Saturday, December 04, 2010

Dashiell Hammett, existentialist

I've just found this capsule description of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea (1938):

"The novel concerns a dejected historian in a town similar to Le Havre, who becomes convinced that inanimate objects and situations encroach on his ability to define himself, on his intellectual and spiritual freedom, evoking in the protagonist a sense of nausea."
Why Nausea? Why here? Because of this, from The Maltese Falcon, as published originally in Black Mask:

"The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine's typewriting came through the office door. Somewhere in a neighboring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully. On Spade's desk a limp cigarette smoldered in a brass tray filled with the remains of limp cigarettes. Ragged gray flakes of cigarette ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current."
And this, from Frederick Nebel's story "Doors in the Dark":

"He saw Halo Rand standing at the far side of the room. The room was dimly, discreetly lighted. A parchment shaded floor lamp stood back of the woman and built an amber glow about her amber hair."
I'd bet my beret and pipe that Sartre knew his Hammett, if not his Nebel. What else has French culture borrowed from American?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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86 Comments:

Anonymous solo said...

What else has French culture borrowed from American?

Well, not its grammar, anyway. But, otherwise, a lot. When Newman and Benton tried to interest Truffaut in their Bonnie and Clyde script, Truffaut took them to see
Gun Crazy. Americans needed a Frenchman to point them in the direction of an American movie. That says a lot.

Americans are insecure about themselves. They doff their cap to European 'culture.' Stupid feckers.

December 04, 2010  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

It's too easy: Le hamburger.

December 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Criminy, Solo, I never knew Robert Benton wrote Bonnie and Clyde. My stock of knowledge has increased, and I've gained new respect for Benton. Thanks.

Americans are insecure about themselves. They doff their cap to European 'culture.' Stupid feckers.

It's one of the great truisms of American popular culture (well, Andrew Sarris said it, at least) that Americans have no respect for what they do best: comedy, musicals, Westerns, crime fiction. Hence the spate of turgid message movies nominated for Oscars. If historically it has taken the French to alert Americans to some of the best of their own culture, I say vive la France.

December 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister:

Perhaps steak frites and le weekend as well.

December 05, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, although that cover tends to lead one to believe that the publishers judged 'The Maltese Falcon' to be Hammett's best novel, perhaps the fact that one of the figures is red, and the prominence of 'Red Harvest' in the list of novels, might just make one conclude that they were just 'perched' on the fence!

December 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One does wonder why the publishers chose red. I read Red Harvest this week, and it's an excellent book. But critical opinion seems to favor The Maltese Falcon or The Glass Key as Hemmett's best. The falcon is an understandable choice for the cover. Perhaps yhe red was easier to incorporate unobtrusively into the design than a key, a curse or a thin man would have been.

December 05, 2010  
Blogger R/T said...

The French borrowed the American revolution, Jerry Lewis, and Disneyland. In their gratitude, they have given us Georges Simenon's Maigret. I call it a fair trade.

December 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The French may have appreciated products of American popular culture undervalued at home. Jerry Lewis is not one of these.

December 05, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Well look as long as we're clear that it was the Free French who liberated France from the Nazis and that every single Frenchman was active in the Resistance, esp J Paul Sartre who definitely wasn't happily putting on plays, publishing novels etc. while the cattle cars full of people headed East.

December 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"According to Camus, Sartre was a writer who resisted, not a resistor who wrote."

December 05, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Thats pretty generous by Camus who really was active in the Resistance.

December 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If I've read Camus, it was when I was in college, which doesn't count. The Stranger might make an appropriate subject of discussion here.

And, speaking of authors who written crime novels set in Algeria, have you ever read Yasmina Khadra?

December 05, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Just a mention that from what I see on the Internet, about 400,000 people were in the French Resistance, activists or supporting roles.

About 2 million read underground newspapers in France during the war.

And, just one more word, that French women were also in the Resistance. Read some incredible stories of several women who were in the Resistance, some who even continued Resistance work inside camps, others who didn't get caught and did a lot around the country.

I find their stories absolutely incredible, life-affirming and heroic.

Also, I did not know this until just now that although Jewish people were about 2 percent of the French population, young Jewish women and men formed about 20% of the Resistance.

