sábado, março 28, 1981

Narrative Voices: "The Rhetoric of Fiction" by Wayne C. Booth



(Original Review, 1981-03-28)



When Booth came up with the idea of the "unreliable narrator," he wasn't speaking to writers; he was reminding critics and teachers and readers in general of something every decent writer of fiction has always known: that a narrator is a voice, and a voice is a character, and is still a character - a created fictional person - whether it has a name or is just an apparently omniscient intermediary. The idea that this particular character must for some reason be an honest (much less an accurate) portrait of the author himself is just silly, but it's a silliness that a great many critics once allowed themselves to fall into. If Hammett's voice in Falcon is anything, it's purposeful and controlled, and he had to have worked very hard on it. The idea that that voice must also be Hammett or Heinlein themselves... well, I don't think fatuous is too strong a word. We have had very little of that kind of fatuous talk around here (thank goodness), but at times we – me, as much as anyone – have gone off in the opposite direction and assumed that because we can find something in Falcon Hammett or in Strange  Heinlein, must have meant for it to matter more than the story itself. In other words, I know there’s a line but I don’t know exactly where to draw it - and I suppose that all I want from you is a reassurance that you agree that that line is lurking somewhere quite close by.

This is one of the books that made me appreciate Robert A. Heinlein even more. [2018 EDIT: And K. J. Parker in this day and age; if you want to know what it means to write sucessful "unreliable narrators" look no further.]

(By the way, the idea that there are male equivalents to femmes fatales is strangely familiar to me...)

quarta-feira, março 25, 1981

Homme Fatal: "The Romantic Agony" by Mario Praz, A. Davidson (Trans.)





(Original Review, 1981-03-25)



Speaking of the femme fatale or fatale woman, she is hardly an invention of noir however automatically we identify the two. So much has focused on who and what Sam is, and what he is like, that Brigid's literary identity as opposed to her character and role in the plot get a little lost, which is exacerbated by our tendency to think of the archetype as inextricably identified with film noir. Brigid is an iconic femme fatale but the femme fatale is an ancient literary archetype, at least as old as Aeschylus' Prometheus is, for example Sophocles' Sphinx or Medusa.

Some more reading on Byronic Heroes brought up one influential study in Mario Praz's “The Romantic Agony”(1933). Praz is interested in the erotics of the Hero and discusses him as a 'cruel and fatal lover'.

Brigid and Sam are 'fatal lovers'. A clash of two archetypal characters. I will repeat what I said above. Hammett as reader and then writer did not have to have these kinds of characters explained to him. In his writer's mind they would exist as the very stuff of Literature distilled from reading Literature, but not necessarily exist as labels such as Byronic Hero, femme fatale or vamp, and yet he did label Satan. It may be hard to think of a mystery writer sitting down with such ideas, turning out something like a 'mystery' (medieval) as well as a mystery (modern), but I think it is well worth considering that he did. His femme fatale IS archetypal, can anyone deny it? She is The Belle Dame Sans Merci, Delilah, Lilith, the Sphinx, Morgan La Fey, Brigid O'Shaugnessy, Phylis Dietrichson, and many more. Dashiell Hammett did not invent the femme fatale, nor was his the last of them. Why should he not have made an homme fatal, a 'cruel and fatal lover' for her, and for his novel? In fact he certainly did. Although I would not say that the relationship makes a unidimensional cruel and fatal lover story because of what Brigid herself is, and also for the strong, ethical man Sam is, which is what saves him and damns her to what she deserves.

It is sexistly patriarchal though, harking ultimately back to the incredible bum rap that Eve got, and even her predecessor, Lilith, in Genesis. 1928 was still VERY much a man's world.

NB: Sorry dear editors and Author of this book. I don't speak French...

segunda-feira, março 23, 1981

Mise en Abyme: "The Double" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky




(Original Review, 1981-03-23)



About how to interpret or read a text. And I am going to use 'he' as my generic pronoun because Hammett was a he.

