Monday, December 27, 2010

Conrad and Chandler, Marlow and Marlowe

First I noticed that Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim opens with a passage whose form, substance and rhythm would be right at home in classic American hard-boiled writing:
"He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull."
Then I realized that the book's narrator is named Marlow (also the narrator of other Conrad works, including Heart of Darkness). Then it transpired that Marlow finds the guilty, bereft Jim work with a ship's chandler.

Coincidence? Maybe. But Raymond Chandler (and Dashiell Hammett) did not spring like Athena from Zeus' head, fully grown, armed, and ready for the fight. In some of Hammett's early stories especially, traces remain of the genteel English detective stories of which the hard-boiled school is the reputed antithesis.

Did Chandler read Conrad? If so, what he take from the experience? It's probably easy to find discussions of Marlow as the moral center of Conrad's work and hence an apt choice for the name (with an e added) of Chandler's protagonist. But maybe Chandler liked Conrad's prose style, too.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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22 Comments:

Blogger Solea said...

In Frank MacShane's introduction to "Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration" he writes, "Yet despite many similar beliefs and habits, Marlowe is very different from Chandler the introspective artist. Like Joseph Conrad's narrator, Marlow, after whom Philip Marlowe was probably named, he was a kind of co-conspirator with Chandler."
MacShane also mentions that in 1951 Chandler wrote a portrait of Marlowe, "giving his habits, his educational background, domestic arrangements, and the furnishings of his house." Do you know if he is referencing this portrait as something inside a novel or a separate short story? I enjoyed reading the author reflections at the end of each short story in this book. Personally, I like it when artists pay homage to their favorite works by using the name or some other characteristic cleverly. It's like a map of development.

December 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The parallels and coincidences are tantalizing, that's for sure. I don't know if anyone had previously noticed how similar Lord Jim's opening is to that prototypical hard-boiled opening with description of the client or the detective. It's obvious, but then commentators so rarely discuss style.

I don't know the sort of the Marlowe portrait to which Frank MacShane refers. I recently read The Long Goodbye, published in 1953, and I don't remember such a passage.

John Lawton, whom I discuss in my previous post, pays clever tribute to P.G. Wodehouse in several books, especially Second Violin.

December 27, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I don't see any hard proof in the posts above that there is a link. You really need the author's word for asserting that Marlowe was named after Conrad's character. The "chandler" thing I don't get at all.

Conrad was a very good writer, especially of descriptions. But I just noted that John Banville aka Benjamin Black is equally felicitous in describing his characters.

Most mystery writers today don't like descriptive passages and don't use them.

December 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You see no hard proof because I didn't look for any. The Marlow/Marlowe link could be pure coincidence. As for the coincidence that a character described in Chandler-like language should work for a ship's chandler, that was human error. I neglected to hit control/alt/j, which would have indicated clearly via a special font that I was being jocose.

In fact, Lord Jim's style quickly diverges from anything like Chandler's brief bursts of description. But that opening paragraph is suggestive, not just because of its felicitous description of the character, but because of the manner of that description.

December 27, 2010  
Blogger J said...

Id wager...coincidence. Conrad's a great writer but his complex prose doesn't really meet noir criteria--one of which is, don't be overly complex or literary or something. Noir can be jazzy, perhaps--even ChandlerSpeak's that (tho not sure his White Knight Marlowe was)-- but avoid the overly descriptive or contemplative, or somethin' of the sort.

Conrad's famed stories--say Heart of D. and Lord Jim-- suggest something like skepticism as well IMHE. Chandler doesn't seem too skeptical. His alter-ego Marlowe may be surrounded by villains--whether mobsters, hollywood creepos (ie the Big Sleep, Farewell my Lovely) or cops on the take--but Marlowe tries to do the right thing, or something--he's sort of heroic in a sense, and no brooding Conradian visionary--it's sort of like comparing apples and oranges really.

The Noir hacks typically wanted to avoid snooty English prose anyway, whether Conradian, or Conan Doyle's Holmes/Watson cliches --and Hammett or ..Jim Thompson may have avoided 'em more successfully than Chandler did--Marlowe at times does show an echo of Holmes (eg working through chess combinations).

December 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One needs to allow for the possibility of something between imitation and coincidence. Sure, Conrad's prose was a lot more lesiurely and meditative than Chandler's, but I'd wager that writers (and the rest of us, too) assimilate influences in bits and pieces, rather than whole. I still maintain that Lord Jim's snappy opening may well have stuck in Chandler's mind even if it was the only bit of Conrad he assimilated.

Hammett, by the way, could get quite contemplative and to good effect.

December 27, 2010  
Blogger J said...

Hammett's Falcon seems like noir minimalism itself--hardly any description, just crisp dialogue, a few stage instructions. I haven't perused Red Harvest for a while, but I recall the writing was very sparse, though with the edgy vernacular--a town full of bodies every night, ho's in all directions. I don't care for the Thin Man stories, really --the New Yawky wit--who was his red broad? Hellman? aptly named-- over the top. Ugly, like I love Lucy ugly.

Jim Thompson was a master of the vernacular--in ways not quite the hack Hammett was at times, or contrived as Chandler, tho a bit raw . No wonder Ho-wood has ripped him off for years--the script hacks barely need to touch his stories. Pure perp-dialogue. Ellroy sort of gets that as well, but....over does it, and it seems ...kitschy or something.


(conrad Ill leave alone)

December 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I'm having a bit of trouble with "The Thin Man" after the spare prose of "Red Harvest," "The Maltese Falcon," "The Glass Key" and the Continental Op stories. From what I can see, Hammett was a hack only insofar as he occasionally, but not always, gentled up his stuff for publications other than Black Mask.