Back to Camus and Sartre.

December 06, 2010  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

kathy d: "young Jewish women and men formed about 20% of the Resistance."

If ever there were an example of an existential action . . .

December 06, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Also, out of necessity, for survival the Jewish youth joined the Resistance.

December 06, 2010  
Blogger R/T said...

Still on French resistance rather than Hammett? Well, for whatever it might be worth, just to add some more to the digression, I remind everyone that Samuel Beckett was an enthusiastic participant in the Resistance; so, again, for whatever it might be worth, that adds an Irish Protestant and exitentialist novelist and playwright to the cause.

December 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, your call for a return to Camus and Sartre appears to have been premature. No complaints here, though.

What I'll have to explore is how Sartre's conduct during the war squares with what I think was his call for littérature engagée .

Meanwhile, I add an even wider digression in a later comment or a separate post.

December 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R/T, among other aftershocks of this discussion, one might ask what reputations these writers enjoy today. As a fashion item, Sartre is in eclipse, I think, and Camus' political positions may have been too complicated for easy embrace by the Left. I'm not sure Beckett has ever gone out of fashion, though his Resistance activities are not much discussed these days.

December 06, 2010  
Blogger R/T said...

"Aftershocks" is a good label. I would suggest the paradoxical "connected irrelevancies" as an alternative.

With respect to the authors included in this tattered strand of discussion, I dare say--based upon my admittedly limited perspective as a teacher of undergraduates in literature classes--people (i.e., students) have little or no knowledge of any of the cited authors. Moreover, visit your local brick-and-mortar bookstore or community library, and you will also have some difficulty, though Hammett is more likely than Camus et al to surface on the shelves.

All of this, by the way, has almost nothing to do with reputations the authors either have or deserve. Instead, it is a subjective statement of their availability to and reading by people in 2010 in America.

Now, to twist the thread back to the beginning, I ponded what mileage I might get out of assigning Hammett to literature students with an eye to developing the theme of existentialism as well as the humorous style in the narrative.

Again, to credit you with the provocation, I am about to re-read Hammett's novels. Now, it off to Poisonville!

December 06, 2010  
Blogger R/T said...

Postscript: Please forgive and ignore the typographical errors. It has been a long day!

December 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Please forgive and, when possible, ignore my typographical errors. It has been a long career.

The Flitcraft parable in The Maltese Falcon is an obvious and ubiquitous beginning for discussions of Hammett and existentialism. But I like the question of why this intense focus on inanimate objects? Done well, it introduces a frisson of excitement in the reader? Why?

Ask your students this. And ask them why they think Hammett inserted the Flitcraft parable in a detective story.

Whether reputation precedes availability is an interesting questions. Whatever good Amazon, Borders and Barnes and Noble may have doon in making books easily available in area where they might not have been easily available before needs to be weighed against the harm they've done by reducing the range of books available and the quality of service with which those books are delivered.

December 06, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, Hammett is a writer worthy of deep investigation, and someday, when I cease to be a lazy so-and-so, I hope to carry out that investigation.

Is it possible that Hammett is Flitcraft? Somewhere I read that Hammett got a diagnosis of TB and became a writer because of that. He became a writer because he thought he was going to die at any minute, and then he got used to the idea that he was going to die at any minute, and therefore stopped writing.

Camus v Sartre should be a walkover for Camus, on almost any grounds you can think of: moral, political, social, literary. But I dislike writers who try to shoehorn reality into some preexisting philosophical theory, as Camus did.

Hammett,the poor fool, was a communist, but he was too good a writer to let his political views pollute his writing. His novels represent the thoughts of an intelligent individual. Perhaps, his silence represents the thoughts of an intelligent party member.

December 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm wary of mining fiction for clues to an author's political beliefs, but I must say that I've found nothing shrill or doctrinaire in my recent reading of Hammett.

I think I'll look for The Stranger or The Rebel when I stop by the shop to pick my copy of Hammett's complete novels.

I'm withholding judgment of the Flitcraft parable until I can figure out why Hammett inserted it in the body of The Maltese Falcon.