One perfectly valid way is indeed to try to stick as closely as possible to exactly what is in the text and maybe some biographic info, at least a rough knowledge of the time and space of the action, and whatever is known of the author's intentions. In some measure we MUST do tha

For the writers intentions there is a theory of the intentional fallacy: the text says what it says not what the author says it says. For example an author may think he is writing a strong female character when writing about Stella, stunningly beautiful, highly competent executive assistant to self-made billionaire Brad. In fact Stella is a male fantasy. Even the best writers can 'mean' the unintended. For example in Milton's Paradise Lost, Milton unintentionally made Satan into quite a compelling, sublimely majestic figure who made God look like a mean spirited despot. And indeed Milton's Satan evolved into a positive, if flawed, hero type, although subsequent writers were often more comfortable with the figure of Prometheus whose story in Aeschylus' Prometheus Unbound is less tainted by associations with the negativity of Satan's Christian Antichrist image.

Writers have lived biographies, lived through their specific times. Just like non-writers. But writers ARE writers. Literature is a vast and mighty river of the expression of being human. No writer of any worth, however innovative or creative, just creates a brand new world of Literature. What a writer reads is to a writer very similar in concept to the very times he lives through. He is living through the Literature he has read just as he has lived through the times. Of course real life may be more powerfully impressed on him such as the death of a loved one, or fighting in a war. But his reading is an important part of his life experience of his very being in the world.

So if Hammet created a character which reminds one of a series of other characters going back centuries it is perfectly legitimate to discuss it in terms of Literature just as it would be to discuss the political environment of the times. Literature is fundamentally intertextual. Texts refer as much to each other as to the world. Positively and negatively. Literature is the very psychic life blood of a writer. It is an indelible inextricable part of his biography.

Hammett I take to have a brilliant literary mind and to be well read in Literature. I take him to be able to know what a Byronic Hero is, what others thought about that, to have his own thoughts about it, as well as lots of other things (like about detective stories), of course. And I take him to have an idea of what a parable is and how it differs from a story, or what an archetype or double is. Take the 'double': all he has to do is READ Poe's William Wilson, or Dostoevsky’s “The Double” to get what it is as Literature. Or to read Hamlet to know how a “mise en abyme” works. He knows these things and uses them WITH THE MIND OF A BRILLIANT WRITER. A mind that processes literature not as a critic or simple reader, but as a creator of it.

So if he fails to say IN the text, "Sam Spade, flawed Byronic Hero, was sitting in his office", that does not mean that Sam Spade is not a Byronic Hero type. If he creates a parable or “mise en abyme” he need not tell us that is what he is doing, nor is it particularly virtuous of us to ignore it because it isn't explicit, to ignore that he is a writer and that is the kind of thing writers do.

Is Sam Spade such a figure? Maybe, maybe not. But we can look at his character and compare it to others in Literature. But just because DH doesn't say so, doesn't mean we are reading into it what is not there. Yes it is implicit, but that is about the only way it could be there. Byron too did not say: "Manfred, a Promethean archetype, was brooding on a dark and lonely crag." You have to read it INTO the text yourself. Maybe I am wrong to think DH could have written deeply conflicting archetypal characters like Brigid and Sam who are yet deeply attracted. But I think it is both possible and likely. But it is ONLY interpretation. He didn't SAY, "Into the office strolled Sam's counter archetype, Brigid".

It can sound like a stretch but great literature does that all the time. What you have to do is see if there are clues in the text. Because DH DID say Sam looked like a Satan. He did create a strange and powerful emotional entanglement between Brigid and Sam and she is a corrupt devil type (Christian) and he a Satanic man of his own will (Miltonian). And so on. Did he? Maybe it isn't as impressive as I think it is, but that IS the kind of things great writers do, so why not Hammett? But I think the Sam Brigid 'love' story is sublimely brilliantly conceived and written, BECAUSE of that. Does it HAVE to just be an extremely well written noir detective novel? Not for me.

