Things on My Shelf: The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler

It’s been suggested that there’s an undercurrent of gloom running through my posts of late, which is one of those inevitable things that happens ’round these parts every Summer. I’m pre-programmed for deep seriousness December through February, largely ’cause it’s too damn hot and I spent the better part of a decade being broke during those months on account of doing session work for Universities. Also, they’re my drinking months. I brood when I drink.

Still, in deference to the fact that not everyone is as fond of embracing their inner gloomcookie as I am, I figured I’d spent a blog post talking about awesome things. Specifically, this awesome thing, which ranks among the coolest books in my collection:

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I picked this up at a Melbourne bookstore back in 2008, although I’ll be damned if I can remember which bookstore it was. A friend of mine took me there, and it was back in the days when I’d never really been to Melbourne, so I didn’t have any real spatial sense of the city (truthfully, I still don’t, but comparatively I’m doing better than I was back then).

Buying it was something of a no-brainer for me: I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler at the time, finally getting around to the books that weren’t The Big Sleep, and I’ve always been fond of reading about other writer’s processes. I figured Chandler’s notebooks would be one of those two-great-tastes-that-taste-great-together kind of things.

Instead, it was this real holy-hell-this-is-awesome kind of experience. There’s a lot of cultural mythology that builds up around writers, particularly hard-boiled writers, but when you go through Chandler’s notebooks there’s a whole bunch of evidence that he’s a guy who has his shit together. Notebooks isn’t big – it clocks in at 113 pages, and 25 of those pages are devoted to the unpublished Gothic romance referenced on the cover – but it’s an odd mixture of private notes, planning ahead, and notes for stories.

Through it all, Chandler is smart. There are pages where he makes notes of the work he wants to get done, planning out the next year or so of writing time and where he wants to get. There are musings on the act of writing, and the detective story. There are lists of titles that he’d like to use, or slang he’s lifted from somewhere to throw into his novels. There are lists of lines he’d like to use in his fiction – dialogue, similes, metaphors, snatches of description – the kind of great sentences that make reading Chandler a pleasure, that are planned in advance and marked off when they’re used.

There is one of the best piss-takes of Ernest Hemingway you’ll ever see, which is funny as hell. And illustrations by Edward Gorey, which isn’t advertised on the cover of the book, but proved to be a pleasant surprise when I hit the Romance at the end.

And when you look close, you can see the bones of Chandlers books in his notebooks, which isn’t always a given. And that’s utterly fascinating.

It’s also kind of heart-breaking, ’cause there will be these little throw-away things, like a note in his list of potential titles that reads Islands in the Sky (an anthology of fantastic stories), and I kinda weep that Chandler never actually wrote a book of fantasy (similarly, I’m always excited when I see that Chandler wrote a story titled The King in Yellow, despite the fact that its only a vague reference Robert W. Chambers collection).

I like to believe that Chandler would have been a kick-ass fantasist. Intriguingly, after reading his notebooks, I like to think the man would have had a phenomenal blog if the technology had been around. But then, I often wonder what dead artists would have been like if they’d existed at the same time as modern technology. It’s all too easy to imagine them being grumpy and hating it, simply ‘case we’re culturally pre-programmed to assume that everyone in the olden-times lived better and did better and didn’t suffer from the evil’s of the internet.

And it’s possible that train of thought will lead us somewhere gloomy. I’ll stop now.

I fricken’ adore this book. It breaks open my skull and messes with my brains, which is all I ever really want a book to do. It also makes me wish I was a different kind of writer, ’cause me and notebooks don’t really have the same relationship Chandler had with his.

C’est la vie.

With that, I’m off to write things, as is required. Hope your day is a good one, and your shelf is abundant with interesting books.

  2 comments for “Things on My Shelf: The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler

  1. 02/01/2013 at 9:42 PM

    Have you read any of Frank MacShane's other books on Chandler? His Selected Letters is a really fascinating look into Chandler's head.

  2. 03/01/2013 at 12:03 AM

    I haven't, but it's been on my Amazon wishlist for years. I should probably rectify that.

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