When Alizée turned north into Lygon Street out of Fenwick, she saw him wandering slowly in the opposite direction past the Eolian Hall. His head was turned towards the creamy déco pile, evocative, in its Mediterranean blancheur, of her homeland as it shimmered faintly in the midday heat. The bottlegreen brim of his Fedora described a gloomy arc of shadow which just veiled his eyes, further occluded by the bluish haze of smoke from his Candela, as he tacked past the hall in a not altogether steady drift, whether dreamily attracted by its magnetism, or faintly oppressed by the rising heat, it was difficult to say at that distance.
He had adjusted his wardrobe to the weather and was wearing the limegreen dress shirt, its French cuffs folded back and cinched together by gold links which matched the garters hitching up his sleeves. The skyblue waistcoat hung open, exposing a suggestion of suspender where the book, hugged loosely to his breast, pushed back the edge of his vest. The dark green patterned bowtie was a little askew, its jaunty angle mimicking the rakish slant of the Fedora’s brim. He wore the checked, mustardcoloured slacks, the breaks of which bounced gracefully over the tan, brogued wingtips of the derby boots along with his slow, loping gait as he sauntered past the hall, regarding it abstractedly and yet with a set to his mouth, around the butt of the green cigar, which implied contentment with life.
Alizée quickened her pace until just before he passed the Eolian Hall completely and turned his head back to twelve o’clock. When he seemed on the verge of noticing her, she slowed up abruptly to match his casual saunter, raising her right hand, encumbered, as always, with the iPhone, and waved it at him.
—Buongiorno! she greeted him enthusiastically as they closed the distance.
He took the Candela out of his mouth and saluted her with it as he approached.
She came on with her habitual onslaught of high energy, running into him just before the triple row of terraces under the creamy, partly mutilated cornice which dominated this block of Lygon Street, its mascarons, jutting from corbels, projecting from ends of plaster, gazing fixedly into the green wastes of the General Cemetery across the street, stoically ignorant of the exuberant display of affection to their collective left. For Alizée did not hesitate to kiss him fully on the lips as she flung her arms around his neck, rocking him back a little in his centre of gravity with the collision of her lips as he returned the embrace more equivocally, resting the free fingers of his right hand lightly, briefly on her flank.
—Una bella giornata, vero? she enthused. Che sole! che cielo! For once, Melbourne seems like home—though not, I should say, a Natale!
—Sì. I think we’re past winter now, he admitted coolly as he stepped back from her embrace, returning the green cigar to the corner of his mouth for a quick drag.
He turned his head a little to the right, blew a plume of smoke politely to one side of her, but his hard grey eyes remained firmly fixed ahead, on Alizée, as they took the measure of her very quickly through the veil of smoke. In an instant, his cool manner had softened a little. Though the eyes lost none of their probing, assessing quality, they seemed to smile at her.
—You’re not in your shop today. What are you up to? he asked with amiable brutality.
—Faccio del shopping, she said, holding up the green Woolies bag depending from her left hand. The bag was very light—empty even. E tu? What are you reading?
Without waiting for a reply, she grasped the book, a slim paperback, not rudely, but with a certain proprietorial familiarity, the fingers of her left hand curling around the pages until they were against his shirtfront. His face wore a faint, wry expression which might have signified amusement or annoyance as he let her take it away from him.
She flipped her wrist back to reveal the front cover. It was a French giallo. The cover showed a young brunette, slim with attractive, pointed features—not entirely dissimilar to Alizée herself—in a silk slip with spaghetti straps—rather like the green cotton playsuit she was wearing—squeezing her small tette together and regarding the graceful shadow between them with the proud absorption of feminine possession. The photograph had been solarized so that the lowlights of the brunette’s skin were weirdly purple and the bronzy slip had been rendered garish and fauvistic. The title was Le facteur fatal, by an author—a Belgian perhaps—calling himself Didier Daeninckx.
The left corner of Alizée’s mouth made a small reflexive moue.
—Tu lis d’trucs comme ça?
He shrugged Gallically, the end of the Candela sketching a volute of smoke—like a question mark—with the sprezzatura of the gesture. He gave an impression of being bored by the conversation.
—I just found it in an opshop in Brunswick Road, he said, jerking his thumb back over his shoulder, indicating the direction he had come. With the vertical movement of the cigar, the question mark crossed itself out.
—Je l’ai acheté pour lire du français.
With a slight inclination of his head,—like a very reduced bow,—he proffered his left hand, palm upward, to her, his eyes, fixed on hers with a polite insistence which seemed, simultaneously, to mock the courtliness of the silent request for repatriation.
Alizée returned Le facteur fatal to him.
There was a brief vacuum in the conversation filled only by the circulation beside them as they regarded each other for a moment of doubtful comfortability, their eyes palpating faces that were still inscrutable to each other even after six weeks. Alizée broke the pause cautiously.
—I haven’t seen you around for a couple of weeks, she essayed hesitantly;—not since the day we went to Williamstown together. I thought you must have gone somewhere to see your family—per Natale, perhaps?
His face lost none of its pleasant inscrutability, his eyes seeming to glitter as they squinted through the last puff of smoke he took from the Candela. He took his time dropping the fuming butt to the asphalt and heeling it out with his derby. He toed the flattened cylinder towards the bluestone gutter with what seemed a thoughtful bunt of his boot.
—I had to go to… Sydney per una settimana – o giù di lì.
—Ancora una volta? You were in Sydney last month as well.
Alizée’s eyes acquired a cautiously roguish twinkle.
—Ton métier de flâneur te porte loin.
His eyes searched her face for a halfbeat, and then:
—We never sleep.
Their eyes smiled at each other and her face flushed attractively beneath the Mediterranean tan, although the smile, on his side, did not quite reach his lips.
He broke eye contact with her after a circumspect interval. A southbound Route 1 tram was passing them, slowing with a screel of its wheels. It braked in the long perspective of Lygon Street under the petrified falaises of the City skyline erupting through the green amoncellement of trees that stood sentry along the fenceline of the General Cemetery. He watched as it drew to a stop at the corner of Fenwick Street, the train of southbound traffic pausing deferentially in its wake, and three passengers alighted from the B-class, going their several ways with caution.
One of the typical denizens of Yarra, this one an arts student who fancied herself a feminine John Lennon, with dark, round, silverrimmed sunglasses, a loud, mannish shirt and thin black jeans, the hems of which were rolled up to reveal her Doc Martens, passed them bearing a canvas tote over her shoulder, an obnoxious slogan against the government stencilled on the side of it. He looked down at his brogues and let the girl pass before speaking. When he did so, it was with an experimental essay at confidence that seemed scrupulously mindful of not appearing too forceful in pressing its suit, too inconsiderate of the manifold reasons Alizée might have for rejecting the proposition.
—Look, he said, I know you have no family in this country, but I understand that you might have other… engagements on Monday.
He paused momentarily. Alizée declined to take advantage of this fenestration in his speech as an opportunity to rise to the bait it implied.
He went on a deal more softly, and his eyes, though still sharp, still probing, still assessing her visage minutely as he spoke, almost gave an impression, as they narrowed slightly, of having hit upon a happy inspiration couched in the proposition his voice was rehearsing, one he himself had not previously divined.
—Would you perhaps like to take a cheeky avventura with me on Christmas Day? un picnic, perhaps? to an undisclosed location to be advised when your eyes are looking at it?
At the word ‘avventura’, the blue jets in Alizée’s silver eyes flared up appreciably.
—I don’t think it’s going to be as hot as this on Monday, he added as an afterthought, an additional justification to the good; an exculpation of Melbourne’s unbankable weather, of the debatable antipodean pleasure of passing a blazingly hot Christmas Day outdoors more generally—if she needed it.
Alizée did not. Her face broke into broad enthusiasm at the idea.
—O, un’avventura sounds brilliant! And if the weather isn’t fine, we will adventure anyway!
A soupçcon of roguish sidelight entered her eye briefly once again as her bangs shook with the enthusiastic upward movement of her head in a jerkish nod—or perhaps it was the sun alighting on her forehead as those parenthetical twin curtains moved briefly aside from their usual halfdrawn position occluding her features.
He seemed a little taken aback by how well this proposta had been received and watched her access of enthusiasm from those removes, the cool depths of assessment, with the wry indulgence of a parent giving a delightful child its head.
—Buono, he said in the next second, when she had settled down. Then I will make i preparativi. I’ll go to Rathdowne Street now and pick up a few things.
—Hai bisogno che porto qualcosa?
—Del vino, perhaps. I’ll leave it to you. Whatever you like.
His voice had acquired a seductive firmness and his mouth now joined his eyes, as they held hers gently in parting, in a very definite smile.
—A lunedì, he said softly.
—A lunedì—Ciao, caro!
She launched her lips at him again and he took the collision more gracefully this time, though he still demurred to linger long in her embrace.
—Ciao, he said, giving her one gentle pat on the derrière en passant and slipping smoothly past her to continue his southward flânerie, with more purpose in his stride this time.
He made the corner quickly, and when he had rounded it into Fenwick Street, he stopped abruptly just inside. His eyes were turned down to the pavement and, with the gravity of his reflections, his face slowly resumed its habitual cast of dour pensiveness as his eyes scanned the asphalt for something that was within himself. His posture seemed to relax of its own accord and he leant his shoulder to the white plaster wall of the house on the corner as he thought.
The persistent passage of traffic and trams behind him did not seem to reach him.
Then, rolling suddenly around, he turned, voltafaccia, towards Lygon Street and the grille of the General Cemetery. He moved stealthily forward two steps until he presented the narrowest possible profile to the street and, transferring the book to his other hand, reached into the left pocket of his waistcoat. He produced the small rectangular hand mirror and, holding it down at his hip, angled it back up Lygon Street until, in its arc, it caught the profile of the Maltese ragazza in the olive playsuit with the embroidered bodice.
Alizée had not advanced very far from where he had left her. She was standing in front of the Eolian Hall and was studying it intently. Her head turned from left to right, not in the big movements she had used with him, but in small ones, as if she were looking for something—a clue, perhaps, or something she had lost.
Then, as he watched her in the angle of the mirror, his face devoid of expression, she raised the iPhone and took a photo of the pile.
His room had a bed,
a table and a chair.
He turned and looked around the room
and tried to see something.
The quiet became very thick
and it pressed against him.
was stronger than any liquor.
He told himself to relax
and play it cool.
He told himself
to get back on balance.
As he went out of the house
he could still hear the screaming.
And later, turning the street corners,
he didn't bother to look at the street signs.
—Geoffrey O’Brien, “David Goodis”, In a Mist (2015, p. 29)
In today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur, I present you with something a little bit different, chers lecteurs. With a wink and shout-out to the friends and followers of this vlog in the great, wide-open United States, instead of my own images of melancholy, brooding Melburnian noir, I present for our Seppolian mates a poetic vision of San Francisco as seen through classic 35mm stock footage shot, I would say, sometime in the 1960s. And instead of intoning my own words over this soir-y, noir-y vision of Tony Bennett’s favourite town (twin, as I have noted in another post, to Melbourne as a nineteenth-century city founded on gold, a fellow colony of the global caliphate of Paris in that century), I croon lyrics doubly appropriated.
The poem, entitled “David Goodis”, is by Geoffrey O’Brien—poet, film critic, fellow Francophilic Francophone, and, most notable of all, editor-in-chief of the prestigious Library of America, the equivalent, in American letters, to the French Bibliothèque de La Pléiade. With my nez sufficiently en l’air, allow me to say, with all the Proustian snobbery I can muster, chers lecteurs, that you are nobody in American literature until you have had the corpus of your literary outpourings fitted for the funereally black dustjacket of the LOA and your surname calligraphed in white on cover and spine.
Which is as much to say that you are no one at all in the history of American thought until your intellectual corpus has passed under the purview and scrutiny of Mr. O’Brien, an unusually subtle dissector and perspicacious critic of the underground currents of American life and culture, and deemed by him worthy of the black jacket and calligraphic treatment.
The subject of Mr. O’Brien’s poem is such a luminary, but a controversial admission to the Academy, I would hazard, for David Goodis (1917-67), is a writer still unacknowledged—and even unknown—by the American public at large, and, sous la Coupole of that black-redingoted coterie which includes the immortal likes of Messrs. Melville, Whitman and Twain—not to mention several former Commanders-in-Chief whose pens have been as mighty as their swords—Mr. Goodis would doubtless be received reluctantly, with the hands of those gentlemen remaining firmly behind their backs.
I say that the poem in the video above is doubly appropriated: Not only have I taken the liberty of rendering Mr. O’Brien’s poem, from his most recent collection, In a Mist, in my antipodean tones, but he, in turn, has taken the liberty of lifting the lines of his poem from the pulp paperback novels of Mr. Goodis, and thus we both do homage to a writer whose hand we would not decline to shake.
