Wednesday 1 February 2012

On reading other people's letters

The joys of cataloguing correspondence - I'm sure I've gone on about it plenty on this blog, and on my work blog so apologies if you're bored of it by now.  There's a real feeling of privilege I get when reading someone else's correspondence.  I hasten to add this doesn't mean I steal people's mail or anything like that - I 'm very lucky in that I get to read other people's mail as part of my job!  I also enjoy reading edited collections of correspondence such as The Raymond Chandler Papers.

[photo by me]

The letters can be quite hard-going sometimes, particularly when he's suffering from writer's block or has finished up working on a film script.  Like with any collection of letters, you really get the sense that you're getting to know the individual, and for me, they also give a real sense of the richness of archives - but then I'm slightly archive-obsessed!

One of my favourite exchange of letters so far has been about Farewell, my Lovely. The title of the book was the cause of some disagreement.  In a letter to fellow writer George Harmon Coxe on 27 June 1940 Chandler explains that the publishers wanted to call his second novel The Second Murderer.  Chandler goes on to say 'when I turned the manuscript in they howled like hell about the title, which is not at all a mystery title, but they gave in.  We'll see. I think the title is an asset. They think it is a liability'. Apparently this book was largely ignored by the critics and the publishers blamed this, at least partly, on the title.  I really enjoyed Farewell, my Lovely when I read it recently but I've yet to see the film - I can't imagine anyone else but Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe!

The book includes some non-fiction writing alongside the letters and, as it's topical at the moment I thought I'd include a piece he wrote on the Oscars.  In 1946 Chandler, fed up and jaded from working for Hollywood studios, had moved to La Jolla to focus on his own writing.  However, he returned to Los Angeles to report for 'The Atlantic Monthly' on the 1946 Oscar ceremony.  Here are some of my personal highlights from his report:

‘in the motion picture business we possess an art medium whose glories are not all behind us.  It has already produced great work, and if, comparatively and proportionately, far too little of that great work has been in achieved in Hollywood, I think that’s all the most reason why in its annual tribal dance of the stars and big-shot producers Hollywood should contrive a little quiet awareness of the fact.  Of course it won’t. I’m just daydreaming.’

‘If you can go past those awful idiot faces on the bleachers outside the theatre without a sense of collapse of the human intelligence; if you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored; if you can glance out over this gathered assemblage to what is supposed to be the elite of Hollywood and say to yourself without a sinking feeling, ‘in these hands lie the destinies of the only original art form the modern world has ever conceived’; if you can laugh, and you probably will, at the cast-off jokes from the comedians on the stage, stuff that wasn’t good enough to use on their radio shows... if you can do all these things with grace and pleasure, and not have a wild and forsaken horror at the thought that most of these people actually take this shoddy performance seriously ... if you can do all these things and still feel the next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture business you certainly belong.”

It doesn't really sound like a whole lot has changed in Hollywood, or at the Oscars, does it?! 

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