No rush to seek out and investigate Hammett. He'll be there when you're ready for him.

December 06, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Although what Richard Layman (Hammett's best biographer) refers to as "the existential dilemma—that is how does one determine right from wrong; how do you arrive at your values; what matters?" is essential to a discussion and analysis of Sam Spade, pragmatism, rather than existentialism, is at the center of the Flitcraft Parable. It's no accident that the name Hammett gave to Flitcraft for his the character's second life in Spokane was Charles Peirce. American philosopher Charles S. Peirce developed the theory of pragmatism ("pragmaticism") in the early 20th c. and pragmatism had quite a vogue in the US in the 1910s and 1920s. Voracious reader Hammett would certainly have read Peirce. For a compelling argument for the influence of pragmatism on Hammett, see Josef Hoffmann's A Man Must Do What He Must: Hammett's Pragmatism.

This is a pretty good translation from the original German.

Solo, Hammett was a self-described Marxist, not a communist (although he was very probably a card-carrying member of the US communist party).

Ironically, readers who insist on finding hidden clues to Hammett's political leanings in his fiction (where there are none) are those, like Hammett scholar Steven Marcus, who are themselves (academic) Marxists.

Peter, as for why Hammett inserted the Flitcraft Parable in the middle of The Maltese Falcon, you might be interested in Peter Wolfe's Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett, 1980, and/or the tidy summary in When digressions get right to the point.

December 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I had read of the Flitcraft-Pierce-Hammett connection. I don't know Pierce's philosophy, but pragmatism in the popular sense of the word certainly applies fo the Continental Op. (And while we know why Hammett had Flitcraft take the name Pierce, why does he give him the name Flitcraft in the first place?)

Steven Marcus lays the Marxian analysis on a little heavy. I had never known until I read him, for example, that The Maltese Falcon is the history of capitalism. Bourgeois that I am, I'm just revelling in being able to follow Spade around in my current reading of the book, thanks to my recent trip in San Francisco.

I'm not sure I buy the Guardian's explanation for Flitcraft. Or rather, the explanation seems too pat. I think Hammett must have intended something not quite as neat as that. But it doesn't matter much to me at this stage. But I will come back to this discussion when I have given the matter further thought.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I agree, the Guardian's blogger's explanation is a tad too pat. However, I think he has a (brief) point to make and was no doubt handier than Beams Falling.

As for the source of the name Flitcraft... Don't know; perhaps Hammett knew someone with the surname Flitcraft? He sometimes used real names for fictional characters who were nothing like their real-life namesakes.

I don't think we'll ever get to the bottom of everything there is to dissect about the Flitcraft Parable. Like Hammett himself, so much of what we (or at least I) might like to know about him will always remain enigmatic.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think digging too hard to get to the bottom of the parable would itself be a pointless exercise. For me, what really sets the parable off is Brigid's apathetic reaction to it. One should not separate the parable from the reaction. The story is a dramatic form, after all.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I regard the name Flitcraft as vaguely humorous, or at least Dr. Seussian. Of course, that could be influenced by Seuss' work on the Flit insect repellent advertising campaign (Quick, Henry, the Flit!)

Seuss' first Flit cartoon, though it predated the ad campaign, appeared in 1927, so Hammett could conceivably have had it in mind.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Solo, re "Somewhere I read that Hammett got a diagnosis of TB and became a writer because of that. He became a writer because he thought he was going to die at any minute, and then he got used to the idea that he was going to die at any minute, and therefore stopped writing."

While it's true that Hammett began writing when he became unable to work outside the home (due to the disabling effects of TB) Hammett's TB is thought to be at least partly responsible for his personal pragmatic viewpoint. There he was, lying in a TB ward while men around him died, men who took far better care of themselves than he did. The arbitrariness of life, the beams falling and not falling. He didn't stop writing because he all of a sudden figured out that--gee!--he might die any minute.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I don't think Hammett was a punster in the "quick, the Flit" mold. His wit, in and out of books, was much drier. A quick Google search on Flitcraft (minus Hammett, minus parable) gave me 388,000 hits. There are plenty of real Flitcrafts out there.

