Farewell My Lovely Appetizer
The La Jolla Library has announced a resurrection of sorts. But the rebirth planned in this bougainvillea-scented community has religious significance only to those who think of Raymond Chandler as some kind of cult, and who regard Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s witty and tough detective, as the patron saint of hard-boiled gumshoes.
Seeking to raise awareness about its own significance as the model for Chandler’s fictional village of Esmeralda, La Jolla has organized an “International Imitation Raymond Chandler Writing Contest” to serve as the centerpiece for the La Jolla Library Festival III/1991 in July and August. The competition claims as its own inspiration the Hemingway write-alike contest held for many years by Harry’s Bar and Grill in L.A.'s Century City. The La Jolla Library Festival’s co-chairpeople, Pat Schaelchilin and Lois Dechant, promise that if the Chandler contest can generate enough attention, “it might become an annual event.”
After many years of honing his craft in the pulps, Chandler achieved major success with the publication of “The Big Sleep” in 1939. Marlowe, the blunt and honorable detective who was concerned with saving society from moral corruption, appeared as the protagonist in “Farewell My Lovely” (1940); then “The High Window” (1942), “The Lady in the Lake” (1943), “The Little Sister” (1949), “The Long Goodbye” (1954) and “Playback” (1958).
Like the author who created him, Marlowe was scarred by the Depression. “Marlowe and I do not despise the upper class because they take baths and have money,” Chandler wrote. “We despise them because they are phony.”
Marlowe, Chandler once said, was “a simple alcoholic vulgarian who never sleeps with his clients while on duty.” Later, he said of his detective, “Marlowe is a failure and knows it. But a lot of good men have been failures because their particular talents did not suit their time and place.”
In the 1940s, Chandler found financial success, but personal unhappiness, in his job as a Hollywood screenwriter. He hated the work, but made enough money to enter into semiretirement, and flee Hollywood for La Jolla in 1946. “I love words,” Chandler remarked. “I live for syntax. I was a lousy filmwriter because language doesn’t count. I would never be a good television writer for the same reason.”
The gentle air of La Jolla helped soothe the fragile lungs of Chandler’s wife Cissy, 17 years his senior and frail from what has been described as “a fybrosis” of the lungs. With the air heavy from magnolia and lavender, Cissy would sit at the family Steinway and play the waltzes of Chopin. Chandler idealized Cissy as forever young and beautiful, “the light of my life, my whole ambition,” even when she took at last to her sickbed and never left.
After Cissy’s death in 1955, three weeks before the couple’s 31st wedding anniversary, Chandler began a downward alcoholic spiral. He stared at the ocean and drank and drank. A fourth near-successful suicide attempt brought the La Jolla police, who had him locked away in the county psycho ward. They wrote that they had found him sitting on the floor of his shower, trying to get his gun in his mouth. Chandler died alone on March 26, 1959. The cause of death was listed as bronchial pneumonia. Seventeen people attended his funeral service at Mount Hope Cemetery.
To qualify for the imitation Chandler writing contest, entries must average 500 words in length, and must mention La Jolla. Prizes range from $700 down to $300. Information is available from the Friends of the La Jolla Library, 1257 Virginia Way, La Jolla, CA. 92037.
It was the silence that struck Bart Schneider as odd. The war in the Persian Gulf was over, and “nobody was saying anything.” Out there in St. Paul, Schneider kept hearing reports that 90% of the American public agreed with the U.S. intervention, but if that were true, why were so many people he knew struggling with what had happened in the Middle East?
“I didn’t know what was happening,” said Schneider, editor, since its inception five years ago, of the Hungry Mind Review, the tabloid-sized journal that calls itself only “a Midwestern Book Review.”
“I didn’t know whether I was just out of the loop,” Schneider said. “Were other writers grappling with what had happened? Were people just waiting around to see which way the wind blew? Were we dealing with a massive example of self-censorship here?”
These are the kinds of topics that former playwright Schneider, 39, likes to address in his quirky quarterly. In the past, he has devoted whole issues to subjects such as “Life in the City” or “Cultural Politics and the Spirit.” The review usually carries about 40 reviews in each issue. It is distributed free to more than 350 independent bookstores in the United States and Canada. Its print run averages around 30,000, and advertising tends to account for about half of its 50 to 60 pages.
So Schneider wrote to “a number of American writers.” The fifth-anniversary edition of the Hungry Mind Review was scheduled to appear in June; originally, Schneider had planned to devote that issue to the subject of the media, but now it was time, he decided, for “War Afterthoughts.”
Practically by return mail, Maxine Hong Kingston wrote back with an essay--as well as an exchange of letters with the Washington Post and the New York Times--about why the war was wrong. Schneider also heard from M. F. K. Fisher, Edward Hoagland, Galway Kinnell, May Sarton and William Stafford, among others.
This is the kind of literary forum that Schneider, along with R. David Unowsky, publisher of the HMR, envisioned when they chose a woodcut of a cow for their logo and set about putting out a visually attractive publication that would appeal to habitues of independent bookstores.
“That’s one of the really interesting things about the book business, that the chains haven’t really taken over, at least not nationally,” Schneider said. “As far as big business goes, they haven’t won over the avid reader, the kind of reader who can get lost in a bookstore for hours at a time.
“The avid reader is just not going to be satisfied with a chain bookstore,” Schneider said. “Anyway, I’m sure banking on that.”
Susan Bergholz, a literary agent and consultant to publishers in New York, praised Schneider and HMR for “trying to get a sense of what happens” in the publishing industry. “This is an attitude you find outside of New York,” Bergholz said. “They try to give something back. It isn’t just take, take, take.”
Along with the “War Afterthoughts” superstars in the anniversary issue, HMR has managed to attract a variety of well-known writers. Bill McKibben has written for HMR, and recently, Schneider signed Quentin Crisp to write a column to be called Philistine-at-Large.
But even with “name” contributors, Schneider said the Hungry Mind Review tries to maintain a sense of objectivity that he says takes it out of any literary mainstream. If there is a mandate at HMR, Schneider said, it is this: “We try not to publish anything that is going to make the top of the best-seller list.”