Saturday, April 04, 2015

Noir, while you stand on one foot

I've found the quintessential noir sentence. It's from Gil Brewer's 1960 novel, The Three-Way Split, and it goes like this:
"For the first time, I felt a sense of real fear."
The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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15 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

Hmm. I would have thought it would be something more like We are all in the gutter and though some of are looking at the stars, I for one find them irrelevant to our situation.

April 04, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I planned this as a much larger post. That post would have laid out the proposition that most crime writers have never killed, beaten, robbed, or blackmailed anybody, or been victims of such crimes. I would further have suggested that noir writers in the 1950s came closer than authors before or since to imagining themselves (and, by proxy, their readers) into these previously unimaginable situations.

That's a pretty chilling proposition, and Brewer's sentence sums it up nicely.

April 04, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

I don't know. Hugo and Dumas wrote some pretty strong examples of protagonists under such duress.

As for Americans, possibly the writers of westerns?

April 04, 2015  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

Hmm. I have always thought of noir as having some equivalence to "the consequences of sin." That "this" lead to "that." There's always been a hint of righteousness / religion behind the causes & effects of noir. Your sentence is dead-on for the last half of the equation. It's the absence of the first half, the "cause" that produces the "effect." Why is the gun aimed at me? Why is the noose waiting for me? Why is the snake ready to strike at the soft part of my throat? Because an innocent bystander could say those words. Without the context, how we will know his/her inner guilt? Without knowing what comes before, how do we know he deserves it?

April 05, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: I suppose Jean Valjean might be a bit like a noir protagonist, though I think I've more often seen Zola cited as a kind of French distant ancestor of noir, especially for Nana. But I don't think the reader is ever made to feel as if he or she is one the way down, the way noir readers are and the way Gil Brewer so explicitly wants his readers to feel.

April 05, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fed, to the extent I have thought of such things, I think of noir as taking "Sola fide" one step further. Good works don't matter, but faith doesn't matter either. In noir, the protagonist starts in a bad place, and goes downhill from there.

April 05, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

That's a good distinction. It's all downhill from here would be a good credo for noir.

April 05, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, this is where history and reception theory come in. Who were Hugo's (and Zola's and Dumas') audiences? What did they expect from their reading? Were they and their favorite authors capable of that sort of existential, inevitable sense of doom that most people would agree is the essence of noir? Were they expected to identify with the protagonists? Feel pity for them?

April 05, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, good point. I have no idea. But it does make me wonder about why noir cropped up when it did. the possibility of the noir viewpoint has been with us most of historic time. So why did this period come that seized upon the sense of doom as essential?

April 06, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that is the stuff of countless university courses. Though Allan Guthrie's "200 Noirs" list includes books from as far back as 1929, I think, the term came into use in the 1940s. That suggests the predicament of American men returning from the way to a world unfamiliar to them as a possible contributing cause. I don't suppose the possibility of nuclear holocaust made matters any more cheerful.

But Hammett wrote stories with existential elements, such as the much and perhaps overly praise "Flitcraft Parable" in "The Maltese Falcon."

The answers I can guess at are embarrassingly obvious" World War I, World War II, the realization that westward that westward expansion had ended in a morass of corruption.

April 06, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm sure war on an industrial scale has something to do with noir. Celine's "Journey to the End of the Night" will occasionally be cited as a noir or pro to-noir novel, and that emerged from World War II.

I and others have fun finding noir elements in non- and pre-noir writing (though I'm not sure much comes close except for "The Book of Job," and maybe "Hamlet" and "Macbeth."), but you asked the better question: Why does noir come to the fore in this period. as a genre of its own, written by authors who specialized in it, but also by other who did not.

April 06, 2015  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, and why did they find audiences that had a taste for it? Even though people still read Hammett and Chandler, I think nostalgia is a factor in the appeal of it. I don't know that contemporary noir has quite the social currency.

April 06, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can think of one author who writes noir or something close to it whose work has social currency: Alan Glynn, whose work I cannot recommend highly enough.

April 06, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The comic (graphic novel) "Sca;[ed" would also fit the bill. Among other things, it has several notable affinities with Westerns, which you mentioned in a previous comment.

April 06, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Make that Scalped.

April 06, 2015  

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