With respect to Mr. O’Brien, there are very few living writers in the world I respect or admire, from whom I think there is anything at all that I can learn, or whose words perpetually astonish me at the subtlety of their insight, such that they make me wish that I had written them, but Geoffrey O’Brien is one of those very few living writers, and as he is not really well-known in Australia and his books are about as hard to come by in this country as Mr. Goodis’ are in America, I am very happy to press his name upon you, dear readers.
Mr. O’Brien first entered my life more than twenty years ago, with the discovery of the expanded edition of his first book, Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir (1981)—which was, incidentally, also my introduction to the works of Mr. Goodis. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Hardboiled America; it’s one of the seminal influences on my literary life, and as a work of both art and literary criticism, it establishes Mr. O’Brien’s unique tone and style as a writer.
With no disrespect to him, I mistrust his poetry for the most part; like myself, formal poetic composition is not where Mr. O’Brien’s forte lies. But also like myself, he is definitely that rarest product of modernity’s contradictions, a poet in prose, and as I said in my post “Can prose be poetry?”, what defines this idiosyncratic espèce d’écrivain is the reconciliation in his being of opposites that are diametric—even, it would appear, mutually exclusive to one another: As Hardboiled America demonstrates at every re-reading, Mr. O’Brien has the holistic soul and vision of a poet, but that oceanic vision of wholes—the whole sweep of the paperback industry in its lurid years—is canalized through the prosateur’s dissective vision of parts.
He is, in other words, one of the subtlest analysts of the underground currents of American life and culture, for he perceives the whole of the Zeitgeist in particulars—particular writers of pulp paperback fiction, and particular cover artists.
As I said in that post, the analytic, the critical faculty is key to the constitution of the prose poet: in him, the rationality of the scientist meets the religiosity of the poet. And certainly, when I was learning my craft and trade as a writer, hammering out film criticism for magazines on the Gold Coast, anytime Geoffrey O’Brien’s by-line appeared in Film Comment, I descended on his analyses with double the attentiveness: his essay on Jacques Tourneur in the July-August 2002 issue of Film Comment is still memorable to me twenty years later as one of the great examples of writing on film, conveying both the ‘sensuality’ of the cinematic experience and the ‘intellectuality’ of the critical analysis of that experience.
In fine, he brings both sensuality and intellectuality to his survey of the pulp paperback industry in the middle decades of the last century; and if this eminently ‘cinematic’ approach to the pulp novel is eminently ‘right’ for this pseudo-cinematic medium, it is even more so when Mr. O’Brien treats of the cinema itself. The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century (1995) is an epic in prose poetry on the level of the comte de Lautréamont: it’s a surreal cultural history of the cinema written from the perspective of the movies themselves, and Roger Ebert (who also possessed this rare quality of being able to write about the sensuous experience of an intelligent consciousness engaging, in real time, with cinema) thought The Phantom Empire so good that he included an extract from it in his Book of Film, which collects ‘the finest writing’ on the art-form from Tolstoy to Tarantino.
But what of the subject of Mr. O’Brien’s poem, David Goodis, ‘the poet of the losers’, ‘the mystery man of hardboiled fiction’, as Mr. O’Brien calls him? I said I mistrust Mr. O’Brien’s poetry for the most part, but in his ‘sampling’ of random sentences lifted from Mr. Goodis’ pulp novels, and their rearrangement into a narrative even more elliptical, more blankly poetic than Mr. Goodis’ underdone prose, he finds that prosaic/prosodic reconciliation in himself—and he finds it even more in Mr. Goodis, a complete paradox of a writer, one who is no poet by any indulgent allowance, and who is so feeble in his faculties as an intellect, and so barely competent in his execution as a novelist that he barely deserves the allowance of being called a prose writer at all.
Yet the fact is that the great novelists have usually written very good prose, and what comes through even a bad translation is exactly the power of mind that made the well-hung sentence of the original text. In literature style is so little the mere clothing of thought—need it be insisted on at this late date?—that we may say that from the earth of the novelist’s prose spring his characters, his ideas, and even his story itself.
I like this quote from Mr. Trilling, for it accords with my deepest, most chauvinistic sentiments about writing:—that manipulation of the symbology of written language, what I call ‘the algebra of human thought’, is the purest demonstration of the quality of a person’s thinking, their capacity to engage in abstract logical reasoning. It’s the high bar I apply to every writer I read. Very few pass it, and almost nobody living does so.
Mr. Goodis is the extraordinary exception to that rule formulated by Mr. Trilling. He’s not a ‘bad writer’ in terms of being absolutely incompetent to bang an Underwood;—among noir novelists, Cornell Woolrich is much worse. Mr. Goodis occasionally turns out a sentence, a paragraph, a whole scene—as at the end of The Burglar (1953)—that moves us with its ‘jazzy, expressionist style’, as the LOA dubs his brief, abortive flights into a lyricism that just grazes the underside of poetry and is otherwise unknown in the literature of noir.
But Mr. Goodis shares with Mr. Woolrich, and even exceeds him in the rare quality that ‘his characters, his ideas, and even his story itself’ do not spring out of ‘very good prose’. There is a kind of syncopated clumsiness to his sentence construction which, as Robert Lance Snyder observes, typically ‘dispenses with punctuation between coordinated clauses’, creating the jazzy effect of Mr. Goodis’ ‘intradiegetic’ style—a poor man’s stream of consciousness.
Though a product of literary modernism, he is no Proust and no Joyce. The clumsiness of his characters’ internal monologues, their madeleineical souvenirs of a golden past perdu, their depressing predictions about the immediate future, may be an intentional technique, a deliberate strategy to ironize, alienate and distance himself, as author, from his pathetic antiheroes who, despite their copious streams of consciousness, are not greatly imbued with self-consciousness.
But I think not. Mr. Goodis gives the studious appearance of being too lazy for such Flaubertian meta-games. He is not an intellectual. He has, perhaps, more intellect and more self-consciousness about the sources of his ennui than Mr. Woolrich, but being lazy, he does not have much more, and he has no idea but one—the Fall from bourgeois grace into an infinite Abyss, an endless slide into differentially more straitened circumstances that perhaps not even death arrests, a chute lubricated by paranoid fear, mortifying remorse, nihilistic despair, paralyzing loneliness and intransigent paresse.
The policeman shrugged. All the policemen shrugged. The woods shrugged and the sky shrugged. None of them especially cared. It meant nothing to them. It meant nothing to the universe with the exception of this one tiny, moving, breathing thing called Vanning, and what it meant to him was fear and fleeing. And hiding. And fleeing again. And more hiding.
And it is this extraordinary, expressionist evocation of the mélange of emotions, the compelling intensity and vivacity with which Mr. Goodis renders his personal hell with perverse lyricism despite his paradoxical commitment to writing the most stolid, the most grey and pedestrian prose possible that makes him one of the very rare exceptions to Mr. Trilling’s rule. He’s an absolute savant in literature, and one of the enduring, unanswerable questions about his life remains whether his failure as a writer was a deliberate ploy, a calculated plot, a planned campaign of æsthetic terrorism, blowing up his life in a blow against the bourgeoisie, or whether it was merely the result of his own indolence and incuriosity about the world.
Of all the writers of pulp fiction, excepting Dashiell Hammett (who, in the sense articulated by Mr. Trilling, is a far greater writer than Mr. Hemingway, a proto-Robbe-Grillet, and who is yet, even in America, to be fully given his due as a ‘serious novelist’), David Goodis is my favourite writer in the camp of the roman noir; and it is perhaps saying a very good deal that as recherché a writer as myself, one who applies the most ruthless standards of criticism and finds almost no one—not even myself—equal to the cut should acknowledge as an influence and as a ‘phare’ce petit gars Goodis.
David Goodis is a flâneurial writer pur-sang. The commercial livery of the crime novel is but a camouflage for his flâneurial spirit and his flâneurial preoccupations, his elliptical, abortive investigations of modernity. He wears the mantle of the crime novel about his meagre shoulders just as Eddie Lynn, the antihero of his masterpiece, Down There (1956), wears the ‘operative identity’ of a thirty-a-week piano-player in a dive bar on Philadelphia’s Skid Row: this is merely an operative identity, a ‘cover story’ for the true story that Mr. Goodis endlessly rehearses from one lurid, trashy paperback to another—the mysterious trauma of his enigmatic life.
“Can you tell me who you are?”
“His.” Turley pointed to Eddie.
“I didn’t know he had a brother,” Plyne said.
“Well, that’s the way it goes.” Turley spoke to all the nearby tables. “You learn something new every day.”
“I’m willing to learn,” Plyne said. And then, as though Eddie wasn’t there, “He never talks about himself. There’s a lota things about him I don’t know.”
“You don’t?” Turley had the grin again. “How long has he worked here?”
“That’s a long time,” Turley said. “You sure oughtta have him down pat by now.”
“Nobody’s got him down pat. Only thing we know for sure, he plays the piano.”
“You pay him wages?”
“Sure we pay him wages.”
“To do what?”
“Play the piano.”
“And what else?”
“Just that,” Plyne said. “We pay him to play the piano, that’s all.”
“You mean you don’t pay him wages to talk about himself?”
Plyne tightened his lips. He didn’t reply.
Turley moved in closer. “You want it all for free, don’t you? But the thing is, you can’t get it for free. You wanna learn about a person, it costs you. And the more you learn, the more it costs. Like digging a well, the deeper you go, the more expenses you got. And sometimes it’s a helluva lot more than you can afford.”
Like Henry James’ ‘obscure hurt’, we are unlikely to ever know the precise details of Mr. Goodis’ mysterious trauma: masterful dandy, masterful flâneur, in his short, self-effacing life, he made a business of systematically obliterating all possible traces of himself from the documentary record of the twentieth century and of leaving too many false clues in their place.
He’s like Lee Harvey Oswald, another thoroughly nineteenth-century man who finds himself adrift as a refugee in the twentieth century. Like Mr. Oswald periodically turning up on the fringes of American culture, always tantalizingly close to the secret centre of celebrity and always on the verge of it prior to his fateful appointment in Dallas, time and again Mr. Goodis turns up in Hollywood, in Philadelphia, in New York, on the arms of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall or failing signally to make himself memorable to François Truffaut, detonating himself in some outré stunt all his friends agree you had to be there for, or else playing the invisible man, the ‘serious writer’ who snubs invites from Ann Sheridan to go flâning in South Central L.A., posing in Communist cells so as to get close to black women.
The key difference between these two terrorists of the bourgeois order is that, whereas Mr. Oswald actively sought celebrity, Mr. Goodis actively sought to escape it, to renounce his early fame and return to a state of 無 which he associated with his ville natale and his parental home at 6305 North 11th Street in Philadelphia.
For the sum of everything was a circle, and the circle was labelled Zero.
You know, I think we’re seeing a certain pattern taking shape. It’s sort of in the form of a circle. Like when you take off and move in a certain direction to get you far away, but somehow you’re pulled around on that circle, it takes you back to where you started.
—Goodis (1997, pp. 654, 699)
To be sure, David Goodis, a writer terminally out of step with the drumbeat his time, is an ‘acquired taste’, and even today, the high-fructose corn-syrup-swilling Seppolians can’t take much of the arsenical cynicism de ce sacré numéro.
He is without doubt the most despairing of the noir writers working during the classic period of the paperback original. As Mr. O’Brien observes in Hardboiled America, the Goodis vision of the world is so unrepentantly joyless, in such intransigent contrast to the optimistic propaganda America was telling itself during the fifties, that it is not only an enduring wonder how Mr. Goodis got published on a consistent basis, but how it was that he became a bestselling author for what amounts to a kind of private ‘folk art’, so idiosyncratically personal is his vision of unremitting nihilism.
And yet somehow, for a brief period between 1951 and 1961, there was a popular market in America for the inexplicable private project Mr. Goodis appeared to set himself:—to convey himself by slow turnings to the same gutter in Philadelphia’s Skid Row he repeatedly slid his characters towards. After the peak of the paperback boom and the bounce of intellectual and æsthetic respectability he received grâce à M. Truffaut’s adaptation of Down There as Tirez sur le pianiste! (1960), he promptly fell into the obscurity he desired and became a forgotten writer in America, dead just seven years later at the age of 49.
For, despite the fact that Mr. Goodis, like so many of his characters, started his career at the top, his second novel, Dark Passage (1946), being serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, earning him a Hollywood contract with Warner Bros., and being turned into a movie starring the noir dream team of Bogie and Baby, and despite the fact that Gold Medal paperback originals such as Cassidy’s Girl (1951) were million-sellers in their first printing, in the States, he is still an underground writer, and until the Library of America published Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s in 2012, his work regularly fell out of print in the English-speaking world.
It’s France that made the reputation of David Goodis, and it’s in French that his work has continued to live, being continually reprinted in the prestigious Série Noire, and being continually adapted for the cinema by everyone from François Truffaut to Jean-Jacques Beineix. When Mr. O’Brien published his expanded edition of Hardboiled America in 1997, the only biography of Mr. Goodis was in French—Philippe Garnier’s Goodis: La vie en noir et blanc (1984), and so stubborn has American disinterest been in him that it was not until after the LOA edition of Mr. Goodis’ works that an English translation of the biography was published—one written by M. Garnier himself.
