February 21, 2018
Raymond Chandler's Long Goodbye
On this day in 1953 Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye was published. Many say it is his best novel, and the biographers trace many connections to Chandler's personal life, none of them happy ones. Nor would any of them have been encouraged by Chandler:
Yes, I am exactly like the characters in my books.... I do a great deal of research, especially in the apartments of tall blondes. I am thirty-eight years old and have been for the last twenty years. I do not regard myself as a dead shot, but I am a pretty dangerous man with a wet towel. But all in all I think my favorite weapon is a twenty-dollar bill.
Chandler had a similar warning to those who looked for the literary craftsman in the writing: "It just happens, like red hair." But The Long Goodbye did not just happen. One letter to his agent in 1952 explains his three-year struggle with the book this way: "My writing demands a certain amount of dash and high spirits -– the word is gusto –- and you could not know the bitter struggle I have had in the past year to achieve enough cheerfulness to live on, much less to put into a book." In the novel, such despair has Marlowe so low that he takes women he dislikes to bed; for Chandler, it was caused by the last, long illness of his wife, Cissy. While reworking his final draft Chandler slept on a couch outside her room, gave up drinking and had to punch two new holes in his belt. When she died, a year after The Long Goodbye was published and eight weeks short of their thirty-first wedding anniversary, Chandler himself drew the connection: "No doubt you realize this was no sudden thing," he wrote to a friend, "that it has been going on for a long time, and that I have said goodbye to my Cissy in the middle of the night in the dark cold hours many, many times." She was eighty-four years old, eighteen years older than Chandler, and "For thirty years, ten months and four days, she was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at. That is all there is to say. She was the music heard faintly on the edge of sound."
Chandler's last years without her were spent more or less in breakdown, the drunken suicide attempts of the months after Cissy's funeral turning to five, eventually fatal, years of alcoholism. In his last months he was having desperate, disinterested affairs and drinking gimlets again, now all too much like Marlowe in The Long Goodbye: "Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off." In this state he proposed to three different women -- one from Australia, one from England, and one sent to California by the one from England to check into what the one from Australia was up to.
On the last page of Chandler's last finished novel, Playback, we see Marlowe coming back to his empty apartment, mixing a drink and staring at the end of love:
Wherever I went, whatever I did, this was what I would come back to. A blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house. I put the drink down on the side table without touching it. Alcohol was no cure for this. Nothing was any cure for this but the hard inner heart that asked for nothing from no one.
But then he gets a call from Linda Loring -- the one he had bedded in The Long Goodbye, and would marry in the never-completed Poodle Springs.