At this time, you’re thinking: “Is this a review about The Double” or about “The Maltese Falcon” or "Paradise Lost"? Ah. That’s always the conundrum… If you’ve been following my reviews, you know I don’t write straightforward stuff. It’s all about Intertextuality and Close Reading for me. Coming back to “The Double” and trying to be more incisive, I really loved it, especially from the point where the doppelganger actually arrives and in the rather brilliant ending. I think that it has a problem though, which is that it's not at all what you might think before you go in, so people might go in thinking it's going to be a straightforward laugh-out-loud comedy and it really isn't and is very unsettling and complex. I would have given it 4 stars, but slightly better than “Under the Skin” for me (controversial) (I was worried at first that it was going to be a bit too "Brazil", but it just nodded and then moved on.)

sexta-feira, março 20, 1981

Intertextuality: "The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes" by Peter Thorslev





(Original review, 1981-03-20)



I have to admit that sometimes I use words rather loosely. For me it is ok to call something surreal even if it does not really refer back to the principles and ideas of surrealism. Likewise 'close reading' which I probably do not really do. But the more you pay attention to a text, in my view, and if it merits, in your own view, that attention, the more intensely you are to appreciate it, and still enjoy it too. I am rather old and over on the NYT Book Review I get frustrated and daunted at all those recommendations of what sounds like great books, but I know I literally don't have enough lifetime to read so many, and that for me there is a great deal to be said about lingering over single books and trying to think more about them as Literature than just popping another book into the hopper. As I said earlier in the comments, for me, often the book or author seem to choose me rather than me the book. It's not really close reading per se and involves me often in reading articles or even books, like the one I am reading now “Byronic Heroes: Types and Prototypes”. And also discussing things over on another review. I didn't really have a structural concept of Dark Heroes involving Satan and Will until someone forced me to try to organize it in my own mind, and again when someone said something, than the idea hit me like a falling beam. I am trying to rally myself to write about why I think it is right to read intertextually if not deconstructively (another word that I use very loosely). For me if you get a good idea, it's worth trying to track and pin it down, even if it turns out not such a great idea.

During many years I used to read Art Forum, and I realized that if the works of artists, great and small, REALLY was having the effect on viewers, or one me in particular, then we and they would be transcended human beings with vast cognitive and perceptual capacities, yet we clearly don't. That 'the implicate resonance of Dodo's brush marks sequentially harmonized with the viewer's eye movements across the intervening dimensional space of Dodo's virtually empty canvas ....' didn't mean anything but that people had trained themselves to write like that for page after page. I have no doubt that for the most part if someone had mixed up the articles no one would ever have known. But I did learn a lot about abstract and modern art and learned to, I hope, at least partially to filter out the meaningless bullshit and keep some of the illuminating (usually not using Art Forum as a source) and do it with an open mind. For example, reading Mondrian's own writings was hard, but worth it.

Anyway you won't lose anything reading Empson.

quarta-feira, março 18, 1981

Folksy Ways: "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain


(Original Review, 1981-03-18)



I guess “Ulysses” pushes the envelope of “Literature was made for man, not man for literature” but I like to give the benefit of the doubt to books especially if not only do they have a sustained critical reputation, but if people whose opinions I respect think the book is great stuff. When I was venting some of my frustration about “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake” to a well-read musician friend, she just gently suggested that if I let myself listen to the music of the language it might change my perception. When it comes to ”Finnegans Wake” I couldn’t do it…I’m still deaf.

I guess Huck is a little trying as a voice, especially in the beginning, but I think it is one of the greatest books ever written, or I ever read. Tom Sawyer is OK, but HF is brilliant. In the most direct way possible Huck learns about the absolute humanity of Jim but also Huck feels guilty because Jim is property and in the South, being property trumped being human. In its quiet, folksy way it presents us with something intensely evil face to face with something just as intensely familiar and homey. All those people, many of them, are such fine nice people so vividly portrayed as such, except that the vilest evil that they live with every day, and have created and sustain, is totally invisible to them. As a really human document, a damning one, it has never been done so well and so quietly. Freud drew attention to the uncanny in his short but influential essay, as having just that quality of being so homey and yet being alien, so human but so inhuman.

Not totally sure about the ending though; it was contrived in a way, BUT I was very impressed by the late chapter scene where the doctor, clearly a good and fine man, will not go seek help for a sick child because he was afraid that Jim might run off. Again that MONSTRUOUS blindness vs the child. And the scene where the men, the good folks of the town, were talking about what to do with Jim, some wanting to lynch him, not for running away, but because of his ingratitude!!! And then deciding not to kill him because after all he is someone's property and they might be held liable for his dollars’ worth!!! Nevertheless Huck comes of age.