Ça alors! It says a great deal about a writer that not only do his countrymen hold him in such contempt that no one in American academe thinks him worthy of a critical biography, but that every member of every English department in every American university who has a command of French is so ennuyé with the subject of David Goodis they can’t even be bothered to translate the one biography of him that already exists!
But to call Goodis: La vie en noir et blanc a ‘biography’ in the strict sense is to be too generous. Improbable as it is in the twentieth century, the first in human history to be documented from first day to last, Mr. Goodis was so effective in his campaign of self-erasure from the record that too few facts remained for M. Garnier, less than twenty years after his subject’s death, to present a coherent ‘life’ of David Goodis in black and white.
The book, instead, growing out of a short documentary, “Loin de Philadelphie”, an episode of the French television series Cinéma cinémas (1982-91), is a kind of abortive detective story not unlike Mr. Goodis’ loosely plotted, elliptical ‘thrillers’, as M. Garnier goes ‘sur la piste’ de David Goodis, visiting his old friends and employers in Hollywood and Philadelphia, trying to shake out anything solid at all about this man who exists merely as a sum of improbable anecdotes M. Garnier struggles to corroborate, or else as a soul determined to leave no trace of himself behind on the memories of the lives he passed through.
M. Garnier, who confesses at the beginning of his biography to be unconvinced of the worthwhileness of the enterprise, saying that the Goodis œuvre, in his view is ‘loin d’être incassable’, has proved to be the best friend this overlooked writer has ever had. Not only did he take up his pen thirty years later to translate himself for the benefit of the few Americans with an interest, but, as he says in this interview, the confrontation with himself, with a book he had written as a young man, was strange enough for him to feel that a new version was required for the French public, Retour vers David Goodis (2016), correcting some errors and adding some of the few solid facts about ‘the mystery man’ that have been unearthed since.
Suffice it to say that no one in the States has yet taken the initiative to publish an English translation.
Why do the French love David Goodis so much?
… [I]l est à parier que les Américains, s’ils étaient seulement conscients de l’existence de Goodis et de sa surprenante réputation en France, considéreraient cet auteur de romans de gare comme une de ces charmantes mais énervantes idiosyncrasies qu’ont parfois ces crazy frenchmen — un peu l’équivalent littéraire de Jerry Lewis.
… You could bet that, if the Americans were only aware of Goodis’ existence and his surprising reputation in France, they would regard this author of pulp fiction as one of those charming yet irritating quirks of taste those ‘crazy Frenchmen’ sometimes have—a bit like a literary Jerry Lewis.
—Philippe Garnier, Goodis: La vie en noir et blanc (1984, p. 23, my translation)
The Americans hate nothing more than the hear the French praise the parts of their culture they themselves most deprecate, to prize the most naïvely, elementally ‘American’ parts of it they themselves despise—Jerry Lewis, par exemple.
Like all of us, they want to be taken seriously for the things they are really no good at. American ‘intellectualism’ comes off, to the French, as the naïve overreaching of a very limited spirit. The place where the Americans truly live, the locus of their national genius, lies in the naïve, the gauche, the moments of unreflecting action and un-self-conscious confidence in a manifest destiny they unironically evangelize to the rest of the world through the mythology of their cinema and literature.
When the Americans act from this place of naïve, gauche enthusiasm, they succeed in seducing all of us—but particularly the cynical, worldly French.
Note that I said ‘act’:—Americans are doers and not thinkers for the most part. They’re a concrete people with no national gift for the abstract. Even their ‘philosophy’, so-called, reflects a bias towards concrete action and ‘real’ results—the positivism of William James, the objectivism of Ayn Rand, for instance—and despite the dogged earnestness with which American ‘thinkers’ evangelize an ‘evidence-based approach’, to more subtle spirits, it takes very few steps down the logical road to perceive the unironic, bourgeoisnaïveté of American ‘thought’.
The Americans are the least platonic people on earth. They privilege the concrete over the abstract, doing over thinking, the tangible, material thing they regard as ‘real’ over the intangible, immaterial idea that the French would regard as being equally real—perhaps more so. If it can’t be measured and quantified, if it doesn’t possess some immediate, pragmatic utility, if it isn’t effective or can’t be made more so, it isn’t ‘real’ to Americans.
Even American transcendentalism is, in effect, a philosophy of extroverted sensing, not of introverted intuition: To escape the maya of material illusion, the transcendentalists, bizarrely, seek to plunge more deeply into it, their solution to the corrupting materialism of American society being to escape into the even more immediate materiality of Nature, to take real actions—chopping wood, drawing water, building one’s log cabin—in that domain.
We are still haunted by a kind of political fear of the intellect which Tocqueville observed in us more than a century ago. American intellectuals, when they are being consciously American or political, are remarkably quick to suggest that an art which is marked by perception and knowledge, although all very well in its way, can never get us through gross dangers and difficulties. And their misgivings become the more intense when intellect works in art as it ideally should, when its processes are vivacious and interesting and brilliant. It is then that we like to confront it with the gross dangers and difficulties and to challenge it to save us at once from disaster. When intellect in art is awkward or dull we do not put it to the test of ultimate or immediate practicality. No liberal critic asks the question of Dreiser whether his moral preoccupations are going to be useful in confronting the disasters that threaten us. And it is a judgment on the proper nature of mind, rather than any actual political meaning that might be drawn from the works of the two men [Theodore Dreiser and Henry James], which accounts for the unequal justice they have received from the progressive critics. If it could be conclusively demonstrated by, say, documents in James’s handwriting that James explicitly intended his books to be understood as pleas for co-operatives, labor unions, better housing, and more equitable taxation, the American critic in his liberal and progressive character would still be worried by James because his work shows so many of the electric qualities of mind. And if something like the opposite were proved of Dreiser, it would be brushed aside as his doctrinaire anti-Semitism has in fact been brushed aside because his books have the awkwardness, the chaos, the heaviness which we associate with “reality.” In the American metaphysic, reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant. And that mind is alone felt to be trustworthy which most resembles this reality by most nearly reproducing the sensations it affords.
—Trilling (1950, pp. 12-3)
Mr. Trilling’s ‘electric qualities of mind’, the real, embodied thinking that the écrivain pur-sang engages in, the unabashed intellection which is, in its abstraction, deeply practical in its confrontation with the concrete problems of life, is a rare event among American writers. There is, in fine, a grossness and a crudity to American thinking—which is not at all to insult them, for (as I will demonstrate in the next section) this grossness and crudity is merely a function of the English language itself, which privileges the actual, the immediate, the tangible, the material, the visible, the doable.
It is not a language well-adapted to the expression of invisible intuitions or subtle conceptualizations, and thus a rare writer like Geoffrey O’Brien is almost sui generis in American intellectual life, and hardly known to the public at large because such subtle perspicacity as his—which has more in common with French modes of thinking—is too delicate and diffuse a lacework to pass easily through the rough, popular laundering of ideas that a gross, clunky ‘thinker’ like Noam Chomsky depends upon for his reputation as America’s foremost ‘intellectual’.
The naïve, vital ‘elementality’ of the American spirit which the French find so seductive in a writer like David Goodis, who demonstrates his own naïve, gauche, but eminently electric qualities of mind, a vibrant, nervous, embodied sense of ‘something going on’, and which the Americans themselves deprecate as revealing the least sophisticated side of their culture, is so attractive because there is where American culture is ‘happening’; there is where it’s ‘at’; there is where they are transmitting high sensemaking signal, through the evangelism of their books and movies, about what is really ‘going on’ in Western civilization, right at the avant-garde, the cutting edge of decadent modernity.
What the Americans most prize about their culture, what they believe best represents them, often leaves the French cold. American ‘high culture’—like Australian, for that matter—is a very tepid, shallow thing, colonial in outlook, derivative and unoriginal for the most part. It’s in the unreflecting, youthful enthusiasm of their popular culture—the place where the American spirit of ‘doing’ is being done—that they are seductive to the French, who have done everything before the Americans, and for whom everything has been done before.
L’Amérique (as M. Nabokov noticed), c’est Lolita—the Lolita to France’s Humbert Humbert, and vieux roués ennuyés that they are, utterly shagged and fagged after the long debauch of European history, the one thing that can get the French end up, that can stir it from somnolence, is the endearing, innocent delusion of youthful America that there is something new under the sun; that all the possible permutations and combinations of human life have not already been enacted; and that the logical conclusion of every possible pathway for societal living does not end in disillusion, in the confrontation with humanity’s inextinguishable evil, its deceptiveness and depravity.
I said above that Mr. Goodis was no intellectual. And yet he has Mr. Trilling’s ‘electric qualities of mind’, more so than the ‘bookish’ authors the Americans would like to press on us as their most literary—‘literary’, as Mr. Trilling says, ‘in the bad sense’ of striving to be self-consciously ‘fine’, like Theodore Dreiser, whose An American Tragedy (1925) might be the ‘backstory’ for the archetypal Goodis plot—a young man of great expectations; a stratospheric rise to the top; two women, a good, ‘common’ girl who loves and understands him, and a bad society dame he lusts fatally for; murder; and an equally vertiginous descent into darkness.
Mr. Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts to American lives. And thus at the place where the action of Mr. Dreiser’s uniquely American tragedy cuts out, in the Void of that 無-state is where the Goodis world, the hellish underworld of American life, begins.
If the French read existentialism into books that the Yanks deprecate as the worthless œuvre of a very minor author, in a genre—the pulp crime thriller—they regard as being merely a socially sanctioned form of pornography, it’s because, with his fervent testifying towards a vision of unutterable darkness and bleakness, Mr. Goodis is naïvely pointing, gesturing wildly towards where it—Western civilization in existential decline—is at, what is really going onright now.
“Aaah, close yer head,” some nearby beer-guzzler offered.
Turley didn’t hear the heckler. He went on shouting, tears streaming down his rough-featured face. The cuts in his mouth had opened again and the blood was trickling from his lips. “And there’s something wrong somewhere,” he proclaimed to the audience that had no idea who he was or what he was talking about, “—like anyone knows that two and two adds up to four but this adds up to minus three. It just ain’t right and it calls for some kind of action—”
“You really want action?” a voice inquired pleasantly.
—Goodis (1997, p. 588)
‘There’s something wrong somewhere’: the gross vagueness of that elemental apperception is American intellection at its most crudely clear, and the solution to the Audenian ‘situation of our time’ is action—some kind of it, an equally vague prescription.
Even if he expresses the American Dream by negation, as an arbitrary nightmare—unjust, unequal, and unfree—in the naïve, gauche earnestness with which Mr. Goodis stumblingly evangelizes the vision of his personal hell, he is testifying to the French of all they perversely admire in their republican frères—a young, rude culture that believes absolutely in itself even when, as in the case of David Goodis, the absolute belief in the American Dream is absolute disbelief in it, a kind of ‘atheism’ towards this liberal ideal which has become the secular deism of modernity—the very torch of Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité for the entire Western world.
As a writer who not only fell through the cracks of the American Dream, but whose ambition—whose version of it—was to precipitate himself headlong into the San Andreas Fault of it, to realize ultimate success in ultimate failure, the action that David Goodis and his characters take is the very thing that makes him despicably sinful to the Americans—a literary Jerry Lewis whose artistic appeal they can’t understand—and a hero of applied existentialism to the French.
The Americans lionize their successes, the heroes of their society who make it—despite the crippling, Darwinian competition of it—to the top. The French, en revanche, romanticize their failures, the tender souls unfit for their society, the artistic prophets who, while alive, the bourgeoisie scapegoats, and upon whose graves, after death, the bourgeois sons and grandsons erect whited sepulchres to the poètes maudits their ancestors crucified with the refusal of artistic recognition, and hence a mortifying poverty.
In Goodis: La vie en noir et blanc, M. Garnier identifies a fundamental French affinity and affection for ‘the little guy’—le petit gars, le petit bonhomme—the outcast of society which helps to explain why they should take up from the gutter this writer the Americans have cast into it as so much ‘trash’.
Perhaps it is a consequence of their republicanism, an égalité they have had to apply conscientiously, with many reactions and abandonments, on the atavistic foundations of one of the most hierarchical societies in history, that the French should have a rather sentimental regard for the common man—particularly when he’s hard done by, betrayed momentarily by a failure in the promise of the republican social contract of 1789.
That ‘sentimentalism’ for the common man and woman is as morphologically present in the works of M. Zola as it is in the pride the French take in ‘heroes of the people’, great artists like Jean Gabin or Édith Piaf who never lose the common touch, the sense of the streets.
But as M. Garnier explains, the rather sentimental French feeling for drunks, amnesiacs, madmen, hard-luck cases and ‘lost’ people of all sorts becomes especially heightened after the Second World War, and he notices that, with Mr. Goodis, the obsession regularly renews itself: he is ‘la personnalité la plus forte que nous ait révélée l’après-guerre’, a veritable ‘Lautréamont du polar’, a writer who, despite his personal fragility and the weakness of his novels, does not fall into the oblivion he desires but maintains a stubborn grip on the French psyche, being periodically rediscovered by new generations of readers and cinephiles.
