Friday, March 22, 2013

Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon (1930)

From p. 11 of the Vintage edition of the book:
A telephone-bell rang in darkness.  When it had rung three times bed-springs creaked, fingers fumbled on wood, something small and hard thudded on a carpeted floor, the springs creaked again, and a man's voice said:

"Hello....Yes, speaking....Dead?...Yes....Fifteen minutes.  Thanks."

A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling's center filled the room with light.  Spade, barefooted in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of his bed.
Could this have been written before motion pictures?  Notice how carefully the narration sticks to only what a neutral observer could pick up - a camera eye, a boom microphone ear.  I don't think Hammett makes any exceptions to this rule, not even meaningless ones.  We've already met Spade by this point in the book;  you might think we'd recognize his voice on the phone.  But voices sound different in the dark, and we don't know Spade well yet;  if this were a movie, we might not know who it is right away.  And so Hammett doesn't tell us it's Spade until Spade turns a light on.  Then we see him, and know.

It's a cinematic way of writing.  Not a theatrical one - I think the sounds he describes here are too small and specific to be heard by an audience in a theater.  Same with the way he describes gestures facial expressions (p. 33):
Her eyes suddenly lighted up.  She lifted herself a few inches from the settee, settled down again, smoothed her skirt, leaned forward, and spoke eagerly:  "And even now you'd be willing to - ?"

Spade stopped her with a palm-up motion of one hand.  The upper part of his face frowned.  The lower part smiled.  "That depends," he said."
I think some of these things are too small and subtle to come from watching a play.  But they're just the kind of thing you'd be shown in a film.  Time and again he focuses on a facial or bodily detail, like a camera giving us a close-up.

I don't think I've ever read a book that so perfectly adheres to the creative writing dictum - which I don't necessarily agree with, by the way - "show don't tell."  Hammett never once tells us what a character is thinking, or why a character is doing something - we learn nothing that's not spoken or acted out in front of us.

Which is not to say that Hammett's prose is strictly factual.  It does have its occasional flourish - but only of the most concrete kind (p. 144):
The District Attorney put his finger on one of the pearl buttons in a battery of four on his desk, said to the lathy youth who opened the door again, "Ask Mr. Thomas and Healy to come in"...
I don't think the buzzer buttons on the D.A.'s desk are actually made of pearl, although they might be;  if they're not, then describing them as "pearl buttons," not "pearly-gray buttons," or "pearl-shaped buttons," or even specifying that they're "pearl-topped buttons," is taking a risk.  Combine that with "in a battery of four," and you have quite a concentrated charge of evocative, metaphorical language here.  Once you mentally unpack it, it's actually the most concise way Hammett could have said it - much shorter and more concrete than "one of the pearl-like gray buttons set close together in a row on his desk," and much more powerful for its concision.  But it's so concentrated that it actually calls attention to itself.  As does the adjective "lathy," which is perfect, but rare enough to make you pause.

I'd argue that these moments of descriptive flourished scattered sparsely throughout the text don't break the cinematic rule he's imposing on himself, because they're so concentrated that they don't imply cognition on the part of an author who's interposing himself between scene and viewer so much as they describe the scene the way an eloquent viewer would, if shown the scene just right.  They're the verbal equivalent of careful set design and cinematography, casting and costume.


Monday, March 18, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Love of the Last Tycoon

His last, unfinished novel, of course.  Which means I've run the course with Fitzgerald, as far as full-length works go.  I've been pretty hard on, because disappointed in, FSF regarding most things except for Gatsby.  But this one was a pleasant surprise.  Well, not entirely pleasant, because of course it's unfinished.  But I came away from it feeling that Fitzgerald died, perhaps, just when he was beginning to get interesting. 

It's well known that this work is a product of Fitzgerald's failed Hollywood stint, and that it's a roman a clef of Irving Thalberg.  Which means that it's not about Fitzgerald himself, and not about Zelda.  Did his failure in Hollywood humble Fitzgerald?  Did he realize that there were worlds out there and people who didn't care about the Riviera and its denizens?  Did it knock him out of himself? 

If so, it seems to have been all to the good.  Even in its fragmented, blurry state this is one of the most focused things I've read by Fitzgerald.  The characters stand out in sharp relief;  they're largely new types in Fitzgerald, doing new things, talking in new ways.  The descriptions, the scenes, are carefully observed and rendered. And you get the feeling that all of this is possible because Fitzgerald has been forced to look at something outside himself and his familiar, self-reflecting world for a change.  And he had the good sense to write down what he saw.