I would agree more with the idea that all American fiction is a response to Huck Finn if it hadn't been Hemingway who said it, but I will not accept that anyone else could possibly admire the book more than I do. Still, the ending is the weakest part. I don't know who could have written a better ending but facts are facts and by the time we get to the last few chapters the really astonishing novelties have already been spent where they'd do the most good.



domingo, março 15, 1981

Buddhist Monk: "Under the Volcano" by Malcolm Lowry



(Original Review, 1981-03-15)

“The Consul reached forward and absentmindedly managed a sip of whisky; the voice might have been either of his familiars or - Hullo, good morning. The instant the Consul saw the thing he knew it an hallucination and he sat, quite calmly now, waiting for the object shaped like a dead man and which seemed to be lying flat on its back by his swimming pool, with a large sombrero over its face, to go away. So the 'other' had come again. And now gone, he thought: but no, not quite, for there was still something there, in some way connected with it, or here, at his elbow, or behind his back, in front of him now; no, that too, wherever it was, was going: perhaps it had only been the coppery-tailed trogon stirring in the bushes, his 'ambiguous bird' that was now departed quickly on creaking wings, like a pigeon once it was in flight, heading for its solitary home in the Canyon of the Wolves, away from the people with ideas.”

"They were all plodding downhill towards a river - even the dog, lulled in a woolly soliloquy, was plodding - and now they were in it (...) The dog swam ahead, fatuously important; the foals, nodding solemnly, swayed along behind up to their necks: sunlight sparkled on the calm water, which further downstream where the river narrowed broke into furious little waves, swirling and eddying close inshore against black rocks, giving an effect of wildness, almost of rapids; low over their heads an ecstatic lightening of strange birds maneuvered, looping-the-loop and immelmaning at unbelievable speed, aerobatic as new-born dragon-flies."

"He lay back in his chair. Ixtaccihuad and Popocateped, that image of the perfect marriage, lay now clear and beautiful on the horizon under an almost pure morning sky. Far above him a few white clouds were racing windily after a pale gibbous moon. Drink all morning, they said to him, drink all day. This is life! Enormously high too, he noted some vultures waiting, more graceful than eagles as they hovered there like burnt papers floating from a fire which suddenly are seen to blowing swiftly upward, rocking. The shadow of an immense weariness stole over him..."

"Nothing in the world was more terrible than an empty bottle! Unless it was an empty glass."

"What is man but a little soul holding up a corpse?"

"God, how pointless and empty the world is! Days filled with cheap and tarnished moments succeed each other, restless and haunted nights follow in bitter routine: the sun shines without brightness, and the moon rises without light."

All quotes above taken from “Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry

Warning: there are nearly 400 pages of this sort of thing...

I'm with everyone on the importance of reading, but we must also consider writing. While one must read a book, someone had to spend much more time writing it, and that writing is a process which I believe is fundamentally different than how we read, although another writer might read it quite differently, using a different process.

Whatever we do, our subconscious is always doing it with us since it is part of 'us'. It's not true human beings are all the same, but it's statistically true enough for us to all live mass consensual hallucinations which even, in some measure, across cultures. The book I am reading on Byronic Heroes for instance addresses the author's and other writer's response to certain kinds of reading from the days of Milton's Satan on. And I find the REPORT of his reading to accord with some of my own, and then I can comment on it and have it make sense to someone else (although not necessarily), even if that person disagrees. I don't worry though if my readings are idiosyncratic, or in what degree. I hope I am open minded enough to abandon ship, or change course, if I can be shown to be wrong or there's is a bigger picture involved I don't seeing, or just a strong alternative.
I am at an age, probably past the age, where devout household Buddhists, leave the world to become monks or nuns. They have raised the kids, and arranged their affairs and do a Flitcraft, with the exception of actually changing their lives. Me, I am religious. I see the world, and the human Being as a geography which has produced some deep caves and some high mountains. For some it is religion, others have seemed to penetrate into the most astounding complexities and depths of science or math, and a few more. I feel like I have my own mountain/caves in Literature. I mean LITERALLY that I have available to me one of the mightiest of those domains and I mean/hope to take as much advantage of it as I possibly can. Like the ageing Buddhist Monk I do it because I believe LITERALLY and PRACTICALLY that. That is the best thing I can possibly do, and that I can do, to make the absolute best of being human with the rest of my little lifetime. I wish I could do it better. That leads me too, to read all kinds of lateral texts, like Genesis, Plotinus, “Under the Volcano”, and so much the better. I know I get enthusiastic about texts, and one can always be bashful about one's enthusiasms or one’s ability to articulate them, but if one is as old as I am, feeling enthusiasm (look up the etymology) is just fine, and if I don't do it now when I am going to. In my view there is the bonus that age, before it eats your mind, can actually enrich your literary understanding. It's not the only way to read, not even the only way I read, and it sometimes puts people off, but it's my end of MY life and I'll do what I see fit with it.