There’s an irony in this; for while Mr. Goodis sought and realized his American Dream, succeeding handsomely at failure, leaving hardly any trace of himself behind as the most quintessentially American of American products—the utterly disposable ‘throwaway man’—in his Stygian passage through the gutters of Philadelphia, he is led out to sea, across the Atlantic, and down the Seine to become ‘le succès de Paris’, lionized by the Rive Gauche existentialists as one of the purest examples of American ‘philosophizing’ on the state of the world l’après-guerre, a vibrant, naïve surrealist in a despised genre, the roman noir, and one of its writers most worth saving from l’oubli.
Nothing, it seems, quite succeeds like failure.
The defining characteristics of the American roman noir and film noir can more easily be deduced from French critical discourse…. As [James] Naremore writes, both before and after the war, ‘when the French themselves were entrapped by history’, critics influenced by existentialism were attracted to film noir ‘because it depicted a world of obsessive return, dark corners, or huis-clos’. The crises that had shaken France since the 1930s – the period of war, occupation, resistance and collaboration described by the French as ‘les années noires’ – led many to share the existentialist preoccupations, and to appreciate the darker strains in recent American literature and film.
Les années noires—the ‘black years’ of French life between 1940 and 1944. That word—noir—as an adjective, a colour, but also a metaphorical state of negative emotion, and as a noun, a condition of obscurity, has, in recent years, been applied rather too casually by the literal-minded English-speaking peoples—particularly the Americans—to all sorts of media productions, such that proper comprehension of its French meaning, diffuse, as in the abstract manner of French thought, and yet precise, is in danger of being terminally compromised.
And yet, if we are to properly conceptualize the state and condition of our (post)modernity—what I call, with reference to Mr. Auden, ‘the Crime of our Time’—this meta-crisis in meaning which is producing the exponential decline of a globalized West, then we must understand what the French mean by this totalizing state of darkness, this totalizing condition of obscurity we translate literally as ‘black’ or ‘blackness’.
The state of noir that the French identify as a salient current in American popular film and literature analogous to their own réalisme poétique is the state of complete uncertainty, and it is the condition of total ambiguity.
It is being indefinitely—maybe permanently—arrested in a state of ‘threat assessment’ with respect to a modern environment one can no longer ‘read’, a state of ‘alienation’ à l’égard des alentours—as in the condition of being ‘occupied’ by a foreign power, uncertain who, or what, in the environment one can trust, whether one’s neighbour is un collaborateur or un résistant. One is plunged ‘dans les ombres’ of this modern society rendered suddenly ‘black’ by an inscrutable Hobbesian conflict in which one is being ‘warred against’ by a barrage of ambiguous signal coming from all directions, assailed by the competing demands of salience in the environment.
It is the typical, conspiratorial, paranoid condition of espionage, of cold warfare, where the most banal signal may be freighted with the greatest existential significance to the one who can read it. And in the fog of war, in this world of ‘nuit et brouillard’ ‘after Auschwitz’, to participate (or not) in the conflict—and which side of this culture war of competing meanings, competing interpretations of impenetrable reality one chooses—becomes, for the French, the existential question of personal morality par excellence.
L’enfer, c’est les autres; l’homme est condamné à être libre:—the state and condition of noir, for the French, is the open-air prison of spectacular society, whose ambiguous bars, the curbs and checks and guardrails on our liberty, are other people, the fateful choices we make from moment to moment in our interactions with them.
And after the Libération, the French must come to terms, in les années 40, et les années 50, the great years of noir as a cultural phenomenon,—and even into les années 60, the years of the Nouvelle Vague,—with the humiliating cowardice of the Vichy years, what the existential choice of surrender, of ‘powerless’ collaboration with an alienating force, says about the majority of people in French society.
Beneath our social costumes, beneath the veneer of civility and civilization, we are all black as hell.
Je me demande si les Français ne trouvent pas une certaine mélancolie existentielle dans les romans de David; une attitude dénuée de tout jugement envers les personnages qui sont touchés par le destin d’une manière qui leur échappe complètement, mais qui néanmoins n’ont pas perdu leur dignité, ni certaines valeurs éthiques, ni leur capacité à ressentir les choses. Tout ça en dépit de ce que la vie leur a fait. Il y a quelque chose d’existentialiste là-dedans, et avec la vogue de ce mouvement juste après la Guerre, je me demande si ce n’est pas cette dimension philosophique, cette coloration des livres de David, que les Français ont perçues, ou cru percevoir… Je m’empresse de dire que c’est une notion totalement étrangère au public américain. Ses personnages ne perdent jamais leur humanité, même s’ils semblent toujours superficiellement consumés par le désespoir; ils sont encore capables d’être touchés par des principes moraux, en dépit de leur désillusion foncière. C’est bien ce qu’on trouve dans l’expérience historique et philosophique de la France après la Guerre. Mais c’est une sensibilité tout à fait incompréhensible pour les Américains, qui ont toujours été consumés par l’optimisme; nous n’avons jamais été désillusionnés, sauf peut-être maintenant, pour la première fois de notre histoire, à cause du Vietnam.
Je me demande si David n’écrivait pas ces choses-là complètement inconsciemment; je suis presque sûr qu’il n’y pensait pas en ces termes. Il n’en parlait jamais. J’ai l’impression que pour lui l’écriture c’était surtout une mécanique. Une chose à formules. Mais en dépit des formules il est inévitable qu’un écrivain insuffle un peu de sa personnalité dans les projets les plus commerciaux. J’ignore s’il a jamais eu l’ambition d’écrire “sérieusement”. Il n’en parlait jamais, ne révelait que très peu de sa personnalité, malgré un extérieur très ouvert et jovial. Peut-être qu’il s’ouvrait à son agent, à son avocat ou à son psychanalyste, s’il en avait un, ce dont je doute fort. Il reste que c’était un être humain remarquable, très attachant, et qui n’écrivait comme personne d’autre. Le fait que les lecteurs français aient été à même de percevoir, de deviner ce côté unique chez lui rien qu’à travers ses livres—alors que son pays le rejetait—en dit long je crois sur la culture française.
I wonder if the French don’t find a certain ‘existential melancholy’ in David’s books; an attitude stripped of all judgment towards people who are touched by fate in a way that completely blindsides them, but who, despite this, never lose their dignity, nor certain ethical values, nor their capacity to feel things. All this despite what has happened in their lives. There is something vaguely ‘existentialist’ about David’s work, and given the vogue this movement enjoyed just after the war, I wonder if there isn’t the hue of this philosophical dimension to David’s books, which the French have perceived—or believe they have perceived—in them… I hasten to add that it’s a completely foreign notion to the American people. David’s characters never lose their humanity even if they are always appear, on the surface, to be consumed by their despair: they’re capable of being moved by moral principles, despite their fundamental disillusionment. That’s what we find in the historical and philosophical experience of France after the war. But it’s a sensibility altogether incomprehensible for the Americans, who have always burned with optimism: we’ve never been disillusioned, except perhaps now, for the first time in our history, due to Vietnam.
I wonder if David wasn’t writing his books completely unconsciously; I’m almost certain that he never thought in such terms. He never spoke of his work ever. I had the impression that for him, writing was above all a mechanical process, a formulaic thing. But despite the formulas, it’s inevitable that a writer will inject a little of his personality into even the most commercial projects. I don’t know if he ever had the ambition to write ‘seriously’. He never discussed it and only ever revealed a tiny portion of his personality, despite his very open and jovial front. Perhaps he opened up to his agent, his attorney, or his psychoanalyst—if he had one, which I strongly doubt. What remains is that David was a remarkable human being, very endearing, and someone who wrote like nobody else. The fact that it is even possible for French readers to perceive, to divine this unique side of him just through his books—while his own country rejected him—speaks volumes, I think, about French culture.
—Paul Wendkos, friend of Goodis and director of The Burglar (1957), as cited in Garnier (1984, pp. 57-8, my translation)
Despite himself, Mr. Goodis naïvely expresses the fundamental noir state and condition for the humiliated, soul-searching French after World War II. He both embodies in his own life and writes (howsoever imperfectly) of the condition of modernity in its terminal phase of decline.
In his permanent paralysis of threat assessment, unconvinced by the all-purpose American solution of ‘doing something’—that superficial American intellection which, in its gross crudity, actually cracks its shovel on the obdurately dense fog, the abstract, ambiguously multi-level ground of reality—Mr. Goodis’ existential choice, like that of the majority of Frenchmen during les années noires, is to defer choice, to drop out of society, to keep his head down and let the cup of positive action pass for as long as possible from his lips.
The flâneur’s paralysis before the ambiguity of modernity manifests itself as the paradoxical symptom of a pathological mobility, a restless recherche du nouveau. More ground needs to be taken in to gather more points of data so as to compass the variety presented by reality, and thus resolve the ambiguous enigma of the threat assessment. The flâneurial project becomes a noir project because of the inherent hopelessness of the endeavour: one man walking the streets of Paris, Melbourne, Philadelphia, or L.A. tout seul cannot possibly satisfy Ashby’s Law.
As traumatized an observer of triumphant American society as French writers and filmmakers were of their own defeated society après la Guerre, Mr. Goodis personally and iconographically embodies the flâneur as the anonymous ‘Man of the Crowd’. More than the archetypal figures of the P.I., the femme fatale, the gangster as ‘Organization Man’, the bent cop who is virtually a petty criminal, the good, domestic woman, Mr. Goodis identifies and embodies the fundamental noir condition of being ‘no one at all’, no longer even an individual, but one of the urban dispossessed, a shiftless refugee from a seismically disrupted meaning after 1945.
And for the French, equally the most literary and the most cinematic culture on earth, which is to say, the culture that best reconciles the disparate and mutually exclusive æsthetic demands of the word and the image, the image of David Goodis, this American crime writer who set his sights on a zero-state, whose acte gratuit was to erase himself from the historical record, such that only a few, frequently reprinted photographs of him remain, has, as M. Garnier says, ‘devenu icône pour les Français’, ‘l’archétype de l‘écrivain américain.’
This image, which has become iconographic of the mystery man, is the one the LOA chose for the cover of its omnibus edition of his works. You can tell the time by the shadow on his chin, and bent pensively over his Remington, the collar of his striped shirt unbuttoned, the forties-style tie at half-mast, the braces (a famous Goodisian fashion statement to his friends) on display and the de rigueur desk lighter and ashtray in conspicuous view, as M. Garnier says of this image and its twin, taken side-on to the desk, ‘[i]l ne manque plus que la bouteille de rye-whisky sur la table’ to complete this archetypal image of the twentieth-century American writer.
But in contrast to the machinal, masculine asceticism of typewriter, desk and uniform—the American writer as literary worker, not literary artist—Mr. Goodis has, as M. Garnier says, delicate features and sensitive eyes rendered rather feminine by brows and lashes—altogether ‘[u]ne belle tête, mais étrangement vide d’expression.’
Plyne looked, seeing the thirty-a-week musician who sat there at the battered piano, the soft-eyed, soft-mouthed nobody whose ambitions and goals aimed at exactly zero, who’d been working here three years without asking or even hinting for a raise. Who never grumbled when the tips were stingy, or griped about anything, for that matter, not even when ordered to help with the chairs and tables at closing time, to sweep the floor, to take out the trash.
Plyne’s eyes focused on him and took him in. Three years, and aside from the music he made, his presence at the Hut meant nothing. It was almost as though he wasn’t there and the piano was playing all by itself. Regardless of the action at the tables or the bar, the piano man was out of it, not even an observer. He had his back turned and his eyes on the keyboard, content to draw his pauper’s wages and wears his pauper’s rags. A gutless wonder, Plyne decided, fascinated with this living example of absolute neutrality. Even the smile was something neutral. It was never aimed at a woman. It was aimed very far out there beyond all tangible targets, really far out there beyond the left-field bleachers. So where does that take it? Plyne asked himself. And of course there was no answer, not even the slightest clue.
The soft-easy music came drifting from the piano.
—Goodis (1997, pp. 598-9)
A truly ‘beautiful man’, ‘véritablement spirituel’, as M. Baudelaire might say—if, like the French, you perceive beauty in failure, a ruined nobility in wasted acts.
And for Mr. Goodis, who was known in Hollywood as a writer as handsome as Tyrone Power—a comparison he hated—it strikes me as miraculous that M. Truffaut should choose Charles Aznavour—who predicts the wasted Goodis of the sixties with his sensitive, slightly feminine beauty—to interpret Charlie/Eddie-as-David, the displaced typist-as-pianist, the utterly ‘automatic writer’ à la Wendkos, from whose pianola-like platen the ‘soft-easy music’, the prose-poetic musique concrète of empty writing, tinklingly unscrolls of its own accord. Though never having met Mr. Goodis, le bel Aznavour, with his aristocratic air de petit-bonhomme fallen on hard times, has the ‘soft-easy smile’ of this ‘man who wasn’t there’—who isn’t there in this photograph—down pat.