Perhaps it's easier to think of Thompson as a master of the vernacular because he was closer to our time than Chandler and Hammett.

I don't quite know what to make of Ellroy. Kitschy is a good place to start, like a old white guy trying to be cool, going around saying Daddy-O all the time. But dang, when he makes a scandal sheet the only voice of truth in his novels, he hits hard.

December 27, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I think The Cold 6000 is up there with Catch 22, Blood Meridian etc. as one of the greatest American post war novels. Its not just contrived and kitschy its absolutely and completely bonkers. Daft as a brush who has just come down with mad brush disease. But still, genius.

What happened in Blood's A Rover is either that yes he became self conscious about the Daddy O thing and worried about alienating the kids or he tried to reign himself in. Either way, it looks like he peaked.

December 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You know, I put aside The Cold 6000 about a year ago under intense deadline pressure. I should pick it up again; I liked what I had read.

My impression of Ellroy since has probably been colored by his appearances with Eddie Muller commenting on film noir classics.

December 28, 2010  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Chandler's generation would have found
Joseph Conrad a "must-read.

Co-incidentally, I started re-reading "Lord Jim" during the week and the narrative is as fresh and engaging as when I first read it in college.
Our teacher was dismissive of all the derring-do in the jungle and made uncomplimentary remarks about "Our Boys".
However, since this sort of literature was new to me (I was a Jean Plaidy fan), I even enjoyed the adventurous bits.

I cannot think of many links with Chandler, from the point of view of characterisation and plot devices, but your thoughts
on the ship's chandler as a possible subterranean link is engaging.

December 29, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

Its worth picking up again. I think its one of the greatest novels of the last 50 years or so.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Chandler's generation would have found Joseph Conrad a "must-read."

P à D:

I figured that might be the case. Chandler was 11 or 12 when Lord Jim was serialized in magazine form, and his early career as a writer coincided closely with what presumably would have been Chandler's earlier years as a reader.

It's no surprise a professor would have dismissed derring-do. Not only is such stuff rankly colonialist, according to some standards, it's also exciting.

My tongue was at least partly in cheek when I suggested that the ship's chandler could have been a subterranean link. The close stylistic parallel between Lord Jim's opening paragraph and those of many hard-boiled stories is of greater interest.

December 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I know you've had a kind word or two about the novel in the past. It's quite a feat to be as over-the-top stylistically as Ellroy and to be able to tell a story at the same time.

December 29, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Did Chandler read Conrad?" The Dulwich College library registers for the years Chandler attended the school still exist. Perhaps the proof of RTC's reading of Lord Jim may be found there...?

As to the source of the name Marlowe, there is no known Chandler source for positive proof that Conrad was the inspiration for the name. I agree with I.J. Parker that "you really need the author's word for asserting that Marlowe was named after Conrad's character." MacShane surprises me when he says Philip Marlowe was "probably named" for the Conrad protagonist as MacShane did not tend to stray too far from the known to the not-sure or unknown in his Chandler bio. I've read elsewhere that Chandler had a much-admired teacher at Dulwich named Marlow(e); that the name may be derived from that of the playwright Christopher Marlowe; or that Chandler's wife suggested the name. Marlowe's first appearance was as "Mallory" and it's not too far from there to Marlowe.

MacShane's reference to Chandler's 1951 "...portrait of Marlowe, giving his habits, his educational background, domestic arrangements, and the furnishings of his house" refers to the contents of a very interesting letter to one D.J. Ibberson in which it appears that RTC was responding to Ibberson's request for verification of the "facts of Philip Marlowe's life," pp. 270-274 in Selected Letters of Raymond CHandler, Frank MacShane, ed., Columbia University Press, New York, 1981.

January 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Did Chandler read Conrad?" The Dulwich College library registers for the years Chandler attended the school still exist. Perhaps the proof of RTC's reading of Lord Jim may be found there...?

As to the source of the name Marlowe, there is no known Chandler source for positive proof that Conrad was the inspiration for the name. I agree with I.J. Parker that "you really need the author's word for asserting that Marlowe was named after Conrad's character."


I'd suggest that the Marlowe name's origin is of no special interest for most readers, especially since the character we now know as Marlowe first appeared under several names. The stylistic link between Lord Jim's opening and that of many P.I. stories is more tantalizing and interesting, I think, though it need imply that Chandler read Conrad, of course.

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, based on this thread and your thoughts on Conrad/Chandler, I think you might be interested in the seminal essay: "Rats behind the wainscoting: politics, convention, and Chandler's The Big Sleep" by Peter J. Rabinowitz, and available in (among other sources) The Critical Response to Raymond Chandler, J. Kenneth Van Dover, ed., 1995. (I know, you've said you don't really like to read nonfiction/criticism of crime fiction but I really do think you'd find this essay interesting.)

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, on the one hand, I don't like the word response as applied to criticism, but I like reception theory in art. Go figure. On the other, I love the word wainscoting. My paper had a restaurant critic who used to love the word, and I'd do searches to establish his wainscoting frequency. He also loved ramekins, usually in the form of ramekins of fresh butter carried by buxom waitresses.

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Oh, dear, I guess I would have been better off saying it could be found in Raymond Chandler: A Literary Reference, Robert F. Moss, ed., 2002, huh?

This buxom broad has eaten spotted dick from a ramekin.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's nothing. I spread a frog's legs in Paris.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Graham Powell said...

I'm coming to this conversation almost 18 months late, but it occurs to me that there are interesting similarities in the endings of Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS (with Kurtz's fiance`) and "Red Wind".

Especially in what the narrator conceals in each case.

June 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm embarrassed to admit that the closes I've come to Heart of Darkness is Apocalypse Now. Maybe I'll investigate further. Thanks.

June 06, 2012  

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