Saturday Jul. 23, 2016

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Elegy

Poets can’t wait to bury their fathers
so they can write about it.

Mine wanted no part of that.
“I’ll bury myself, thank you.”

I thought he meant later,
but that afternoon he left
a note: I’m dead.

I dialed his cell. The reception
was bad at that speed but he
heard me ask,

“What am I supposed to tell Mom?”

“You’re the writer,” he replied.
“Make something up.”

“Elegy” by Ron Koertge from Vampire Planet. © Red Hen Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of mystery writer Raymond Chandler (1888) (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, before his Irish mother took him to England so he could get a proper education. Chandler’s novels explored the tough, lawless, and luxurious side of Los Angeles through the sharp narration of his most famous creation, wisecracking, chess-playing private eye Philip Marlowe, who made his debut in Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep (1939).

He was educated at preparatory school in England and studied international law in Germany and France before moving back to Britain. He mostly wrote poetry, managing to publish 27 poems and short story called “The Rose-Leaf Romance” before moving to Los Angeles (1912), where he found work as a tennis racket stringer and a bookkeeper at a creamery. Chandler enlisted in the Canadian air force and spent time on the front lines in France during World War I. When he returned to L.A., he took a well-paying job in the oil industry, but drank too much and had affairs with the office secretaries, so he was fired after a year.

Running low on money, he began reading pulp mystery magazines and studying the formula for stories. He said Americans were “a big, rough, rich, wild people, and crime is the price we pay for it.” He liked the lack of pretension in the pulps and the tight restrictions on word length and subject matter suited his style. He published his first mystery story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” in Black Mask magazine in 1933. It was popular, and he began churning out more stories.

It took him three months to write his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), which was made into a film, with William Faulkner writing the screenplay and Humphrey Bogart cast as Philip Marlowe (1946). When asked about the character of Philip Marlowe, he said: “He must be the best man in his world and good enough for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.”

Chandler’s second novel was Farewell, My Lovely (1940). His clipped British upbringing mixed with American vernacular proved popular with readers, who ate up lines like “He had a heart as big as one of Mae West’s hips” and “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” Poet W.H. Auden and novelist Evelyn Waugh were big fans, but critics found his work somewhat distasteful. A reviewer from the Washington Post called his books “rambling at best and incoherent at worst,” and others cited the “moral depravity” of a fictional L.A. filled with crime, prostitutes, cheating spouses, and murder.

Raymond Chandler wrote eight novels, including The Little Sister (1949) and The Long Goodbye (1953) before he died in 1959. All of his novels except for one have been made into films. Philip Marlowe has been portrayed onscreen by James Garner, Danny Glover, Powers Boothe, and Dick Powell.

Chandler was nearly penniless when he died. He’d returned to drinking after the long illness and death of his second wife, Cissy. He wrote The Long Goodbye while she was dying and many consider this his masterpiece, due to its blend of hard-boiled cynicism and lyrical sentiment.

Chandler worked hard to improve his writing style as he aged, but he couldn’t catch a break from the critics, saying, “The thing that rather gets me down is that when I write something that is tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, I get panned for being tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, and then when I try to tone down a bit and develop the mental and emotional side of a situation, I get panned for leaving out what I was panned for putting in the first time.”

He and Cissy are interred side by side. Their shared gravestone reads, “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts,” a quote from The Big Sleep.

On this day in 1929, the Fascist government in Italy banned the use of foreign words. Regional dialects were still so prevalent when Mussolini came into power in 1922 that no more than 12 percent of the population of the unified state spoke straightforward Italian. The regime wanted to promote unity and a strong national identity, so anything that was seen to undermine these things was a cause for concern. French and English words and phrases were particularly popular; where possible, the government required the use of the Italian equivalent, and if one didn’t exist, they made the foreign word as Italian as possible. Wine from Bordeaux became known as Barolo; a movie, formerly known as “il film,” was now called “la pellicola.”

Today is the birthday of Indian author Vikram Chandra (1961) (books by this author). He was born in New Delhi; his father is a retired executive, and his mother is a screenwriter and playwright. Chandra remembers her saying to her children many times, “The only reason I can do my writing is because your father supports me.” She wanted her children to have more lucrative — or at least, more stable — careers. Chandra said: “And so for us that was a huge question: how are you going to live? In India you could literally starve as an artist.”

By the time he was about 12, Chandra was a fan of Isaac Asimov, and filled notebooks with his own science fiction stories. Soon he discovered Fitzgerald and Hemingway. “Reading The Great Gatsby at age 15 in India, I knew nothing — I had no context for it, social or symbolic — and it still blew me away, it was so beautiful.” He got the idea that he wanted to move to the United States and study creative writing. Though his parents’ friends thought they were crazy, they agreed to come up with the money to send him to California, and he got a degree in English from Pomona College.

His first manuscript, which eventually became the novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), wasn’t popular with his fellow graduate writing students at the University of Houston. “It was 1987 when all the minimalist stuff was in vogue, and suddenly here I am with all these Indian gods making pronouncements,” he told the UC Berkeley News. “They’d say, ‘This is melodrama,’ and I would answer, ‘I know, but I like melodrama; we Indians do melodrama.’” The novel was followed by a collection of short stories: Love and Longing in Bombay (1997). His latest novel is 2006’s Sacred Games. He wrote his first nonfiction book, Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software, in 2014 — about the surprising connection of writing fiction and writing code as a computer programmer. He’s been compared to Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, and Raymond Chandler.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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