dancing class. (Ch. 1)

Fact, fact, fact, then a dinky – essentially comic – and textbook Chandler simile.

Chandler’s descriptions of interiors

In a previous post I wrote about the importance of eyes in Chandler. In The Lady In The Lake I was struck by the precision of his description of interiors. Of rooms.

The private office was everything a private office should be. It was long and dim and quiet and air-conditioned and its windows were shut and its grey venetian blinds half-closed to keep out the July glare. Grey drapes matched the grey carpeting. There was a large black and silver safe in a corner and a low row of filing cases that exactly matched it. (Ch. 2)

He describes every element of the room with factual accuracy and precision. The mess we sloppy unpredictable humans make of our lives may be full of shocks and surprises but the universe in which it all takes place isn’t. It is defined and placed and solid.

I followed him up a flight of heavy wooden steps to the porch of the Kingsley cabin. He unlocked the door and we went into the hushed warmth. The closed-up room was almost hot. The light filtering through the slatted blinds made narrow bars across the floor. The living-room was long and cheerful and had Indian rugs, padded mountain furniture with metal-strapped joints, chintz curtains, a plain hardwood floor, plenty of lamps and a little built-in bar with round stools in one corner. (Ch. 6)

During the plots Marlowe likes to emphasise his fallibility, point out his mistakes in managing a case, ‘Curses, why didn’t I realise sooner…’ etc. This has always struck me as being a blind, a convention of the genre. There are no mistakes when he sizes up people or, as I’m emphasising here, when he sizes up a room and its contents.

The Peacock Lounge was a narrow front next to a gift shop in whose window a tray of small crystal animals shimmered in the street light. The Peacock had a glass brick front and soft light glowed out around the stained-glass peacock that was set into the brick. I went in around a Chinese screen and looked along the bar and then sat at the outer edge of a small booth. The light was amber, the leather was Chinese red and the booths were polished plastic tables. (Ch. 30)

He is a camera, he is a set designer placing all the elements just so, he knows the provenance and brand and material of every object in the room. He is an early example of a technique which would become epidemic in American fiction by the 1980s of itemising and listing every detail of every brand of what a person is wearing or driving or owns, as American life (in fiction at any rate) became more hollowed out, more psychologically empty, more a consumerist shell.

In 1940s Chandler these set-piece descriptions create:

  • A clearly visualised, well-defined universe in which the events can unfold.
  • The sense of a profoundly reliable narrator whose judgement, whose knowledgeability, whose sheer savvyness about the world, is blazoned forth on every page. He never hesitates. He never sees something he doesn’t understand or can’t put a name to. His all-seeing look and his all-comprehending mind give him (and us, the reader) a god-like omnipotence and this omnipotence is a big part of the pleasure to be got from Chandler’s texts.

I went back to the other end of the hall and stepped into a second bedroom with a wide bed, a café-au-lait rug, angular furniture in light wood, a box mirror over the dressing-table and a long fluorescent lamp over the mirror. In the corner a crystal greyhound stood on a mirror-top table and beside him a crystal box with cigarettes in it. (Ch. 16)

A Fitzgerald room

Compare and contrast the description of a room by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Last Tycoon:

The meeting took place in what I called the ‘processed leather room’ – it was one of six done for us by a decorator from Sloane’s years ago, and the term stuck in my head. It was the most decorator’s room: an angora wool carpet the colour of dawn, the most delicate grey imaginable – you hardly dared walk on it; and the silver panelling and leather tables and creamy pictures and slim fragilities looked so easy to stain that we could not breathe hard in there, though it was wonderful to look into from the door when the windows were open and the curtains whimpered querulously against the breeze. (Ch. 6)

Fitzgerald’s description is more imaginative, softer, more compromised by authorial comment, by emotional context. It is done in the gushy voice of the naive 25 year-old young woman narrator Cecilia. It is one of the many scenes or events whose main purpose is to convey the psychology of the characters or narrator as much as to depict the ‘reality’ of the ‘external world’. It is these accumulating insights, the succession of scenes conveying nuances of personality and attitude, which gives Fitzgerald’s characters, and the novel as a whole, the layers of depth which might be what we refer to when we say ‘literature’. It is not intended to make us feel in complete control, as the Chandler does.