Re Brigid's apathy... She really wasn't paying any attention to Spade. That provides the "get on with it!" tension in the passage. But Hammett wanted the reader to pay attention. There is so much Hammett in Spade (heck, he gave him his own first name) and if you read some of Hammett's longer, explanatory letters, they have a Flitcraft Parable tone to them. That is, if someone asked Hammett a question, he answered seriously, thoughtfully, thoroughly.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder how many people had TB or were almost struck by falling beams without going on to become seminal writers or chucking their ways of life or having other life-changing experiences.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd agree Hammett was no punster. And my search for Flitcraft earlier this week turned up a baseball player by the name (his major league career was short -- just three games. No word on whether some accident made him decide to chuck the life of a ballplayer.)

Oh, Hammett wants the reader to pay attention, but the passage is not just about what Hammett or Spade is, it's partly about what Brigid isn't. It's well and good to look for biographical significance in th Flitcraft parable, but one ought not to ignore the dramatic or narrative significance. But hell, I haven't even finished my current reading of the book.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Yikes! Besides pointing out the fact that Hammett and Spade have some personal attributes in common, I certainly didn't mean to imply that there is Hammett "biographical significance" in TMF (or any other piece of Hammett's writing). I think there is less personal info to be gleaned in Hammett than in just about any other author I can think of off hand. Frankly, I think scholars tend to make so much out of the Flitcraft Parable because with Hammett remaining mum on its significance, it can be made to "prove" any egghead's point about what Hammett "really means." Bah!

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're probably right about the reason for scholars' fussing over the Flitcraft parable. And I was sloppy in my choice of words. I should have said that one should ignore the parable's narrative and dramatic functions in favor of philosophical considerations.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

All this talk of Mr. Flitcraft reminds me of my "pilgrimage" to the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Washington, 2 summers ago. Hammett stayed there briefly in the summer of 1921 while working for the Pinkertons. The hotel has been beautifully restored and the lobby now looks much as it did when Hammett stayed there. The hotel has put together a small display in a glass cabinet with a copy of TMF opened to the Flitcraft passage, a photo of Hammett, and a few 1920s hotel-related souvenirs. Definitely worth a visit for Hammettians.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I shall try to remember that if I should ever find myself in Spokane. Thanks.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Arrgh! That's detail overkill! Who cares about the color of the curtains. I bet we can remove some other stuff that's irrelevant or excessive to set mood, theme, or character.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Returning to Sartre for a brief moment, coincidental to the discussion above, the New York Times has an article today about Claude Lanzmann, who made the film, "Shoah."

As a French Jewish youth, he joined the Resistance. He later became an editor of Les Temps Modernes, the journal founded by Sartre.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I disagree, though on subjective grounds. I think the passage works beautifully because it pushes the reader just to the point of discomfort, to the point where he or she wonders why the detail? What are the characters doing in the meantime? What is the author keeping from me? It's a brilliant mood setter, and the mood is one of anxiety.

Now, the trick for an author engaging in such business is to avoid pushing the reader too far. And if a reader does not like such anxiety, what can one do? (One reason the Hammett passage is better than the Nebel is that it ignores character, heightening the anxiety even further.)

Without sounding too pompous, I hope, there is much to be said for art that pushes a reader or listener to the brink. Some of the great flamenco singers can make their voices ragged almost to the point of inducing pain. This can be an extraordinarily effective vehicle for songs of pain in suffering if the singer knows how to contol it.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Kathy. I'll take a look to see how Sartre figures in the article.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

If authors are good at their craft, they can push readers. They have reasons for what they are writing and aim for the readers to think about what they include.

That's if a writer is good. It seems to me it doesn't apply to mediocre writers who seem to throw in all kinds of descriptions and details to fill up pages.

Hammett, of course, was a good writer, a terse writer. Everything he included had a meaning, an intent, nothing idly included to fill up pages.

Also, I don't have a problem with his political views, but I didn't see evidence of them in what I've read (or seen in movies of his works).

I had to read about his life, ideas and actions.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I should look for a bad passage of description and contrast it with the Hammett selection to analyze and illustrate the differences.

Like you, I find no political polemics in Hammett. This is good.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I wouldn't mind polemics, if done as a part of a plot or character's thoughts, not just thrown in.

