Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Notebooks Of Raymond Chandler - Frank McShane [ed]

This is a slim volume containing bits and pieces salvaged from Chandler’s few surviving notebooks plus a short story. The bits and pieces are largely brief notes on ideas for stories, a list of possible titles (some of which hint at other directions Chandler may have taken as a writer), and extracts from other writers whose thoughts had clearly struck a chord.

As a writer myself, I find this kind of thing fascinating, especially as there is virtually no editorial comment, no attempt to interpret. Indeed, the few editorial notes there are simply elucidate some of the more obscure aspects of what is presented. What we have is a glimpse into the mind of an artist. Because make no mistake, Chandler was a first class artist. His devotion to both the art and the science of writing is evident here. He worked hard to produce short stories and novels that look simple.

Also evident is Chandler’s sense of humour. This is not, perhaps, the first thing you think of when considering his work, but he does have a keen eye for the absurd and his work is leavened with wit and humour (albeit dark). There are also glimpses of Chandler’s social conscience. It is never made explicit; Chandler is too good a writer for that. But it is clear that he understands what poverty does to people (and not just from first hand experience).

Of greatest interest to me were the snippets where Chandler muses directly about writing. This is not only of interest in terms of his craft: he has carefully copied the thoughts of others on writing and the composition of novels; but also of his own approach: not content with copying these pieces, he analyses them and comments on them. It also further illuminates his humour and wry disposition. Having copied notes on how to write a novel, he adds, ‘The above is all bunk…’

The essay ‘A Qualified Farewell’ is about the time he spent working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Typically, it is not about the place or the personalities (although a few do get a mention). It is about the way that Hollywood treats writers. The way it treated them then and, sadly, the way it still treats them. Except things are now worse. And again, typically, it is not a whinge about money. It is about how the system in Hollywood crushes the creativity out of writers; about how everyone is considered an expert on scriptwriting except the writer. It was not a happy time for Chandler, yet even in this short and sometimes bitter essay, he uses the experience and description of the negative to suggest a way or ways in which there might be a positive. It is clear from the level of production (and the experiences of other writers since) that Hollywood has yet to find a positive approach to writers and writing.

All in all this is probably a book for Chandler aficionados (which I am) and anyone interested in the craft of writing (which I am). Indeed, if you are interested in writing, this book is worth more than many of the ‘how to’ books on the market.