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Clues to Chandler

In a lonely L.A., he lived everywhere and nowhere.

December 30, 2007|Judith Freeman | Judith Freeman is the author of four novels and, most recently, a work of nonfiction, "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved."

Few writers have ever been so singularly and indelibly identified with a city as Raymond Chandler is with Los Angeles. One thinks of Dickens and London, or Balzac and Paris -- other novelists who have laid claim to a place so completely that their work is not just inseparable from it, but imparts it with a lasting identity. Chandler portrayed L.A. as a dark place, beset by corruption, greed and loneliness, and his noir vision of this sunny city in many ways still sticks.

One of the reasons Chandler wrote so well about L.A. is that he knew the city from so many different angles. Born in the Midwest but raised in England, he moved to Southern California at the age of 24, in 1912, just as the newest city in the world was springing into existence. Over the ensuing years, he rented more than 36 apartments and houses in and around Los Angeles. By the time he left the city in 1946, decamping with his wife, Cissy, for the distinctly unmean streets of La Jolla, he had lived all over, from the beaches to the mountains to the desert, and in dozens of areas of the sprawling metropolis.

Why did he move so often? There are multiple answers to this question, from his fussiness (it wasn't hard for him to find a reason to move) to the fact that he claimed to be a gypsy at heart. "I suppose it's my Irish blood," he once wrote, "but I can never settle down to a placid life."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 06, 2008 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Cover art: The illustration of Raymond Chandler on the cover of the Dec. 30 Sunday Opinion section lacked an artist's credit. It should have been credited to Scott Lauman.

In truth, Chandler's existence was marked by placidity in every other respect, especially in his quiet reclusion and devotion to his much older wife. Chandler was 35 when he married Cissy Pascal in 1924, two weeks after the death of his possessive mother. Cissy was 53, though she listed her age as 43 on the marriage certificate, and it wasn't until later that he realized she was much older. Still, it was his reclusive life with Cissy that grounded him and enabled him to transform himself from an accountant for an oil company in the 1920s into the writer he became a decade later.

Chandler published his first novel, "The Big Sleep," in 1939, the same year that two other great L.A. novels came out -- John Fante's "Ask The Dust" and Nathanael West's "Day of the Locust." At the time, Chandler was 51; his wife was almost 70, and they had already established their pattern of moving once or twice a year.

What I think Chandler really meant when he said he could never settle down was that he could never stop moving his placid life around with him. A lot of writers are restless, constantly seeking new stimulation. But the remarkable thing about Chandler is what a small geographical patch he continually circled, absorbing with each new move another little part of the segmented, horizontal city that is L.A., a place that he called "lonely and beaten and full of emptiness." During all the years he and Cissy were married and living in Los Angeles, they never left California except for day trips to Tijuana.

Loneliness was very much a part of Chandler's life, as it was his fictional private eye Philip Marlowe's. Marlowe exists in nearly unbelievable isolation within the nonsociety of L.A. He is a man without roots or a past; he has no family or friends and no history to encumber him. He occupies small, rented rooms where the feeling of masculine presence precludes admission to females. He is a private eye, living in an extremely private space, in an indifferent metropolis where the private space of the automobile and the little dream house cut people off from a more public life.

Marlowe's Los Angeles is an intensely lonely city, its populace alienated and beset by an unease that found its perfect expression in noir. What Chandler chronicled, in part, was how a particular kind of loneliness was born in L.A. among the largely Midwestern population who settled this city, attracted by the sublime climate and the huckster claims of health and happiness. They left everything behind for paradise, but paradise in truth proved to be rather empty in the deepest existential sense.

So lonely were these early Angelenos that they began to form "lonely societies," based on the state from which they came, which met in low-cost cafeterias like Clifton's. The sense of alienation was exacerbated by the sense that one had chosen this life not because another was intolerably poor or oppressive, as in the case of earlier European emigration, but out of a wish to trade an already good life for what was perceived as a perfect one. Chandler understood how their emptiness felt all the more acute because of the languorous world in which they found themselves. "We are so rootless here," he once complained.

Almost 70 years after his first novel was published, for many of us, it's a feeling we can still understand. In many ways, L.A. is still the lonely place portrayed in his fiction, as segmented as ever, where staying home, in the privacy of one's house and garden, and driving, one person to a car, is our ultimate need and pleasure.

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