Donna Leon, in my view, injects ideas and political opinions or observations frequently in the Commissario Brunetti series.

I enjoy this and find they fit in with the story line, Brunetti's observations, and expose of whatever higher-ups she is incriminating.

And, I don't mind it in Sjowall/Wahloo or Mankell's books, either.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I have mentioned Jean-Patrick Manchette and, especially, Dominique Manotti as politically minded crime novelists who cast skeptical eyes on the ruling elites of France. It's not hard to guess that both those writers are politically leftist, but they tell good stories, and the politics are inextricably part of the world view expressed in the stories. The novels never descend to speechifying.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I will order "Affairs of State" at some point as my library doesn't carry it. That's on my TBR list.

Manchette I'll have to read about.

As I said, I think Henning Mankell and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo convey political ideas well, without hitting anyone over the head.

Also, I read one book by Gianrico Carofiglio (whom I learned about at Petrona) and he conveys his views through his attorney character very well. I plan to read more by him. "Involuntary Witness" is the first book in the series; it is a quick and good read.

Andrea Camilleri can hit one over the head a bit, but it's done delightfully by Montalbano. I read one of his books to get over a tough book, and it worked. I was laughing.

Camilleri is political, and does make statements to show his opinions, but it's done so expertly, and often movingly, towards a character or group.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Camilleri will state his political opinions in strong terms, but he is not so much hitting readers over the head as he is inviting them to share his laughter at some absurdity or other of Italian politics.

December 08, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, that's true, but Camilleri can also be quite moving, when he wants to be--and serious. And, he makes his points.

In "August Heat," in discussing the death of an undocumented construction worker, Montalbano says that there should be a monument, like the one in Rome to unknown soldiers, to immigrant workers, who risk their lives, all for a crust of bread.

He said that seriously and sympathetically, not with wit, and I thought to myself that this is an author whose entire booklist I must read--this and the wit, good storytelling, interesting characters, jabs at politicians--and Montalbano, of course.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember that passage, though I did not remember which book it was from. It's somber and sympathetic, and arguably beyond politics.

One might especially note the last word: undocumented construction worker.

December 08, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Camilleri is very good, perhaps because he is also amusing and very human. The politics work both as local color and as realistic insight into the characters. Sjowll and Wahloo never bothered me with their politics. The story is far more important. Now Donna Leon irritates me a good deal with her asides. They are usually given to Brunetti's wife, who is a thoroughly irritating female in her righteousness about everyone and everything. I keep hoping she'll be the victim in one of the future novels.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I have seen the thought expressed even by Leon admirers that Paola is too perfect, though they don't express it quite as bluntly as you do. I wonder why Donna Leon created a character like that. Wish fulfillment, maybe?

December 08, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Well Paola Brunette does teach English literature, read Henry James--and prepares perfect dinners for Guido and their children.

I, on the other hand, love Paola's political and literary asides, even her grumpiness when awakened too early. It adds so much flavor to the books.

A happily married police inspector, who has a home life, and with teenaged children, not the usual scenario for such a character.

And two friends of mine, a decades'long married couple, love the Leon books and Paola.

We often discuss lines from Leon's books, including Paola's,
and laugh.

Brunetti would be too boring a fellow, and similar to too many lone-wolf police detectives without the family, including Paola.

Anyway, again, every reader has his/her own taste, likes and dislikes, which is why the more and varied books out there, the better.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger R/T said...

Of course, if I remember correctly, Paola is a bit of a criminal, too! Remember that she trashed the travel agency (the cover for a prostitution and immigration scheme), and her vandalism rather embarrassed her by-the-rules husband. This tends to blur the lines between criminals and non-criminals, forcing readers to wonder about how far they would go when "making a statement" about social problems.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, it's interesting you should suggest that Brunetti would be boring without Paola. I wonder if Donna Leon, a non-native of Italy, feels more comfortable putting political opinion in the mouth of character who takes a less active role in the action than does the protagonist.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R/T, does that act by Paola presage a more active role, criminal or otherwise, for Paola?

December 08, 2010  
Blogger R/T said...