This is probably my favourite book of all. I've read it 4 times: each time discovering much more, and will read it again. I don't think you need to know the other works that are alluded too in the story. They certainly don't intrude and the Consul's accelerating and willful descent carries you, or carried me, along regardless. Certain language ambiguities are worth considering as the Consul stumbles along. The cigarettes called "Alas" - "wings" in Spanish - which appear at odd moments crying "Alas!" I agree that the Consul becomes a heroic figure, rejecting all help as he embraces the dark. And Lowry was pretty heroic in his dedication to this novel. One of the things I like about Lowry is the way he notes and records the wild juxtapositions and incongruities of life in Mexico without comment generally. In other words he accepts all that and uses it symbolically without remarking on the exoticism.

I am reminded of Andre Breton visiting Frida Kahlo and co. and saying something like "Mexico is the most surrealist country in the world." Not to Mexicans, I want to reply. Somehow Lowry completely avoids being patronising...

[2018 EDIT: Thinking about this novel now, one thing that bothers me, and that didn't bother me when I re-read it all those years ago, is the almost complete absence of Mexican characters, apart from the odd pantomime walk-on part. This is really an ex-pat novel, with almost no engagement with the contemporary Mexican culture, life and politics. A few sound bites in Spanish, the backdrop of Popocatapetl and, the interiors of cantinas provide an exotic backdrop for an English upper middle class love triangle and a drink problem beyond control. The Festival of the Day of the Dead is of course central to the novel, but more as symbolism than as an expression of South American belief systems. So in light of the above, I would say, I’ll have at “Under the Volcano” for another 20 years to see whether I’m able to understand it.]


terça-feira, março 10, 1981

Inflated Footnotes: "Lanark - A Life in Four Books" by Alasdair Gray



(Original Review, 1981-03-10)



I don't have problem with intertextual interpretation as such. It's only that I've always seen reading as a collaborative process between an author and a reader. If you look at it that way, it makes you wonder which parts of deep reading Lanark come from the mind of Alasdair Gray and which come from the attic of your own subconscious. I also wonder if it matters which mind it comes from, at least when reading fiction.

I've, finally, got around to finishing the last few chapters of Lanark, and found the wonderful bit at the end where the Alasdair Gray appears in his own work having a conversation with his hero. He explains the sources of his writing and ends up apologising to his character for having to end the book the way he feels he must. He includes the line 'a parade of irrelevant erudition through grotesquely inflated footnotes' to describe the list of intertextual references he used in his novel. There is something characteristically Glaswegian about the humour in that whole chapter.

I think that's what made me start considering the value of hunting out references against letting a work stand by itself as separate entity. It reminds me of Hammett who does seem to avoid places where he could insert deeper meaning in the text. His performance of Shylock might be related to the character of Cairo, but it is a fleeting touch, not the heavy reference of Lowry's Hands of Orlac.
Over the last years or so I've been gradually reading Ulysses”. Sometimes I can skip over the surface enjoying the beauty of the language. At other times I can sink without a trace, following references into the depths until I am studying and not reading. At present rate of progress, it will probably take me another twenty years to finish it, but I'm never going to have fully 'deep read' it. Perhaps just like “Lanark”.

domingo, março 08, 1981

Daft: “The Dain Curse” by Dashiell Hammett



(Original Review, 1981-03-08)


"We don't do it that way...You're a storywriter. I can't trust you not to build up on what I tell you. I'll save mine till after you've spoken your piece, so yours won't be twisted to fit mine."

