Pico Iyer Journeys

Chandler's Women

Chandler prided himself on being, as he said, the “first to write about Southern California in a realistic way,” going on to note that “to write about a place you have to love it or hate it or do both by turns, which is usually the way you love a woman.” Yet in truth the year that saw the publication of his first novel, The Big Sleep–1939–also saw the appearance of two other Los Angeles classics, The Day of the Locust, by Nathaniel West, and Ask the Dust, by John Fante. After he got fired from an oil company when he was 44, for general delinquency, Chandler set about dusting off the literary ambitions he’d begun to cultivate as a young man. But his plan, as Freeman notes, was to do well enough in his genre exercises to put mystery writing behind him and move back to England.

In reality, however, he and Cissy stayed in their odd isolation, and in California, with Chandler growing more and more protective and exasperated as his wife grew older and more infirm (he claimed to have hired more than 70 cooks, secretaries and housekeepers after they moved to La Jolla, near San Diego). The most passionate and heart-rending of his books, The Long Goodbye, is ostensibly about Marlowe’s devotion to a friend, Terry Lennox, who seems, with his perfect manners, his public-school education and his war-hero past to be the very embodiment of boys’ school romance (though at the very end he comes back disfigured, and living under a Spanish alias, and we see he’s been a con man all along). Yet it’s not hard to see the title applying to the plight of a much too caring and wayward husband trying ineffectually to look after an octogenarian woman dying by “half inches” of fibrosis of the lungs.

When finally Cissy did expire, in 1954, it was Chandler, gallant to the end, who apparently put down her age on her death certificate at 68 (she was 84), and, under “usual occupation,” wrote “At home.” True to his creed–”She was the beat of my heart for thirty years,” he would say, and “She was the music heard faintly at the edge of sound”–he all but collapsed in her absence. He wrote no more substantial books after her death–only the throwaway novel Playback–and he sank back into alcoholism and half-hearted attempts at suicide. When finally he did return to London, he fell clumsily and dutifully in love with almost every woman who tried to look after him, and got thrown out of the Connaught for drinking, and then out of the Ritz.

Yet in the midst of all that, there remains, perhaps, a shadow of a more interesting story. It was at the end of his life, after all, that Chandler said, “I seem to be the sort of idiot who will sacrifice himself for anyone in trouble, especially a woman,” and perhaps he felt that a part of this misbegotten chivalry was channeled towards his wife (whose real age, Freeman suggests, he might never really have known). Freeman sees Philip Marlowe, the ill-paid, solitary idealist named after Marlowe House at Dulwich, as Chandler’s angry rebuke of his own failure to remain faithful to his code (and his wife), and sees Cissy as the muse who inspired the women in his books. But it seems just as likely that Marlowe was the way Chandler got out of the house, and deeper into himself, escaping into an alternative life where the chivalrous impulse was still strong, but the temptations to stray from it were deliciously potent. And it’s possible, too, to see Cissy as being as much the victim as the cause of Chandler’s habit of idealizing women without thinking through to the consequences of ideals sure not to stand the test of time. After her death, he even, in an odd moment of poetic justice, proposed to Graham Greene’s former sister-in-law, Helga Greene, who was not just his literary agent, but one of the many women in London to mother and look out for him.

The Long Embrace is a book that owes its power less to its depiction of its subjects than to its hauntedness. Freeman does not try to explain Chandler so much as to enter him, via the imagination, and instead of answering most of the questions she raises (why, for example, having kept Cissy’s letters in a package tied with green ribbon and talked of publishing them, did he suddenly have them burned?), she takes us on long, moody trips around L.A. in which we seem to see his ghost around every corner. People look out at her from behind half-closed curtains, or sit at the wheels of stationary cars, staring out into the distance. She visits a hotel where Chandler had threatened to throw himself out of a window and is greeted by “an elderly maitre d’ with a rather bad comb-over and a courtly old world manner. The room was nearly empty.”

It’s an unorthodox way of conducting a book, but after a while it gets into one’s dreams. She reads Chandler books in the rain–it is nearly always rainy or foggy in her L.A.–and reports on how the cops in her own neighborhood have been found guilty of murder and extortion, planting evidence on gang members and stealing from old ladies and young girls. She takes buses out to old Chandler haunts that have long since been abandoned or torn down, and reflects on the air of loneliness and displacement that haunts the unhistoried city to this day. In some ways, The Long Embrace (and the title could apply to her fascination with the Chandlers as much as to their clinging to one another) is a restless hallucination of a book about a woman going out in search of a riddle that she knows she will never resolve–and perhaps does not want to resolve or bring to an end. Chandler has gotten so deeply into her bloodstream and into the city that she sees his traces everywhere, the sun “like a pale yellow lightbulb shining through the steam of a shower.” Heading off on melancholy expeditions around a city of ruins and wandering exiles, and punctuating her text with small, uncaptioned black-and-white photographs, she creates a tone-poem as evocative in its way of L.A. as W.G. Sebald’s ramblings among graves and old books were suggestive of a private, funereal England in his Rings of Saturn.

What emerges from her book is a feeling that Chandler got L.A. partly by always remaining at an ideal distance from it, even intensifying his Englishness as the years went on, perhaps to keep the sense of difference alive. He never took the easy satiric stance on it that ensnared Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley; and he never began to settle down in it or exult in its sunshine or its surfaces as those later, very English exiles, Christopher Isherwood and David Hockney, did. Rather, he made it the foil for his particular brand of moral disenchantment. “I like people with manners, grace, some social intuition,” (footnote 1) he wrote, fed-up of California. “I like a conservative atmosphere, a sense of the past; I like everything Americans of past generations used to go and look for in Europe, but at the same time I don’t want to be bound by the rules.”

The setting wasn’t as important, really, as the stance (in his story “English Summer,” buried in his notebooks and never published, it’s an Englishwoman who is the “man-eater” and a visiting American who is honest and protective but, as Chandler noted, it, like all he wrote, is the story of “the decay of the refined character” and the death of too innocent dreams). And in that stance, Cissy, affecting an upper-class accent and playing Chopin on the piano, was his perfect accomplice, coming with him to a dude ranch outside Santa Barbara, for example, where he spent the week not riding horses, but reading the Hornblower stories of the old Dulwich boy C.S. Forester. Had he remained in Britain, it seems safe to say, he would have been reading tales of American promise.

When Somerset Maugham met the aging couple (the author of Of Human Bondage was, not surprisingly, a great admirer–and Chandler once wrote to his publisher that the one book he would like an inscribed first copy of was Marlowe’s ground-breaking spy novel, Ashenden), he noted, as many did, that Cissy seemed a figure out of Gatsby, with her bleached blonde hair and “rather frivolous gown.” Chandler he took to be ten years younger than he really was, a “most distinguished person, indeed, who could have been either an Oxford professor or a poet, certainly more British than American.” Yet Chandler chose to keep himself for almost fifty years in a place where Oxford dons and writers of sonnets would seem as quaint and beside the point as thank-you notes in the middle of “sex-hungry” vixens and under-the-table deals. That is the power of the work: to give us the sound of an almost vanished code of high, heroic ethics even as the young hoods are revving up their Porsches along the Hollywood Freeway.

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