Peter, although I have read a number of Donna Leon's books, I do not hold myself out as much of an authority on her work; either my poor memory or the unmemorable books are to blame. As for Paola's future, who knows? It would be a mistake, though, for Leon to put too much limelight on Paola because her husband is the star of he show. With respect to the Italian crime novels, about which I know rather little, I prefer Camilleri (the real Italian/Sicilian) over Leon (the American). The characterization and the themes are more adroitly handled by Camilleri. However, in response to all the foregoing discussions about political attitudes in Camilleri and Leon, I defer to others whose reading must be more focused than mine. Of course, again, there is my swiss-cheese memory that is the limiting factor. Oh, to be young again and have a mind that actually remembers almost everything. Alas!

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sounds as if Leon makes interesting choices when she divides up attributes between Guido and Paola.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, did I ever tell you Hammett and I share a birthday?
(not the same year, of course!) :)

(and as we do with screen horror icons Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, so I'm not sure what conclusions one can draw from these factoids!)

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I share a birthday with no one of note, as far as I know. Your day, however, appears to have been a fine one for chroniclers and inhabitants of the dark side.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I'm sticking firmly in the chronicler side for the present!

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's better to be a connoisseur than a practitioner of the horrible. Safer, at any rate.

December 08, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

If my memory serves me correctly, Paola only acted in an allegedly illegal way in one book. The rest of the time it's her remarks that are cutting, not her actions.

I think Leon has Paola make the political and sarcastic remarks because Brunetti is an officer of the law and probably could not have such a radical viewpoint.

He does enforce the laws--even though he often questions them, and definitely questions the wealthy and privileged who are always the culprits in Leon's books.

Also, Paola espouses what Leon thinks. Paola is her mouthpiece.
Leon has inferred this.

Also, since Paola is a woman character, it make sense that Leon would do this.

And, I like Camilleri, too. I appreciate Leon and Camileri; they write differently, but I enjoy both writers, and their characters.

And, speaking of Italians crime fiction writers, I also like Gianrico Carofiglio's writing.
He also has a political point of view, a bit more subtle than Camilleri's, but present nevertheless.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had guessed that Paola might be Donna Leon's mouthpiece. This makes sense for the reason you suggest. Still, it's an interesting decision for an author to pick someone other than the protagonist as a mouthpiece. I wonder which other authors do this.

I should read some Carofiglio. With respect to the subtlety with which he expresses his views, I don't mind being hit over the head as long as the auhtor does so with style, as Camilleri does.

December 08, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, we agree that Camilleri hits readers over the head, but with style, often wit and definitely good writing--and, as espoused by Montalbano.

There is a scene in "The Shape of Water," where an officer is being dispatched to a railroad station where striking workers' spouses are lying down on the tracks in support of them.

Montalbano asks the other officer what he's going to do at the station, and tells him he should support the railroad workers.

He said it in one sentence with style, but also giving as much of an order as he could.

Anyway, my goal is to spread out reading Camilleri's books, so as to spread the wealth over a period of time.

December 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Which of the books have you read?

Camilleri is so popular in Italy that he must transcend political boundaries. He is, as a previous commenter said, deeply human. Salvo is a wonderful character.

A few books remain untranslated, and two or three have yet to be published even in Italian, so you may have some wealth yet to spread. And then there are the wonderful television series -- and the opportunity to reread the books.

December 09, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I absolutely prefer Camilleri over Leon. To my mind, Paola is a construct that caters to liberated females. There are far too many of these in recent mysteries. I tend to identify with Brunetti and feel sorry for the poor man. His character is that of the much put upon and patient husband. That works for me. She does not.

December 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

... Paola is a construct ...

As is every character, every sentiment and every sentence in fiction. But we want to be seduced into believing otherwise. And that's a windy way of saying that your point is well taken.

December 09, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Before Ms. Parker is pilloried by fellow women commenters for not espousing the appropriate female viewpoint... I'd like to join in and state that I agree with her comment 100%.