The cipher we see above has the androgyny of the dandy, and inhabiting the Void, he has the dandy’s vacancy, his incompleteness unless donning the costume of an operative identity and playing it to the hilt, as though his life depends on it—which it does, since, for the dandy, what—or rather, ‘who’—to wear is, as Philip Mann says in The Dandy at Dusk (2017), fundamentally an existential question.
But, as an underground, flâneurial writer, Mr. Goodis is an ‘inverted dandy’: Where, as Mr. Brummell declared, the dandy pur-sang seeks to make himself invisible through his toilette, being so rigorously ‘correct’ in his operative identity as to fail to turn a head, the inverted dandy (a concept I appropriate from Hr. Mann, who completely misunderstands the logic of the terme génial he himself has invented) seeks instead to make himself un spectacle that competes with the societal spectacle, drawing attention to himself in actes gratuits of æsthetic terrorism, turning heads, as Mr. Goodis did through the public detonation of himself in those outré stunts and extravagant blagues directed against good, bourgeois order reported by his friends.
Knowing Mr. Goodis’ dandistic propensity for fantasist play-acting and deadpan practical joking, one is entitled to wonder, looking at this signally unenlightening image, if he isn’t putting on a deliberate spectacle for the camera, playing at being the ‘serious writer’—un Hammett de poche, the future darling of French existentialists who will perceive the ‘electric qualities of mind’ in this intellectual naïf who transcends the small, mean formulæ of a genre of literature deprecated in his own country—the roman noir—to tell us something large and generous about the conditions of modern life after 1945.
Ce n’est que maintenant, avec le temps, et aussi quand on se rend compte que vous Français avez perçu confusément cette brillance et cette solitude chez David Goodis, ce n’est que maintenant qu’on réalise qu’il était l’être le plus unique, le moins conventionnelle qu’on ait connu de toute notre vie.
It’s only now with the passage of the years,—and also when we take notice of the fact that you French have vaguely perceived that brilliance and solitude that lies at the heart of David Goodis,—it’s only now that we realize he was the most unique, and the least conventional soul we could possibly have known in all our lives.
—Jane Fried, friend of Goodis, as cited in Garnier (1984, pp. 125-6, my translation)
Roman policier, roman noir: The crime novel as sociological investigation
Having determined that the French perceive a naïve, elemental existentialism analogous to their own more self-conscious, sentimental variety chez Goodis, the broader question then becomes:—Why are the intellectual French reading trashy crime fiction?
Among the English-speaking peoples, the crime genre is a deprecated form of literature, and, as we have seen, no more so than among the Americans, for whom (as Mr. O’Brien tirelessly demonstrates in Hardboiled America) pulp crime fiction was but the most effective vector for the delivery of literary pornography.
The hardboiled literature on which the paperbacks thrived and to which they ultimately contributed partook, in its heart, of a demonic vision. The publishers often took pains to make that vision more ribald and colorful than the original texts warranted. After all, the public wanted gunfights and Lana Turner, not existentialism and l’acte gratuit.
—Geoffrey O’Brien, Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of Paperbacks (1981, p. 66)
A gleaming black revolver choked, white-knuckled, with masturbatory zeal and pointing obliquely at the crotch of the busty blonde bursting out of the cover is not so much a ‘preview of coming attractions’ as a provocation—and a direct solicitation—to drop 25¢ and franchir la porte, step behind the velvet curtain and discover if la Turner ‘gets it’—gets it good.
This was the climate in which Mr. Goodis was writing during the 1950s, and this was the market that he was writing for.
Crime fiction, from its inception, has always been a commercial genre. The detective story is, of course, the brain-child of an American author of commercial fiction—Edgar Allan Poe—and, par conséquent, the product of the English language, adapted to its material-realist mode of thinking. Given that crime fiction, in the Anglosphere, has never quite escaped its petit-bourgeois origins, the inky ‘odours of the shop’, we assume that other cultures deprecate this disposable form of ‘puzzle literature’ as much as we do.
But when Mr. Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, his setting was Paris, his detective was French, and he was writing with respect to a parallel tradition that had its basis in fact rather than fiction: In line with its cultural primacy as ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, it was Paris and not London which saw the institution of the first modern metropolitan police department under Napoléon Ier, and the memoirs of Vidocq, mastermind and first chief of the Sûreté, the French secret police under the Emperor, were a global publishing phenomenon.
Moreover, as Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1843) demonstrates, for the French, at the head of the cultural empire of modernity, the crime novel is part of a broader flâneurial project of sociological investigation, a comprehensive ‘physiognomic taxonomy’ of les types who inhabit the new societal ‘machine’ of the modern, spectacular City.
The French do not despise crime fiction, and if you have ever had the pleasure of reading a French crime novel—the so-called roman policier, or, more colloquially, le ‘polar’—it is rather a different experience, much more subtly flavoursome, than what we are generally given to chow down on in English.
The clue to the difference lies in the term ‘roman policier’, which we generally translate, in our English taxonomy of the crime genre, as the ‘police procedural’. The French have always been much less interested in the figure of the ‘talented amateur’ of the English tradition, or the private eye of the American tradition, than in the corporate machinery of the police, and given that the earliest policemen, such as M. Vidocq, were themselves former criminals, how this corporate machinery interacts with citizens on the other side of the law.
As compared to our Anglocentric assumptions about the philosophy of jurisprudence, how the machinery of the law should ideally unfold when set in motion, there are also significant differences in the modern French legal system, which was codified by the Emperor and only reformed by M. de Gaulle some 150 years later. These quirks of Gallic thought which the Anglophonic reader is likely to find either charming or exasperating, such as the active rôle played in investigation by ‘examining magistrates’ who seem to act as a handbrake on police procedure rather than a throttle to it, like the prosecutorial ‘D.A.’ of American lore, extend the operation of that corporate machinery the French find so fascinating into another dimension of the legal nexus that Anglophonic crime fiction, with its focus on the quasi-legal lone investigator, finds it typically convenient to ignore.
And perhaps as a consequence of the amoral beginnings of the French police, a curious flavour of ‘fraternity’ between the upholders of the moral order and the denizens of the underworld seems to have trickled down in French crime novels and movies. Everyone, flics et filous, seems to be very good copains with one another in a way that the more adversarial Anglo legal system would certainly find irregular.
A wary camaraderie and weary good humour about the typical, compromising foibles of the ‘comédie humaine’ of crime as a ‘left-handed form of human endeavour’ seems to prevail through all the levels, and both sides of the law, which perhaps in some sense reflects an enduring assumption about society as a ‘great machine’ which the French crime novel owes to the novel more generally as codified by M. Balzac.
The French roman policier, in fine, is more of a sociological investigation than the English Golden Age detective story. It is not incompatible, as Anglophonic readers assume, with the broader literary project of the modern novel since M. Balzac rationalized the form to naturalistically describe and delineate the corporate machinery of society, how the spectacle of the City operates, how the logical terms of that abstract ‘open-air prison’, the concrete and living bars of its citoyens as physiognomic types, dramatically interact to produce the tragicomic conclusions of crime and punishment.
And the discernible abstract dimension to the polar as social commentary above the machinations of a ‘plot’—both narrative and criminal—to be both divined and solved shows a different basis in assumptions of thought about what the novel of realistic intrigue is and what it may be, one which is a function of the more abstract nature of the French language itself.
French is not, like English, a ‘powerful language of ideas’. It is a graceful language of subtle ideas.
It is not a gross and crude shovel to crack the obdurate ground of material reality, turn a lot of earth, and construct a concrete edifice of thought one can point to as a tangible, sensible ‘result’. It is not, in fine, the language of science.
The English language is about three times the size of French. Such lexical broadness and such differentiation in the nuance of meaning that more or less synonymous words possess makes English a ‘powerful language of ideas’, an ideal tool for the penetration of material reality, the scientific description of it, and the inferential positing of diverse hypotheses about how material reality should or will ‘behave’ under described conditions.
This scientific-rationalist, material-realist bias in the language itself, the admirable capacity of English to name and describe concrete ‘things’ in the sense-world, is the reason why the classical Golden Age detective story first phenomenologically appears in English, and even accounts for why the first practitioner of the form should be an American:—For however out of step Mr. Poe was with his society (and he was as out of step with American society in the nineteenth century as Mr. Goodis was with American society in the twentieth), however much he was constitutionally attuned to the suprasensual, what he called his ‘tales of ratiocination’ are couched in the extroverted sensing biases, the foundational assumptions of English itself about how one should ideally confront the mystery of reality which surrounds us.
As a heuristic of practical action, the Foucauldian ‘grille’ of English assumes quite unambiguously that we make our way most efficaciously in the night and the fog that surrounds us by trusting to those material things which supply signal to our senses.
And thus the crudity and the grossness of thought, the naïve ‘elementality’ of the American spirit is a function of the morphological assumptions of the English language,—its biases toward the material and the concrete,—and American ‘culture’ (a high, globalized Western civilization in existential decline) is, in effect, the triumph of the English language itself—this globalized language of science, of scientific rationalism and material realism.
The ratiocinative, hypothetico-deductive scientific method is what guides the chevalier Dupin of Mr. Poe’s detective stories; it’s equally what guides Sherlock Holmes: a conception of the world, through the grille of English, as ludic space, as game, as puzzle, as, literally, ‘casse-tête’ to be ‘solved’, as a Nature that is, despite its apparent irrationality, fundamentally rational.
And perhaps more naïvely still, on the sociological front, English assumes the irrational comédie humaine of crime, that ‘left-handed endeavour’, to be rationally deducible from material facts and evidence, and reduces human beings and their surreal behaviour to a set of flattened-out puzzle pieces, tokens in a game of Cluedo to be arranged and rearranged until, by a logical process of elimination, the combinatorial permutations of characters, settings, and props resolve themselves into the one possible picture of an occluded reality.
And thus it is ridiculous for Mrs. Christie, in her country-house games of Cluedo, to invoke ‘the little grey cells’ of human psychology as distinguishing the deductive method of Poirot from his forerunners in this: The little Belgian may not throw himself on his face among the begonias or be able to distinguish forty different brands of cigarette ash at a glance, but his method of deduction is as ratiocinative as Holmes’, dependent, as Mrs. Christie’s ‘plots’ are, upon a physics of time and space in which the irrational human element causes no friction, no décalage, her ‘characters’ being but paper dolls, cardboard cut-outs of human beings to be moved in straight vectors from conservatory to library in order to keep their timetabled appointments with the shifting finger of Poirot’s suspicion.
And there is a scheme of Agatha Christie’s featuring M. Hercule Poirot, that ingenious Belgian who talks in a literal translation of school-boy French, wherein, by duly messing around with his “little gray cells,” M. Poirot decides that nobody on a certain through sleeper could have done the murder alone, therefore everybody did it together, breaking the process down into a series of simple operations, like assembling an egg-beater. This is the type that is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a halfwit could guess it.
It is only with Mr. Hammett, and with the hardboiled school of American crime fiction in the twenties and thirties, that ‘the little grey cells’ of human psychology become genuinely relevant to the interpretation of the black mystery into which so much of human life falls.
The texts in question essentially can be dated from 1922, when Dashiell Hammett published his first Black Mask story. … What Hammett did of special note was to wed a style to a mythology. The result was a specifically modern demonology.
Of course demons had been around in America since the beginning…. But it wasn’t until Hammett that the demons rode on the municipal bus and rented rooms in cheap hotels. Something clicked: it was “realism,” the realest yet. Yet beyond the lifelike shimmering of the surface, something else showed through, the lineaments of a dream or of a primal epic.
The realist element was far from negligible. Following Hammett’s lead, the crime novel became a major vehicle for social analysis. Even allowing for generous doses of fantasy and melodrama, it is possible to get a coherent picture of the underside of American life from the works of Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Horace McCoy, David Goodis….
—O’Brien (1981, pp. 67-8)
The emergence of the American hardboiled crime story in the interwar years, I would contend, is a naïve reaction to—and an even more naïve interrogation of—the scientific-rationalist, material-realist assumptions implicit in the very language which underwrites the American culture.
As Hr. Spengler says, the Great War was the apotheosis of Western ‘civilization’, self-inflicted, attritional mass extermination being the logical end of the Faustian scientific-rationalist project of ‘enlightened modernity’.
And if America, as the most technologically convinced and therefore also the most decadent efflorescence of these Faustian fleurs du mal which bloom into a totalizing, globalized West European conflict, is, as I say, ‘the triumph of the English language itself’, the civilizational conquest of the world through the crudely effective language of science, then it is only meet that writers like Messrs. Hammett, Cain, Chandler, and McCoy—the first generation of American noir writers, men with actual experience of the Great War—should question, in their work, the frictionless physics of the classical English Golden Age detective story, the assumptions that English itself can ‘get at the Truth’ of messy, irrational human conflict.
It is not uncommon, for instance, for the Continental Op not to ‘solve’ his cases, but merely to propose a tentative, provisional solution—one possible solution among many—that plausibly hangs culpability on the actually guilty party, and is plausibly rational enough, however contrived and engineered by the Machiavellian Op, to pass beyond the English standard of reasonable doubt and get the murderer the Op hungrily want to hang up to the gallows.
