By Richard Rayner
Special to the Los Angeles Times
7:14 PM PDT, September 30, 2010
Black Mask, the great pulp fiction magazine, was launched by H.L. Mencken in 1920 but really started to come into its own some six or seven years later under the editorship of Joseph T. Shaw, who would in time publish almost the entire pantheon of classic hardboiled American crime writers: Raymond Chandler, Horace McCoy, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raoul Whitfield, Lester Dent, Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich and so on. The list goes on and on. But Shaw's main man, his ace performer, the writer whose career he helped launched into the stratosphere — and whose lean, mean bullet narratives furnished Black Mask with its identity — was Dashiell Hammett. It's fitting, then, that although Otto Penzler's whopping new anthology, "The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories" (Vintage: $25), features all of the above authors, and many more, its thrilling centerpiece is Hammett's greatest book, "The Maltese Falcon." Here it is published in its entirety, not in its final book form but as it first appeared in serial form in the pulpy pages of the magazine.
The five monthly segments of "The Maltese Falcon" ran between September 1929 and January !930, with snappy story-so-far synopses that probably were written by Shaw himself. Hammett, meanwhile, had submitted the book to his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, in July 1929 and went on tweaking until Knopf published the story as a novel on Feb. 14, 1930. The story remains the same, of course, and never fails to reward a revisit: It's a chill and foggy December in San Francisco with detective Sam Spade, bad guys Casper Gutman and Joel Cairo, victim Floyd Thursby and the hapless gun-toting Wilmer, not to mention the beguilingly lethal Brigid O'Shaughnessy, all double- and triple-crossing each other in obsessed pursuit of a supposedly priceless statuette that turns out to be dross. But between the Knopf and Black Mask versions there are literally thousands of textual differences, most of them small, but some not.
Here's how Brigid O'Shaughnessy, one of the most convincing femmes fatales in all noir, is introduced in both versions.
Black Mask: "She was tall. She was pliantly slender. Her erect, high-breasted body, her long legs, her narrow hands and feet, had nowhere any angularity."
Knopf: "She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow."
Both versions then finish the description in exactly the same way, with the hint that, beneath Brigid's vulnerable appeal, beats something cold and predatory: "She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair, curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made."
Elsewhere Brigid's "throaty sob" (Black Mask) becomes the subtler yet more overtly sexual "throb" (Knopf) in her voice while "Spade took, and trimmed the end of, and lighted, a cigar" (Black Mask) turns into the more propulsive "Spade took a cigar, trimmed the end of it, and lighted it." What we see is a refining and sharpening of the prose, and Hammett critic Richard Layman argues that Hammett, having felt burned by Knopf during the editing of his second novel, "The Dain Curse," himself made the majority of even the small changes. Certainly the larger ones spring from Hammett's mind and hand, his obsessions. The famous Flitcraft episode, for instance, in which Spade tells Brigid the story of a man who walks out on his life, is substantially rewritten for the Knopf version. And the novel's key scene, in which Spade renounces love and the folly of hope and turns Brigid in, had been rehearsed by Hammett in earlier short stories before being written, almost to perfection, for the Black Mask's "Falcon" … and then substantially revised yet again for Knopf. The moment we all remember — when Spade resists Brigid's plea, saying "I won't because all of me wants to" — was a late addition.
And what a feast this one is
F. Scott Fitzgerald made substantial cuts, small additions and huge thematic improvements while "The Great Gatsby" was in its proof stage, and the English modernist writer Wyndham Lewis regarded the successive galley pages his editor sent him as little more than the incentive for ever more labyrinthine rewrites. George Steiner, writing a few years back in the New Yorker, almost gleefully proclaimed that a definitive version of Robert Musil's unfinished "The Man Without Qualities" could "never be established." Critics feast on textual doubt, while the agents who control important literary estates turn such differences into coin. Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast," a series of beautifully written sketches remembering life in 1920s Paris and the characters he met there, came out in 1964, three years after his suicide. The book, apparently almost finished, was prepared for publication by his widow, Mary, and was noted almost equally for its rhapsodic remembering of the streets, smells and textures of the city Hemingway loved, and for its nasty swipes at Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford and Fitzgerald.
"A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition" (Scribner: $15), edited by Sean Hemingway, the author's grandson, and with a foreword by Patrick Hemingway, the author's son, contains several previously unpublished scenes and chapters, including a fragment titled "Nada Y Pues Nada," which Hemingway wrote only three weeks before he placed the twin barrels of that Boss shotgun to his forehead and tripped both triggers. "But there are remises or storage places," he wrote, "where you may leave or store certain things such as a locker trunk or duffel bag containing personal effects or the unpublished poems of Evan Shipman or marked maps or even weapons there was no time to turn over to the proper authorities and this book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist."
The seductive power of "A Moveable Feast" derives not from its ballooning of a myth — that of the young American genius in Paris, nor from the silly, envious (and invented?) scene in which Hemingway examines Fitzgerald's penis in a men's room and tells him that Zelda is a lethal witch. This is a book about the sadness and beauty of memory, about the haunting recollection of happiness from a point of approaching tragedy.
The essence of style
Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" zips and roars along with a pleasing determination never to be seen as eloquent. Hemingway, whose prose at first derived, like Hammett's, from the tabloid terseness of American journalism's golden age, hunted other game, and his quest for style led him sometimes to silliness. But "A Moveable Feast," maybe more than any of his other books, reminds us that beneath this writer's self-parodying toughness lay professional and sexual anxieties and the need to render in prose fleeting, haunting moments of tenderness.
"I've seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil," he writes, having glimpsed a woman he never speaks to in a cafe on the Place St-Michel. We sigh, wishing we could have been there, and happy that he was.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming-of-Age." Paperback Writers appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.
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