Of course, I realize this may make me an insensitive loutess, but Paola is an absolute bore. If we compare her and Salvo's Livia (since we are talking about Leon and Camilleri), well, perhaps sometimes it takes an observant male like Andrea Camilleri to create a realistic female character, warts and all. Any woman who has been with a man as long as Livia (and I, and Camilleri's Northern Italian wife have) just have to laugh and cry at the spot-on accuracies in the delineation of their relationship. This goes for Salvo's observations of Livia as well. It's certainly one of, if not my favorite, male/female relationships in all crime fiction. Paola is a cipher; Livia is a flesh-and-blood--and mind--woman.

December 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nobody capable of such an exquisite coinage as loutess will ever be considered insensitive here.

December 10, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

This is all a matter of taste.

We all like different books and characters, for varying reasons.

I like Paola Brunetti, and I'm sure Donna Leon is portraying her as she thinks she should be portrayed, and who represents Leon's viewpoints (sometimes).

I don't think she's all that liberated. She just has opinions and isn't afraid to say them, just like all of my women relatives, starting with the Eastern European immigrants and up to today, and my friends, including those who are long-time married.

Some of the friends love the Leon books and Brunetti characters. We quote Paola to each other, and Signorina Elettra.

That said, reading is fiction, and likes and dislikes are personal and subjective.

Everyone is entitled to their reading tastes, and thankfully, the publishing world is still producing enough variety of books that taste can be satisfied.

And no one has to read anything--unless for school or a job; otherwise, it's all optional.

December 12, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

In retrospect, I think my angry outburst was really more about my frustration with the fact that Donna Leon is far more popular and a bigger seller than Andrea Camilleri who is, by any measure, a far better writer. His understanding of the human condition and his own deep humanity are expressed in every Montalbano novel.

It isn't an issue of taste; heck, I like all kinds of junk food crime fiction, such as Michael Connelly's books, but I don't confuse his stuff with Raymond Chandler or even Ed McBain, or Andrea Camilleri's.

December 13, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So Italians have both better food and better taste.

December 13, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

If it helps anything here, I like both Donna Leon and Andre Camilleri.

I've read all of her books and await her new ones, which I share with one set of long-married friends.

However, once I started reading Camilleri's books and saw the sympathy that Montalbano has for working people and, as is raised here, for the human condition. Agreed.

A sentence he wrote in "August Heat," brought tears to my eyes.

I just read "The Shape of Water,"
and liked it.

And I plan to read all of Camilleri's books, but spread out, like good desserts, so I can savor them one at a time, like Sjowall/Wahloo's books, to have a long time of enjoyment.

I do find that Donna Leon addresses social issues and has compassion for many types of people, including immigrants, women, and many more.

But Camilleri puts it across in a more compassionate way.

But, yes, both series make me want to rush out to the nearest Italian cafe and have pasta or cafe and sfoglatella.

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Camilleri really is as special as Elisabeth says he is. Not all his books are as tightly plotted as they could be (I think August Heat is weaker than some of the others in this regard.) But this does not matter much stacked up against the humor, the sympathy, and the depth of understanding in the books.

As it happens, the fellow blogger through whom I started reading Camilleri also was a Donna Leon fan, though he hasn't mentioned her in a while. (He's the guy that I visited in England when I offered to verify his assertion that his wife could prepare fish as well as Paola Brunetti does.)

I like the way you compared Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri in the matter of compassion. It sounds as Donna Leon says the right things, but Camilleri makes you feel them. And this reminds me, of course, of the book in which Camilleri has Montalbano reading a novel by Simenon, whose Inspector Maigret is the archetype for compassionate fictional detectives.

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...Donna Leon says the right things, but Camilleri makes you feel them." Good observation, Peter. Leon is one of those writers who really ought to have a nonfiction sideline where she could vent her ideas straight out rather than having them filtered through a not-very-convincing mouthpiece.

This annoying tendency has reached its nadir in John Shannon's latest novel about oh-so-compassionate LA private eye (and don't you forget it!), Jack Liffey, On the Nickel, wherein each chapter ends with a "drawn from today's headlines" quote, a polemic from the author for whom it apparently isn't enough to write a novel about the despair, brutality, and shamefulness of life on Skid Row in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Nope, Shannon has to hit the reader (who probably is already at least somewhat in sympathy with the author's point of view, or s/he wouldn't be reading the novel in the first place) over the head with his "isn't it an outrage" end-of-chapter asides. Sheehsh! That these seem to be positioned more to bring fellow outraged readers together in a "right on, man!" chorus, rather than to bring the unconvinced into the fold is doubly irritating.