In this, Mr. Hammett’s Op—the self-described ‘manhunter’—is a demonologist—a demon-hunter—who, in contradistinction to Holmes, or Poirot, or other Golden Age detectives of the English tradition, is no ratiocinative savant, no ‘citizen-scientist’ who writes scholarly monographs on cigarette ashes, but is really a reader of people, a master of ‘the little grey cells’ of human psychology, and he depends, for his entrapment and exorcism of the demons from society, upon his own daimonic Machiavellianism to read the hands they hold close to their vests, bluff them, and claim the pot.
Thus it is that with the introduction of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution just after the Great War, America begins to get an intimation of what black demonic forces lie under our social costumes. Literal-minded English is no longer sufficient, with its faith in superficialities, to describe the spectacular society of ‘levels’ to which Prohibition gives rise overnight, a society suddenly made ‘ambiguous’ and ‘doubled’, a place of occluded gin-joints behind respectable shopfronts, of teacups containing bootleg liquor, of secret knocks and passwords.
To take a Spenglerian perspective, the hardboiled school of crime fiction is a specific excrescence of the morphological phenomenon of Prohibition just as it is, more generally, an excrescence of the morphological phenomenon of the interwar period, a punch-drunk period where some of the bright, sun-lit certainties in American life have been shaken loose by the trauma of the Great War. With Black Friday and the Great Depression, these superficial certainties—which are the foundational assumptions of American society—will undergo further oscillation, and when, finally, the United States enters the Second World War on December 7, 1941, it will enter fully into a state that has been prophesied by some of the films that have begun to be released in that year—the state of noir, the state of complete uncertainty and total ambiguity.
America is still in that state. Indeed, we all are, for as Faustian (post)modernity disintegrates at an exponential rate, the condition of ‘noir’ is now a globalized phenomenon.
In mystery and hardboiled fiction, the transition from the Thirties to the Forties is unmistakable. Cain and Hammett and McCoy deal in a clear unblinking light. Objects are delineated against the quietly terrifying neutrality of a noon sky, and actions are equally neutral—be they a suicide or a walk across a verandah. They deal as well in speed, in deadpan wisecracks that add another kind of brightness.
Then, with the 1940s, comes the Great Fear. The light is shadowed over; for ten years the key words will be “night” and “dark.” The hardboiled wry grimace will be replaced by abject terror, by a sense of ultimate impotence in a world suddenly full of danger, of nothing but danger. In Hammett’s novels there are conspiracies, but there is nothing mysterious about them. They are part of the everyday violence of an everyday corrupt city, and they need no superhuman powers, secret weapons, or networks of invisible agents to make themselves felt. In Raymond Chandler’s books, the menace is vaguer, more all-embracing, more redolent of primitive terror—the world is a vast spider’s web. A postwar writer like David Goodis writes of fear as if it were the only emotion his heroes were capable of experiencing.
—O’Brien (1981, p. 88)
With the American writers of the hardboiled school, Anglophonic crime fiction in the most anti-platonic society on earth begins to nervously question the material assumptions of the language which underwrites its very culture and society.
Crime, it is finally acknowledged by the Americans, is not a rational problem in physics to be ‘solved’; it’s an irrational, Hobbesian poker game between people, and as Mr. O’Brien says, the new, nihilistic American crime novel—the ‘roman noir’—becomes ‘a major vehicle of social analysis’, moving closer to the parallel tradition of the French.
French, as I said, is a much smaller language than English. The corpus of extant words, therefore, has to bear a greater burden of work. Nuanced meaning, which English differentiates into synonyms, is more often condensed in French, one word bearing multiple connotations.
We saw this in the previous section with the very simple, matter-of-fact word ‘noir’ itself, which simultaneously possesses descriptive, poetic, and nominal meanings. Where English differentiates the shades of nuance into synonyms, French integrates them into global, holistic concepts, and thus the ‘hues of black’ contained in the word ‘noir’, the adjacency of the related notions of the absence of light and colour, of negative emotion, and of obscurity are simultaneously condensed into a single conceptual term.
Thus, as I said in the previous section, English is not a language well-adapted to subtle, abstract ideation: where French requires one word to communicate a multidimensional concept, English requires two or three adjacent synonyms to parse the same idea with an equivalent level of precision.
And if you want to understand why, in the Anglosphere, we are at the avant-garde of the meta-crisis in meaning, why we are on the cutting edge of Western existential decline, you would do well to notice the different foundational assumptions in the English and French languages.
The pandemic of ‘wokery’ that has deranged the minds of English-speaking peoples—particularly the Americans—is nothing more than the attempt of these people, governed by a language which prefers things to ideas, and which valorizes the material over the abstract, to concretize and literalize French postmodern philosophy, the avant-garde thought experiments of a language that is very adept at opening the mind to diffuse, subtle possibilities which may be implicit in material reality, but which is nowhere near as effective as English in articulating positive actions and achieving practical results.
The deleterious influence which French thinkers like M. Foucault have had on the Anglosphere due to the very imperfect dissemination of their ideas through the universities is the result of this misapprehension of subtle concepts (not at all without value, but distinctly limited in their practical utility) which the literal-minded English-speaking peoples suffer when their differentiated tongue is forced to confront integral intuitive speculations that require a grasp of the holistic French language, with its condensed constellations of implicit meaning, to properly appreciate.
The decline in the academic humanities being sharp since the importation of French postmodernism, there are many people in the English departments of American, British, and Australian universities who lack the ‘electric qualities of mind’ requisite to dexterously handle the multitudinous demands of our own tongue. These people have not read M. Foucault in French; they do not really know what he is saying; and having been acculturated by their language to think as gross materialists, they do not, in any event, possess the supple ‘electric qualities of mind’ necessary to enter the purely abstract realm of implicit possibility he excitingly resides in.
Moreover, the wrongheaded Anglo attempts to ‘apply’ French postmodern philosophy demonstrate the straits a materialist culture gets into when it tries to make a practical policy out of diffuse intuitions the thinkers of a more abstract culture posit as pure thought experiments, as potentials and possibilities that may be implicit in the material world of the senses, and which the grille of their abstract language elevates in salience to their attention and allows them to perceive.
Where English is a powerful language of ideas rich in practical fruits, French is a graceful language of subtle ones, of keen apperceptions that are intellectually delicious but not necessarily practical. Where English is naturally pitched towards the material plain and differentiates the things of Nature, French is more naturally pitched towards the abstract realm and integrates ideas through their platonic similitude.
Proverbial French “abstractions” in French poetry often represent a paradoxical desire to break through them and, by this act, to catch sight of the unusual slices or levels of reality.
Elsewhere I have suggested that American poets tend to begin with a fact and work toward an idea, while their French counterparts begin with an idea and work toward a fact. In the French prose poem, one of these initial ideas may indeed entail smashing through ideas, as the poet … would smash through a brick wall keeping him or her from an ardently desired reality. … Could it be that somewhere in this neighborhood exists a meeting point for French and American writers, where the French aspiration to break through concepts and attain a kind of “reality” encounters the demotic proclivities … in American prose poetry?
As Mr. Taylor shows in his stimulating journal article, the French seek extroverted sensing through their natural proclivity for introverted intuition, while the Americans, conversely, seek introverted intuition through extroverted sensing. This complementarity is what the two cultures find naturally attractive in each other: the French adore the Americans’ ‘earthiness’, the Americans love the ‘sophistication’ of the French.
And moreover, the ‘neighbourhood’ where they find a ‘meeting point’ for French abstraction and American materialism lies in the ‘demotic proclivities’ of that peculiarly American form of prose poetry, the deprecated pulp crime novel. ‘Down these mean streets’, the Cinderella of American literature is rendered suddenly ‘sophisticated’ when taken up by charming French intellectuals and paraded round the Beaux-Arts Ball as ‘le roman noir’.
As M. Garnier says in Goodis: La vie en noir et blanc, because of its deprecated commercial history, its sub-literary status as either cardboard puzzle or pornography, the Americans can’t quite get it through their heads that tout le monde en France—even intellectuals—reads crime fiction.
And yet Mr. Hammett would take it to his grave as the greatest point of pride in his life that he had earned the notice of André Gide, who compared his prose, in its cold, hard elegance, to mathematics. And as Mr. O’Brien tells us in Hardboiled America, there was a period when Mr. Hammett’s contemporary, Horace McCoy, now a shamefully forgotten writer in the States, was regarded by the French as the literary equal of Messrs. Faulkner and Hemingway, and no less an écrivain than Albert Camus would cite Mr. McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) as a crucial inspiration for L’Étranger (1942).
The American roman noir is a sociological investigation, like the French polar, but it’s also, necessarily—in a way English crime fiction has never been—an investigation of the English language itself.
Literary innovation in English has not, since the turn of the twentieth century, occurred in England itself, and I’ll hazard to say that it never will again. The greatest writer in our language during the last one hundred years was an Irishman, and after him, literary innovation in English has been monopolized by the Americans, a rude, young culture who have extended the demotic for all of us and, through the influence of Messrs. Hemingway and Hammett, have reformed the way that English is written the world over—for better and for worse.
The literary legitimacy of the roman noir lies in the way it investigates a rude, young society through its vibrant, vulgar vernacular, its slang and argot. The living language of a culture is the way a society makes sense to itself—and, indeed, of itself—and thus the hardboiled crime novel of the twenties and thirties, and the roman noir proper of the forties and fifties, is an eminently suitable vehicle for an investigation of, an interrogation of, the sudden ambiguity into which modern American society is thrown due to this meta-crisis in meaning, the gnawing doubt that the scientific-rationalist, material-realist language of ‘the King’s English’ is capable of adequately describing and making sense of an ambiguous reality.
The form of the ‘mystery’, which is tasked with divining meaning, of sense in an apparent irruption of dissonant ‘non-sense’, is the form of literature par excellence for an investigation of modernity that is simultaneously sociological and, necessarily, linguistic.
And it was this American ‘renovation’ of English, of course, that attracted a classically-educated linguist like Raymond Chandler to pulp fiction. He himself compared ‘the American language’ he taught himself to speak and write to the seismically evolving English of Elizabeth I, and went to so far as to say that if Mr. Shakespeare—to whom we owe one-quarter of our entire lexicon—were alive and writing today, he would doubtless be an American filmmaker working in Hollywood.
… [J]e ferai remarquer que les Gommes ou le Voyeur comportent l’un comme l’autre un trame, une «action», des plus facilement discernables, riches par surcroît d’éléments considérés en général comme dramatiques. S’ils ont au début semblé désamorcés à certains lecteurs, n’est-ce pas simplement parce que le mouvement de l’écriture y est plus important que celui des passions et des crimes?
I will point out that The Erasers and The Voyeur both include a plot and ‘action’ that is very easy to make out, and both are bristling with an excess of elements that are generally considered dramatic. But if, at the beginning, they both appear ‘diffuse’ to certain readers, isn’t this simply because the action of the writing itself is more important than the dramatic action of emotions and crimes?
—Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Sur quelques notions périmées”, Pour un nouveau roman (1963, p. 32, my translation)
And as the example of a French novelist-cum-filmmaker like Alain Robbe-Grillet, working in the middle years of the century, shows, the investigation of literary language—what M. Robbe-Grillet calls ‘l’écriture’; literally, ‘the writing’, the material artefact of the very words themselves on the page—is, and should be, the proper concern of the nouveau romancier.
In his first two published novels, Les Gommes (1953) and Le Voyeur (1955), he sought to scientifically demonstrate the conviction that writing itself is the only proper subject of research for writing. Though ‘crime novels’ of a very abstract type, both books are nominally romans policiers and show the influence of the American roman noir and film noir.
Indeed, as a reverse instance of Franco-American cross-fertilization, these books—like M. Robbe-Grillet’s œuvre generally—demonstrate the inverse of the argument I advanced above: French being a language that gracefully floats in a realm of platonic abstractions, it is singularly ill-adapted to rigorous material description, and yet it is M. Robbe-Grillet’s stubborn project to force the language down into the gross world of ‘things’ where English naturally lives, and where the Americans revel.
The result, in Les Gommes and Le Voyeur, is as grinding and merciless and bleak a description of ‘reality’ as we find in any American roman noir by Mr. Goodis—and perhaps more so since M. Robbe-Grillet, as a French intellectual, is not reacting to ‘a world of things’ made suddenly ambiguous with naïve nihilism, but is sadistically determined to rub our noses in the merde of our material condition through as ‘scientific’ a description of it as French can muster.