In “The Dain Curse” by Dashiell Hammett


"'Are you -- who make your living snooping -- sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?'
'We're different...I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.'
'That's not different...I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.'"

In “The Dain Curse” by Dashiell Hammett


Hammett's main stated intention with the work was to attempt to make something approaching literature out of the detective genre. He clearly based his characters on people he knew but that doesn't preclude him also having other motives and working with other frames of reference. And in the end, this discussion exists outside of what Hammett really intended.

The work he created is dense enough to support multiple readings and resonate with other works of literature, and it is simply interesting to speculate on these.

I don't think any of us with our readings are claiming that Hammett meant it that way- we are just articulating ideas and references which have come to mind while reading “The Dain Curse”. There are plenty of books in the hard-boiled category about which it would be impossible to have these kinds of discussions, but “The Maltese Falcon” is, for a number of us, one which throws up many leads and echoes. I regularly re-read my Hammett. Yes, all 5 novels, including the thoroughly daft “The Dain Curse”…

sexta-feira, março 06, 1981

No Such Agency: "Cryptography - A Primer" by Alan G. Konheim




(Original Review, 1981)



In the late 60's, IBM started a research project on ciphers that has produced a lot of good literature and several important cryptosystems. The effort concentrated on a family of ciphers that lent itself to high-speed implementation in hardware (one can imagine the fun second source memory manufacturers will have when the Series H uses an encryption protected fiber optic bus). In January 1976, one of these systems was adopted by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) as the federal Data Encryption Standard (DES) on sensitive but unclassified data. Cryptanalysis by Whit, Diffie, Martin E. Hellman, and others has not found an algorithmic attack any better than a 50% computational savings over an exhaustive search of the keyspace. Unfortunately, the key is only 56 bits, and Diffie and Hellman have calculated that for only 20 megabucks, a computer could build around a million LSI chips each testing a key per microsecond. This system could search the entire key-space in approximately a day, at an average cost of $5,000.  This was calculated in 1977, and needless to say it would be much cheaper today, not to mention in the future.

There have been some fairly believable allegations that the National Security Agency (NSA, or No Such Agency), which is responsible for foreign communications intelligence and code-breaking, brought pressure to bear so that the key would be small enough for them to search in the eventuality a foreign power were to use the DES. On the other hand, this indicates that the NSA was not able to cryptanalyticly crack DES, and that those desiring really secure communications can merely use a larger key. Both Diffie and Hellman, and IBM have suggested that multiple encipherment could also improve the security of DES, but it is pretty obvious that its preferable to improve the
standard.

Fortunately, between the IBM research, and the recent public key cryptosystems by Diffie and Hellman, and Ron Rivest, enough technology exists so that anyone desiring to create a secure system should be able to do so. Supposedly, one could, for $100 zillion dollars, build a 'sooper' computer that could decode any encrypted message in about a day. An American friend of mine pointed out that, if one was worried about security, one could run the message through the encoder 'n' times, to give it 64*n bits of encryption. That seemed reasonable to me, as I haven't got the math background to prove/disprove it. And remember that the NBS DES was designed to give reasonable amounts of protection to very large amounts of data, so it had to be FAST, rather than SECURE. One time (bit) pads are the ultimate in security, but require both the sender and the receiver to have the pads before a message can be sent. . . If you want to break security on a time sharing system, do systat to find out who's logged in, then try to log in as them, using a) null passwords, b) all 1&2 letter combinations, c) common female first names, d) English (or Portuguese depending on the system’s origin) words. Several years ago, someone used the word dictionary, the encryption algorithm, and the encrypted password file to break 70% of the accounts on a Unix system.