Camilleri is a harsh critic of the current Italian administration and has spoken out about everybody from Berlusconi, to the Minister of Education, and so on. But when he writes the Montalbano fiction he tempers this anger and blends it smoothly into the fabric of the story. I never feel I'm being told how to think or feel a certain way when reading Camilleri. A too-common feeling when reading a lot of today's crime fiction. His assumption that his writing alone will draw you in to seeing his point of view, take it or leave it, is far more persuasive.

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here's the beginning of the Thrilling Detective Web site's article on Jack Liffey:

"First Los Angeleno JACK LIFFEY lost his job as a technical writer. Then he lost his wife and, for a while, his daughter to divorce. Now all he has left is the unerring ability to track down missing children, which keeps him busy, and for the most part away from booze, drugs, Raymond Chandler novels and other dangerous addictions."

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

One thing that I do like about Donna Leon's books is that the culprits are always the highly connected and wealthy--in government, corporations, the church, the military, or rich lawyers, toxic polluters, etc.

And rarely does anyone get arrested or tried in front of a court. There isn't justice, but I think that reflects reality.

I've noticed in the two of Camilleri's that I've read that there is no justice (in a courtroom) at the end, but other events take place.

I want to see how Camilleri's suspects end up in the rest of his books, when I get to them.

Also, a friend of mine, who avidly reads Donna Leon's books, kept encouraging me to read Camilleri's.

When I told him of the Italian tv station which runs the Montalbano series, he got up at 5 a.m. for days until he'd watched each episode three times--in Italian!

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That friend of yours is obsessive, but he has good taste.

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

As I recall, there was one novel in which Liffey throws away all his Chandler novels.

In The Orange Curtain Liffey meets a 93-year-old Philip Marlowe in a very distasteful, mean-spirited passage.

I think Mr. Thrilling Detective is really off base when he says: "Shannon is simply one of the very best private eye writers out there these days, a sharp-eyed social critic whose fierce anger and passionate intelligence never stand in the way of his muscular storytelling and all-too-human characters...". This "sharp-eyed social critic's fierce anger and passionate intelligence" (does "passionate intelligence" make sense to you"?) CONSTANTLY gets in the way of his "muscular storytelling."

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure "muscular storytelling" makes much sense to me.

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

The friend who watched the Montalbano series in Italian, also likes Sciascia very much, and has recommended his writings often.

The quote which was posted on this site by him generated much discussion, a lot of it about the punctuation, or lack therein, but it caused an interesting back-and-forth, always good.

Yes, the quotes are good, agreed. Always generate interesting conversations.

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I figured that was the same Sciascia-loving friend you'd mentioned before. The odds are long against anyone having two friends who watch Montalbano with such determination.

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

And, of course, it goes without saying that the same friend likes the Pepe Carvalho books, which he reads in Spanish.

Tangentially, a mention that "Not a Perfect Crime," by Teresa Solana, which I learned about at Reactions to Reading, is a hilarious satire of Barcelona life--two brothers, pseudo detectives, wealthy people and a murder.

Hilarious.

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Then he must know that Camilleri's Montalbano is named in honor of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, who wrote the Pepe Carvalho books.

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, the Montalbano/Montalban fan does know this, of course.

December 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In one book, Camilleri has Montalbano reading a Vazquez Montalban novel, just as he has him reading Simenon in another book. The writers Camilleri chooses for Montalbano's reading are always intersting for what they say about Camilleri's own thinking.

December 14, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Great! Will have to catch up with all of Montalbano's adventures to find out all of this, but over time so I have some books to savor in the future, as I have said, like good desserts.

I'm sure I'll enjoy reading about Montalban's reading choices, i.e., Camilleri's.

(The same friend who likes Leon, Camilleri, Montalban, also has read all of Simenon and encourages reading his books, but the TBR list is already gargantuan...someday, though)

December 14, 2010  

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