Il tentativo di Robbe-Grillet non è umanistico, il suo mondo non è in accordo col mondo. Ciò ch’egli cerca è l’espressione di una negatività, vale a dire la quadratura del cerchio in letteratura. Non è il primo. Oggi conosciamo opere importanti – rare, è vero – che sono o sono state deliberatamente il risiduo glorioso dell’impossibile…. La novità di Robbe-Grillet è il tentativo di mantenere la negazione al livello delle tecniche romanzesche…. Nell’opera di Robbe-Grillet, c’è dunque, almeno tendenzialmente, rifiuto della storia, dell’aneddoto, e insieme rifiuto della significazione degli oggetti. Di qui l’importanza della descrizione ottica in questo scrittore: se Robbe-Grillet descrive quasi geometricamente gli oggetti è per sottrarli alla significazione umana, emendarli dalla metafora e dall’antropomorfismo. … Non è sicuro che Robbe-Grillet abbia realizzato il suo progetto: in primo luogo perché lo scacco è nella natura stessa di questo progetto (non c’è un grado zero della forma, la negatività gira sempre in positività)….
Robbe-Grillet’s project is not a humanistic one: his world is not aligned with the world. What he seeks is the expression of a negative state—which is to say, a literary ‘squaring of the circle’. He’s not the first. Today we know of important works—rare ones, it is true—that are or have deliberately been the glorious residue of this impossible project…. Robbe-Grillet’s innovation lies in his effort to maintain the negation at the technical level of the novel…. In the work of Robbe-Grillet, there is, therefore, at least generally, a rejection of ‘story’, of anecdote, and concurrently a rejection of objects as vessels of meaning. Hence the importance of optical description in the work of this author: if Robbe-Grillet describes things almost geometrically, it is in order to ‘subtract’ them from human sensemaking, liberate them from the pathetic fallacies of anthropomorphism. … It isn’t certain that Robbe-Grillet has achieved his project: in the first place because failure is baked into the very nature of it (there is no ‘Degree Zero’ of form, the negation turns into a positive act)….
—Roland Barthes, “Non c’e una scuola Robbe-Grillet”, Saggi critici (1966, pp. 49-50, translated by Lidia Lonzi, my translation of Lonzi)
In his impossible quest to ‘square the circle’ of literature, to express in the positive form of writing itself an absolutely negative state of inhuman ‘thingness’, M. Robbe-Grillet’s literary project somewhat resembles the flâneurial-literary life-project of Mr. Goodis—that ‘body of work’, a literary corpus which is the sole material record—like some empty, chrysaline trace left by an ectoplasm in its passing across this plain—of a completely self-erased life, one hell-bent, in all its positives actions, on circling back to the absolutely negative, zero-state of 無.
In “Sur quelques notions périmées” M. Robbe-Grillet valorizes l’écriture by satirical negation of it: Rather than being the foreground concern of the novelist—the ‘romancer’ as ‘teller of tales’—the material language a writer avails himself of is generally relegated to the background, as a mere ‘vehicle’ for the delivery of the intrigue. For M. Robbe-Grillet, however, the ‘medium’ of the novel—which is to say, l’écriture, words and writing themselves—are the very ‘message’ of it.
The ‘désagregation’, the ‘désamorcement’ of literary language itself, its disintegrating capacity to convey and deliver a decipherable meaning, is, for M. Robbe-Grillet, the real ‘intrigue’, the real ‘mystery’ of the modern story, and the roman policier is the form of the nouveau roman best suited to express the sudden ‘crypticity’ of language in modern life.
Thus, as M. Garnier shows, the romans noirs of David Goodis, which in their nihilism point naïvely towards this condition of existential ‘meaninglessness’ the French themselves, through their more diffuse, more abstract language are also registering post-1945, are both seen and read by the French through a prism of intellectualism.
While generally deprecated in his own country, he is given the grand treatment en France, being elected to the Académie of the crime novel, the Série Noire, from which brand-name the very terms ‘film noir’ and ‘roman noir’ are derived.
In 1945, under the editorship of Marcel Duhamel, Gallimard started publishing its translations of British and American crime novels in the Série Noire. In 1946, echoing the Gallimard label, the French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier wrote the two earliest essays to identify a departure in film-making, the American ‘film noir’. Although they were not thought of in the United States as films noirs (the French label did not become widely known there until the 1970s), numerous postwar Hollywood movies seemed to confirm the French judgement that a new type of American film had emerged, very different from the usual studio product and capable of conveying an impression ‘of certain disagreeable realities that do in truth exist’.
—Horsley (2001, p. 90)
American disinterest in Mr. Goodis’ work is in some sense a function of economics and the invidious rôle that publicity—‘marketing’—plays in American ‘high’ culture: Paperback originals such as the ones Mr. Goodis wrote for Gold Medal and Lion not being released in hardcover, as M. Garnier explains, the dark novels written by shamefully ‘ignored’ authors like Mr. Goodis and Jim Thompson—gentlemen we now regard as the classic romanciers of the second generation of noir—were beneath the notice of The New York Times, then as now the supreme arbiter of literary ‘good taste’ in America, and hence the jury a ‘respectable’ book had to satisfy in order to become a bestseller.
Quelle odeur de magasin!Franchement, ça pue.
I spoke above of the ‘rough, popular laundering of ideas’ in American high culture: this is it. And with respect to the argument that Mr. Trilling makes in “Reality in America” (as indeed throughout The Liberal Imagination), in the corrupt intellectual laundry centred in The New York Times Building, we see the contemptible ‘middlebrowness’ of American ‘high’ culture industriously about its trade of blanchissage—the imaginative constraints of liberalism which disallow the dark, urgent vision of a writer like Mr. Goodis, full of the ‘electric qualities’ of the American mind at its most naïvely keen, as being beneath its snooty notice.
In America, what appeals to the widest respectable demographic is pushed, peddled, pimped and trafficked by The New York Times, and consequently has an automatic ‘inside track’ to becoming ‘high culture’ by domestic standards, these standards being judged by sales, the American benchmark of ‘success’.
In the States, you need nothing but money to be a success—money to start with, in order to pay The Times for your publicity, money to end with, in sales, and money, as profit, for a chaser.
The French, however, standing outside this invidious commercial laundry, and with their admirable ability to divine the implicit quality of things, are in a far better position to dispassionately and accurately judge where the wellsprings, the vital currents of American life lie.
And as the example of David Goodis shows, inevitably, the true creative spirit of America lies in those economically straitened corners that are beneath ‘respectable’ commercial notice—in such artefacts compiled of the ‘trashy’ detritus of American life as the B picture, the pulp paperback, the Cornell box.
It’s in these deprecated corners of ‘folk art’ that something inventive, innovative, vibrant is happening in American life, where a poverty of means forces the artist to be creative in order to realize his private vision.
Les couvertures de ses romans pour Lion Books collent assez bien à l’idée qu’on se fait généralement de Goodis et ses romans: grisaille et meublés bon marché. Certaines des couvertures Gold Medal, par contre, en surprendraient beaucoup. Goodis percevait le marché Fawcett comme étant plus cru, plus avide de sensations que celui de Lion Books. Il a écrit ses romans les plus outrageux, les plus sadiques et les plus «érotiques» pour Gold Medal, et ne s’est mis au ruisseau que pour cette seule masion d’édition. Le côté perdition, descente aux abysses, semblait coller parfaitement avec l’idée qu’on pouvait se faire du marché Fawcett. Parce qu’il ne faut pas oublier que la façon dont ces romans étaient perçus en Amérique était radicalement différent qu’en France, où ils trouvaient une caution intellectuelle via Gallimard. Et l’écran vide des couvertures noires permettait de se faire le cinéma qu’on voulait. Les couvertures Fawcett, elles, ne permettaient aucune équivoque. La superbe couverture de Cassidy’s Girl montre une chatte sur un drap brûlant, en combinaison, faisant des appels de fards à une grande brute en T-shirt genre Marlon Brando. On parle peut-être de Lautréamont au dos de l’édition française de Of Tender Sin, et l’illustration de couverture d’Obsession montre peut-être les ravages de l’alcool et des mauvais rêves, mais la couverture Fawcett de Of Tender Sin, elle, allait plus droit au but; on y voyait une superbe blonde lascive, dépoitraillée, dont l’attitude et les jambes écartées ne laissaient aucun doute sur la teneur de l’ouvrage en question. «Plus d’un million d’exemplaires vendus», clame la réédition Dell de Cassidy’s Girl en 1967. Mais vendus où? A qui? Dans les truck-stops et les bouquinistes de la nation, dans les gares de Greyhound.
The covers of his novels for Lion Books tally well enough with the idea that we generally have of Goodis and his books: gloomy and cheaply furnished. Some of the covers for his Gold Medal books, on the other hand, might take you very much by surprise. Goodis regarded the Fawcett Gold Medal market as being cruder, hungrier for ‘kicks’, than the Lion Books market. He wrote his most outrageous novels, his most sadistic and ‘erotic’, for Gold Medal, and only precipitated himself into the gutter for this publishing house. The side of him that seeks perdition, a descent into Hell, would appear to gel perfectly with the idea one gathers of the market for Fawcett books. We must not forget that the way these books were viewed in America was radically differently to the way they were perceived in France, where they received an intellectual endorsement through Gallimard. And the blank screen of the black covers in the Série Noire editions allows every reader to project his own private cinema onto them. The Fawcett covers leave nothing to the imagination. The magnificent cover for Cassidy’s Girl shows a slut in her slip steaming up the sheets, giving the come-hither look to a big bruiser in a Marlon Brando-style T-shirt. Lautréamont might be invoked on the back of the French edition of Of Tender Sin, and the front might show the wages of drink and bad dreams, but the cover of the Fawcett edition gets straight to the point: there we see a big, lusty blonde, deeply décolletée, whose attitude and gams wide open for business leave no doubt as to the tenor of the work inside. ‘Over a million copies sold!’ the Dell reprint of Cassidy’s Girl claims in 1967. But sold where? And to whom? In the nation’s truck-stops and second-hand bookshops, in Greyhound terminals.
—Garnier (1984, p. 200, my translation)
One of the astonishingly consistent findings of M. Garnier’s American recherche de David Goodis is how few of his friends actually read his novels. They typically found ‘ce genre de romans indignes d’eux’;—the emphasis is M. Garnier’s. ‘This type of novel’—the pulp crime thriller—was really a socially sanctioned form of pornography in the lurid years of the paperbacks, as the quote above—like Mr. O’Brien’s prose-prosodic descriptions of paperback cover art in Hardboiled America—gives evidence.
Failing to obtain the imprimatur of The New York Times, publishers like Lion or Gold Medal—‘le Skid Row de l’édition’, as M. Garnier calls it—set themselves up somewhat in defiance of popular, bourgeois ‘good taste’: all holds came off. As inverted dandy-flâneur, Mr. Goodis is, therefore, a member of an æsthetic résistance to hegemonic American ‘good taste’, to the ‘whitewashing’—the corrupt intellectual blanchissage—of American culture.
He is working at the vital centre of American cultural life—which is, paradoxically, the artistic margins of it. There he is free to be original and experimental, to ‘rechercher’, through flânerie, the gutters of Philadelphia, and to work at the avant-garde of literary modernism.
This is what the French perceive in him. And their presentation in the Série Noire, those blank, black covers that allow one to project onto them one’s own private film noir, those uniform black covers of the French editions of Mr. Goodis’ work, like the bland, cream covers of so many French paperbacks then as now, point towards the abstract, intuitive inclinations of the French, who do not require the hyper-real, hyper-material, hyper-pornographic presentation that appealed to their materialistic American frères as a commercial vector for buying and reading books.
Seen in that abstract light, the electric qualities implicit in David Goodis, this man who presents as blank a façade as the French editions of his own books, what lies behind his teeming materiality détourné, becomes nakedly apparent to the French; and they recognize him as a brother to their own intellectual tradition, a more naïve version of same, a dandy, a flâneur, a surrealist, an applied existentialist, an étranger to his society who nevertheless has his finger on the quickened pulse of it, who can feel where American culture is ‘at’ after 1945.
—Look, you either have it or you don’t. If you don’t have it, that’s O.K. We can take it out in trade.
—In trade? What trade? I don’t have that either.
—You don’t have what?
—Anything to trade. I told you; I haven’t got it.
—You haven’t got it.
—No, I haven’t got it.
—Well, it’s no big deal. Spag is not unreasonable. If you haven’t got it, you haven’t got it. If it can’t be gotten one way, it can be gotten another. We’ll take it out in trade.
—But I haven’t got a trade.
—Look, I think we’ve got a failure of communication here. You say you haven’t got a trade.
—That’s right. Can’t you give me more time?
—Look, we’ll come to that in a minute. I just want to be sure we’ve got each other. You say you haven’t got a trade.
—Yes, I haven’t got anything to trade.
—Right. That’s where we’re not getting each other. If you’ve got nothing to trade, we can’t get it from you.
—But if you give me more time; a week, say—
—Look, we’ll come to the time element in a minute. Where we’re failing to get each other is on the trade issue. Now look, Spag’s not an unreasonable fellow. If you haven’t got it to give and we can’t get it from you, we can get it another way. We’ll take it out in trade.
—But I don’t have a trade—
—You don’t have a trade, but I do.
He showed the other the pistol.
—You’re out of time. Spag told me to get it from you. You haven’t got it, so now I’m going to give it to you.
