Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Reading group: the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

We held our last meeting in the run-up to the play, but I don't think it was just the play which prevented me from finishing the book beforehand - Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon, chosen by Mark - for I had started in plenty of time, beginning in tandem with Jenny, on our weekend to Paris in June.

Now let me put my cards on the table here. I am not exactly a fan of crime-fiction, but I do remember once reading Raymond Chandler and being pretty impressed by the ethos he conjured, and since Orion provide quotes on the cover of their current paperback edition testifying to this book's 'masterwork' status, I was prepared to be won over.

We began in the Paris apartment, me on the sofa with my copy and Jenny on the sofa-bed with hers. I read the first sentence. Sam Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. Flexible v? I tried to imagine it. And who is this Sam Spade, by the way? (I haven't seen the film.) I read the next. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. Eh? Two nostrils making one v? Didn't he mean two vs? Or does he mean the point the nostrils make when they come together at the end of the nose - in which case why didn't he just say he had a pointed nose? And the next: The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows (brows - rather than a writer or an interior designer -picking up a motif ?) rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down from high flat temples - in a point on his forehead. High yet flat? And doesn't a widow's peak usually reveal enough of the head to give the forehead a rounded impression? And if it's a widows' peak, how can the hair be growing down? But maybe I've got it all wrong, because the temples are the sides of the forehead, aren't they, and that must be why he says they're flat... But then how is the hair growing down from them into a point on the forehead? Good god, I'm thinking, my mind going fuzzy with all this complicated facial geography and all the points and vs and feeling I could be missing some of them in the picture I'm piecing together, which bears a disconcertingly (or laughably) cartoonish resemblance to Captain Hook in Walt Disney's Peter Pan, and not least because I still have no real clue as to who Sam Spade is. But then the final sentence shattered the image: He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan. What? How pleasantly? To whom? To the author? To another character in the room? And what is this rather? And can I picture it anyway?

Then before I can find out any more about Spade, we get another disconcerting description:

He said to Effie Perine: 'Yes, sweetheart?' (Who Effie Perrine? and where is all this taking place?)/She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with the effect of dampness. Eh? What? Is this 'dampness' symbolic somehow, some thematic hint? It's somehow self-conscious enough to make you entertain the possibility, but we know so little yet about this situation and these people it's hard to grasp the nature of the hint. Or is it simply a fancy way of trying to cover up a cliche, ie 'her dress clung to her'?

You read on, and you know from the imprecision, the clunkiness and the repetition that it's the latter. 'Hey, listen to this,' I said to Jenny: 'His eyes slid from side to side between his lids. Where else would they slide?' Jenny giggled. 'Yes, I'm not finding it very gripping,' she agreed. 'I can't get my head round this,' I said as we sat in Paris airport waiting to go home: 'Spade's elbow dropped as Spade spun round to the right ... Spade's elbow went on past the astonished dark face and straightened when Spade's hand struck down at the pistol. ... His right shoulder raised a few inches. His bent right arm was driven up by the shoulder's lift. Fist, wrist, forearm, crooked elbow, and upper arm seemed all one rigid piece, with only the limber shoulder giving them motion.' The thing that Jenny's shoulders were doing was going up and down. 'I'm still trying to picure him "grinning wolfishly" all the time,' she spluttered.

Well, I'm sorry, folks, but this is a writer struggling with prose. 'You're nit-picking,' Trevor said at the meeting, and Mark, amazed that we hadn't thought the book remarkable, strongly agreed. What about the great plot, Trevor said, and I could hardly comment on it if I hadn't finished the book. I said but plot doesn't interest me in itself, and especially not a simplistic plot about recovering some old antique. Mark expostulated, But the book's not about that really, it's about Sam Spade, about the fact that he becomes humanized, which I would know if I'd read to the end. It's said to be the most complicated and clever plot in fiction, and (John said) one which people are meant to have difficulty grasping. For a start, if I'd read to the end I'd know that Spade and the femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy had been double-crossing one another. I said that I would hardly call that a recommendation, a book based on plot in which the plot can't be grasped, but actually I'd known from very near the beginning what the two were up to. Mark, backed by Doug, said that that was only because the template which Hammett set with this novel has now become familiar. I stuck to my guns. I said to agreement from John that early on it's more or less stated that this is what the characters are doing, and if readers don't pick it up it's because of the fuzziness of the prose rather than any cleverness on the part of the author. In any case, I said, I'm not interested in Sam Spade, he never comes alive for me, he's described in entirely (mechanistic) physical terms, and we are never party to his feelings. For me there's a big problem with viewpoint. Somebody asked suspiciously, What's viewpoint? and I explained, not without the feeling of being thought writerly and precious: We don't share Sam Spade's viewpoint but there's no authorial viewpoint to compensate and fill in for us; the authorial eye is unknowing about Sam Spade, so there's no psychological depth. But they had already stopped listening and were discussing opening another bottle of wine, though Mark said, But that's the point - it underlines the fact that Sam Spade keeps himself close and needs to be humanized.

I said, Well, I'm sorry, but a writer needs to write better than this to convince me that this is a conscious or worthwhile strategy or to engage me at all. Mark said, exasperated, How can you say these things, when this book is held up as the greatest crime novel ever? I said, I thought you were the one that saw through hype! Mark said, But this isn't hype, this novel had stood the test of time and sold in the millions! I said, Well so has Catherine Cookson, and Harry Potter which you despise - sales don't mean great writing. Then people said, Well, no one has claimed this book is literary, it's a genre novel, it doesn't have to have great prose, and I said, Well, yes, that's why I don't go for genre fiction as a rule.

John said, 'The trouble is, most people don't care about things like that when they read a novel - language and viewpoint etc' and everyone agreed, somewhat self-righteously I thought, at which I felt like crawling away and giving up on writing and said so to no sympathy.

Then Trevor said, 'Well, the thing that really upsets us is that you laughed at it,' and I'm sorry, but I laughed again.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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