PS 1. For more information about modern cryptography techniques see: Diffie, W. and M. Hellman, "Privacy and Authentication: An Introduction to Cryptography", Proc. of the IEEE, vol. 67, no. 3, pp. 397-427, March 1979. This paper is a tutorial introduction to modern cryptography and contains one of the best bibliographies of work in this field. If you can’t get the paper, read this Konheim’s primer. It’s pretty good.

quinta-feira, março 05, 1981

Ode on a Grecian Urn: "Red Harvest" by Dashiell Hammett




(Original Review, 1981-03-05)



Perhaps my deep, identity creating, connections to Germany has made me more open to their critical ideas, and to the effect those ideas have had in the US for the last 50 years. I don't always agree with them but I enjoy them. And as a disclaimer I often have NO idea what they are talking about. And I'll just stick with my babies in the bath water cliché; there is a lot of silly nonsense out there, but there is great thought too. Hyper-interpretation is just the bath water and it being there is our human condition: we are all babies trying not to drown in all the bullshit and confusion which is being churned out at a prodigious rate.

I too do not know what Hammett read or not. And am not sure you have to read every word of the “Faerie Queen” or “Paradise Lost” to get the idea. But he does describe himself so: I'm one of the few people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously. ... Someday somebody’s going to make ‘literature’ out of it. He was VERY conscious of what literature is and what place he aspired to in it. I don't think anyone would say he is just some festering idiot writing pot boilers who imagines himself as good as Shakespeare. For all what seems like a certain squalor in his personal life, he had a very refined literary mind and it was not functioning in a vacuum: He knew what Literature is and you cannot know that without reading it. And if he was reading Charles Sanders Peirce, and understanding it, that to me is another big clue he was pretty well read. Peirce, I might add, is considered to have arrived in his own way at the basic ideas of the semiotics. And whatever the mysterious quality "literary mind" might be, for me he had it in spades and it was a writing literary mind.

I hope at least that I am every bit as oriented towards the actual text, beyond which there is nothing, as myself. I can only stress that Hammett and only Hammett wrote those things. If he had not written genre fiction no one would hesitate to think of him in terms of long standing literary motifs, and archetypes, in Western literature. So I am not sure why what I am saying is not part and parcel of his "actual work". And wasn't it Empson who co-invented 'close reading'? Ode on a Grecian Urn sort of requires you to know about The Iliad, Achilles, his shield, and what ekphrasis is. Or at least it helps.

What about “Red Harvest” you may wonder? Ah, read it please. I won’t bother you with a synopsis-like review…there’s plenty of those around.

domingo, março 01, 1981

Reports for Pinkerton's: "The Continental Op" by Dashiell Hammett



(Original review, 1981-03-01)



Hammett made no secret of Hammett’s wider (I suppose "wider" will do) literary ambitions, or that he earned his living writing a particular kind of story long after he'd have preferred to write something else. What I don't know is how and especially when he picked up his knowledge of literature. If ever there was an autodidact, it was Hammett. He left school at fourteen and set out on an amazingly varied series of jobs. Somewhere in the course of these he learned to write. I've said before that I suspect it was by writing his reports for Pinkerton's - for someone with his talent that would have been enough to turn out the early Op stories. At some (probably) later time, his reading and his artistic ambitions expanded - before he met Hellman? Hanging around with her crowd? I have no idea, except that I'm sure that it happened and that it didn't happen all at once.

I suspect that he was first exposed to contemporary American fiction, the writing of his professional peers: that, for instance, he read Dos Passos before he got deep into Milton (if he ever did), that he was au courant with culturally dominant ideas about Realism, that he knew what Hemingway was doing and what Hemingway (and others - Lord, were there others...) said about what Hemingway was doing - and how well he was paid for doing it. But I don't know these things, I only think them likely.
I also know that deep myths and archetypes are sometimes invoked by authors who have never heard them explicitly discussed (which is why archetypes are archetypes, after all). I know that it isn't pointless to discuss Hammett as though he knew all about medieval mysteries and Satan's rebellion, and its Promethean antecedents whether he did or not. But my curiosity isn't wired that way: I'm more interested in what he thought he was doing, and I'm much, much more interested in his actual work.  

Too many hyper-interpretive schools of criticism have risen and fallen since I left school to make me regret my ignorance of them very much, and if I'm careful I may never let it slip that I still think Pater, Pound and Empson - and Poe too for that matter - had the last word about how to read a book.

“The Continental Op” is not quintessential Hammett, but it’s still pretty good.