The Chandler room

Back to the hard, well-lit world of Chandler:

I went in. There was a pot-bellied stove in the corner and a roll-top desk in the other corner behind the counter. There was a large blue print map of the district on the wall and beside that a board with four hooks on it, one of which supported a frayed and much-mended mackinaw. On the counter beside the dusty folders lay the usual sprung pen, exhausted blotter and smeared bottle of gummy ink. (Ch. 7)

Chandler’s descriptions are immensely enjoyable, like watching the perfect technique of a world class sportsman. It is like reading off the spec of a luxury sports car, as flash, as impressive but, arguably, as superficial. They tell us is that Marlowe is a tough, no-nonsense guy, with a reassuringly superhuman grasp of a space and all its details. And, as readers, as we read, we partake briefly in that very American super-confident knowledgeability.

The room contained a library dining-table, an armchair radio, a book-rack built like a hod, a big bookcase full of novels with their jackets still on them, a dark wood high-boy with a siphon and a cut-glass bottle of liquor and four striped glasses upside down on an Indian brass tray. Beside this paired photographs in a double silver frame, a youngish middle-aged man and woman, with round healthy faces and cheerful eyes. They looked out at me as if they didn’t mind my being there at all. (Ch. 33)

You have to admire, to marvel really, at the ease with which he can conjure a space and an atmosphere in just a few strokes.

I went into the club library. It contained books behind glass doors and magazines on a long central table and a lighted portrait of the club’s founder. But its real business seemed to be sleeping. Outward-jutting bookcases cut the room into a number of small alcoves and in the alcoves were high-backed leather chairs of an incredible size and softness. In a number of the chairs old boys were snoozing peacefully, their faces violet with high blood pressure, thin racking snores coming out of their pinched noses. (Ch. 17)

The subtlety, the nuance and the doubt, the sense of human fallibility which comes over so strongly in Fitzgerald, is absent in Chandler. But different genres, different texts, different aims, call for different techniques. Is it this lack of investigation of human psychology which has limited Chandler to genre fiction and makes Fitzgerald worthy of study at college? Maybe. But it doesn’t stop you feeling, as you read Chandler’s effortlessly commanding prose, that you are in the hands of a master.

The consolations of the crime novel

My point is that it’s paradoxical that a genre which prides itself on being so tough and harsh and realistic, in actual fact produces in its readers an infantilising sense of comfort and reassurance and security. These texts produce the opposite of the anxiety and worry we experience all too often in or own lives. They continue to be so popular because they are so wonderfully reassuring. Freud said he couldn’t offer his patients what they all wanted, which is consolation. That is precisely what these novels offer in spades. Wipe away your tears. Daddy Chandler is in complete control.

The Rossmore Arms was a gloomy pile of dark red brick built around a huge forecourt. It had a plush-lined lobby containing silence, tubbed plants, a bored canary in a cage as big as a dog-house, a smell of old carpet dust and the cloying fragrance of gardenias long ago.

The Graysons were on the fifth floor in front, in the north wing. They were sitting together in a room which seemed to be deliberately twenty years out of date. It had fat overstuffed furniture and brass doorknobs, shaped like eggs, a huge wall mirror in a gilt frame, a marble-topped table in the window and dark red plush side drapes by the window. It smelled of tobacco smoke and behind that the air was telling me they had had lamb chops and broccoli for dinner. (Ch. 23)

The Master of Prose knows and understands everything. And he is on our side. He is our Master.

Pulp images and reality

All the talk of hard-boiled attitude splashed all across the blurb and metatexts on Chandler seem to me baloney. Marlowe is a sentimental slop, the shop-soiled Sir Galahad who goes out of his way to help his clients and protect the innocent or vulnerable. It is a feature of pulp that – like the Hollywood Chandler cordially detests – it simplifies and sentimentalises. It’s not really fair to involve the book cover over which Chandler probably had little say, but this paradox is typified by the pulp-style cover of this book, above. How ethereal and attractive to the (male) bookshop browser is the tastefully-dressed blonde floating dreamily in the water, fully clothed with her eyes still tastefully made-up. Here’s Chandler’s description of the body as he and the local caretaker recover it up in the mountain lake:

The thing rolled over once more and an arm flapped up barely above the skin of the water and the arm ended in a bloated hand that was the hand of a freak. Then the face came. A swollen pulpy grey white mass without features, without eyes, without mouth. a blotch of grey dough, a nightmare with human hair on it. (Ch. 6)


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