—Dean Kyte, “The Trade”
The Architecture of my secret planet
In The Life and Work of Harold Pinter (1996), theatre critic Michael Billington quotes G. K. Chesterton: ‘There is at the back of every artist’s mind, something like a pattern or type of architecture. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet.’
On The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, in the ‘flânography’ of my videos, films, and photographs, I have given you, chers lecteurs, more than intimate access to my ‘secret planet’. As a flâneurial writer and filmmaker, in my dreamy dérives around Melbourne, I’ve shown even those readers who know the city as well as I another side of it, hitherto unsuspected—a dark, bleak world of urban ruin.
It’s the sinister vision of ‘friendly menace’ featured in the “Melbournoir” spread of The Melbourne Flâneur zine; it’s equally the vision of absolute nihilism and despair which pervades the black-and-white photographs I’ve chosen to illustrate The Spleen of Melbourne CD.
You can get an intimate sense, therefore, of ‘the strange flora’ (for there is no fauna, nothing living in these post-diluvial liminal spaces) on my secret planet: as a flâneurial artist who finds his heaven in the hell of the city, I live in an arid, calciferous, petrified forest, a mental desert of shattered crystals, the standing stones of an urban wasteland.
Is the desert so very bad? It is no worse than our cultural deserts, which we call cities.
—C. G. Jung, Black Books, Vol. III, January 1914
The kind of world I would wish to make, or in which I would wish to flâneurially wander, is, as the dream-Melbourne of my videos, films and photographs gives ample evidence, an Eliotian Waste Land.
The flâneurial investigation of urban landscape as much as the interrogation of the shifting sands of women’s moods and appearances seem equally to have a hold on my psyche. In those mysteries, the calamity of our times appears most evident to me.
The video above is in the first category, and certainly “The Trade” will feature in the next iteration of The Spleen of Melbourne project, when it takes on its second incarnation as a collection of short videos and Super 8 films.
As my good friend—and a good friend of this vlog—Hermetrix once observed on our Bellingenian jaunt last year, architecture means a great deal to me. The subjects of my photographs, the ‘actors’ in my films and videos are buildings and bits of shabby urban architecture, like the florid pedestrian underpass in Watsonia North which provided me with a photogenic subject for what would become “The Trade”.
Tripping past this cavernous maw, with its three teeth and its concrete face totemically tattooed with graffiti, shortly after we were released from our epic second lockdown in 2020, the Aragonian frisson de photogénie was activated in me and I knew I had a videographic subject for a future entry in The Spleen of Melbourne project.
The affinity I have for architecture is obvious in my visual œuvre. What is less obvious is that ‘the first art-form’—(for the necessity to construct a formally functional shelter is even more fundamental to human beings than their ability to communicate with each other through language)—should be deeply linked to my writing.
The knot between them is Gordian and can’t be separated. You could cut out the obsession with women more easily from my literary œuvre than the love of architecture.
Track 11 of The Spleen of Melbourne CD, the ficción“Office at night”, which I discussed in my post on Edward Hopper’s flâneurial art, is entirely a ludic jeu de perspectives architecturales in which I play a game with the listener, setting them the puzzle, à laRobbe-Grillet, of determining where they are in space with respect to a ‘verbal blueprint’ of Block Court and its immediate environs.
In the material symbol of the concrete architectural form, therefore, I see the analogue in space for my own intellectual concetti.
In the grisly face of this unremarked coin of the Greensborough Bypass I perceived something which excited me, some symbolic structure of thought, some reef in my unconscious against which my intuition instinctively barked itself, recognizing another clue to the æsthetic mystery of life I am tracking and trailing through the streets of Melbourne, and which, some eighteen months later, would slowly resolve itself, as the waters gradually receded, into the ambiguous ‘image’ of the video and the dialogue of “The Trade”.
It follows “Office at night” as another development in the literary crime I am plotting. The Godot-like ‘Spag’ referred to in “The Trade” is actually a character in one of the ficciones on The Spleen of Melbourne CD, although I’ll leave it to you, chers lecteurs, to determine which one.
As a sub-project of The Spleen of Melbourne, while I delineate the lineaments of the literary mystery that is slowly being carved, as an architecture of thought, out of the fog of my unconscious, when I find myself in a vicolo cieco of that imaginary Melbourne which maps to the actual one of my flâneuristic experience, I find it a useful activity to occasionally write a ficción exploring some aspect of the labyrinthine intellectual architecture I am groping my way blindly through.
And in “The Trade”, I was interested in exploring the voices of two characters who have lately come to extrude themselves, buttress-like, from the stony mass of Melburnian mystery as salient excroissances in that abstract cathedral of my thought—and at least one of whom is speaking in the short story. I was interested in learning how these characters speak, and my intuition (which is my only guide in mapping out this postmodern mystery of contemporary Melbourne life I will set before your ears in due course) eventually told me that there was a ‘Pinteresque’ quality to their speech—one that was, ambiguously, both humorous and menacing at the same time.
Pinteresque, adj. (and n.): Of or relating to Harold Pinter; resembling or characteristic of his plays….
Pinter’s plays are typically characterized by implications of threat and strong feeling produced through colloquial language, apparent triviality, and long pauses.
—Oxford English Dictionary
And a shout-out to another good friend of The Melbourne Flâneur vlog, Mr. Glen Available of Scenic Writers Shack in Brisbane, who, upon listening to the soundtrack of the video on Bandcamp, was kind enough to drop me a line and say that it both intrigued him and gave him a few chuckles. This was unexpected feedback gratefully received;—for although I thought I had probably got the atmosphere of ambiguity and menace I saw in the image of the underpass right, I wasn’t so sure about the humour.
The fact is, although your Melbourne Flâneur has a sense of humour, chers lecteurs, I don’t think I’m a ‘funny person’. With my saturnine nature, I’m quite dour. I live on the dark side of life. I’m exceedingly comfortable with ambiguity, obscurity, veiled threat. In the puzzling dark, I see the rending horrors of our time vaguely sketched.
I’ve since read the dialogue of “The Trade” at the Alternatives Bookshop in Bellingen, with the public health warning attached that I’m not at all certain, despite Mr. Glen’s good will, that the piece is ‘funny’. It did, however, gouge ‘a few chuckles’ out of the audience, and if there’s any humour at all in the ficción, it’s a kind of ‘technical’, poetic humour that relies on the constant emphasis and rhythmic repetition of a few simple words—‘give’, ‘got’, and, of course, ‘trade’, the ambiguous double meaning of which, as both verb and noun, supplies whatever ‘punchline’ there is.
I think I was perhaps influenced by Mr. Pinter’s short revue sketches, written in 1959, when the exotic name of ‘Pinter’ was first sending a frisson of apprehension through the British theatrical establishment. This was the year before Messrs. Bennett, Cook, Miller and Moore revolutionized British comedy with Beyond the Fringe, and as Mr. Billington tells us in his biographical study of the Pinter vie et œuvre:
Revue, in those pre-Beyond the Fringe days, tended to come in two sorts: the glitzy kind, which invariably seemed to feature an Apache dance outside some ill-lit Parisian boîte, and the more intimate variety specialising in inbred, sophisticated camp. But the form was subtly changing under the influence of writers like Peter Cook … and was leaning towards cryptic studies of the irrationality and inconsequentiality of human behaviour. Indeed, Cook … and Pinter … have always struck me … as artistic blood brothers.
What is striking about Pinter’s revue-sketches is the way they examine the same kinds of themes as his plays: the strangeness and solitude of the human animal, the subjectivity of memory, the use of language as a weapon of domination or a means of maintaining contact…. As he himself told The Times in November 1959:
In both [revue-sketches and plays] I am primarily interested in people… In many British plays I find myself put off by the spectre of the author looming above his characters, telling them [the audience] at every stage just what they are to think about them. I want as far as possible to leave comment to the audience; let them decide whether the characters and situations are funny or sad.
—Michael Billington, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, p. 107
I agree with this intention, for certainly with “The Trade”, I was not seeking to write anything that was either funny or threatening. I was just trying to get an amiable conversation down, the most banal and unenlightening conversation possible, the kind of unilluminating snippet of conversation you might catch a snatch of walking through a suburban underpass. It would be up to the viewers to decide what they made of it, since I had no more information about the characters than that both of them are well-acquainted with the mythical Spag.
In that technical focus on the ‘mechanics of language’, how the ‘machine’ of a dialogue moves, with the escalating, accented repetition of key words acting like cogs and gears to advance a very simple, vestigial plot, I might have been thinking of Mr. Pinter’s sketch “Trouble in the Works”. As a parody of technical language, with its highly suggestive names for obscure machine parts, it escalates to a pitch of hilarity ending in a single word with a punning double sense. And in its overtly comic intent, of all Mr. Pinter’s revue sketches, “Trouble in the Works” is probably the most in-line with traditional English music-hall comedy pre-Beyond the Fringe.
The music of language and silence
But more characteristic of his style (and more interesting to me as a writer who takes a rather grim view of life) are short duets like “The Black and White” and “Last to Go”, which are not really ‘funny’ as such, but rather ‘wry’, and even melancholy. We know from the report of Mr. Pinter’s friends and girlfriends that he was great flâneur of London in his youth, that he loved ‘the caffs’, like the Black and White Milk Bar in Fleet Street, that he felt a great affinity for tramps and other gentlemen of the street, and in a way that is sui generis to Mr. Pinter as one of the foremost comic playwrights in modern English, these short, poetic sketches of la vie londonienne scribbled in muted tones possess a kind of dry, wry humour which is derived from two characters sadly singing a duet in the music of language and silence.
Sir Jeremy Isaacs: There’s words and there’s silence between words.
Harold Pinter: Yes.
Mr. Isaacs: And is there silence within the words?
Mr. Pinter: Oh yes, I think so; I think that… there’s a silence… beneath the words very, very often. In other words, our words—it seems to me—quite often… hide… are actually… performing a rôle, a function, which is to… hide or tarnish, or to tarnish upon the silence that exists. I mean this silence, I’d like to be more precise about what I mean by that word silence in this particular connection, which is … I understand, a silence of fear, a fear of being known, a fear of knowledge, really. Fear of not only being known, but of knowing other people; that fear of intimacy.
Mr. Isaacs: And we use words to protect ourselves from that—
Mr. Pinter: —To cover it—to protect ourselves; yes, that’s the word I was actually looking for. To protect ourselves, yes.
And as you can see in this Pinterish transcription of the grilling he underwent on the BBC’s Face to Face program, that ‘music of language and silence’ I’m referring to was not a literary affectation on Mr. Pinter’s part designed to confound and infuriate critics, or to bore and bamboozle audiences, but an eminent characteristic of his own speech patterns, full of smug evasion, groping hesitation towards the truth, awkward constructions of sentences and clumsy, colloquial Anglicisms.
Unique among English writers, he had an ear, as has been tirelessly reiterated, for ‘the way people talk’—the way they really talk; which is to say, how they say nothing.
As Mr. Pinter said in “Writing for the Theatre”, his famous address to the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol in 1962, ‘It is in the silence—[the place where the characters are silent and in hiding]—that they are most evident to me,’ and he went to make the distinction between two kinds of silence:—‘[o]ne when no word is spoken’, and the other ‘when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed’ to tarnish upon this void.
It is the chief characteristic of Modernism to find the Void in all the art-forms—the blankness in painting, the silence in music, the emptiness in architecture, the invisibility in photography, the stillness in cinema. Where that Void is, God is absent, and the modern artist in the West seeks to raise the alarm to his fellows, to point, to gesture towards the God-shaped hole, to scream out in halting, garbled tongues and alert the masses that we have murdered our Highest Value—the Source of all our values—and are dancing, revelling in His blood.
In the theatre, Mr. Pinter found the silence between the words spoken by human beings confronted with this implacable and terrifying Void; the silence within the very words we speak to tarnish over the Abyss; the silence beneath that very sound and fury signifying Nothing.
The celebrated ‘Pinter pause’, that unnerving ventilation of his plays, that silence and stasis between the lines spoken the actors, is itself actually a crucial line of dialogue, the hiding place where, for Mr. Pinter, human beings are most evident, most naked in their fear.
It was for this reason that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005;—for his revolutionary apprehension that silence itself is a major term in the English language—as in all human language—that we, as writers, the scientists and explorers of human speech, are yet to come adequately to grips with and incorporate into our literary lexicon; for his experiments on the stage in ‘uncover[ing] the precipice under everyday prattle’, and his penetrating investigations, ‘forc[ing] entry into oppression’s closed rooms’.
Mr. Pinter’s utterly unique, therefore, among comic writers, whether for the theatre or more generally in English letters, in that there is nothing ‘comedic’ in his lines—nor, for that matter, is there anything ‘menacing’ in them, despite his early and lasting reputation as the writer of ‘comedies of menace’.
The Pinter line, broken, clichéd, grossly banal, both pregnant with meaning and utterly devoid of it, simply is as everyday English speech is. And into this void of ambiguity, in the face of this uncomfortable confrontation with the fractured poetry of our own tongue, we are forced to bark out a nervous laugh and let off a shiver simultaneously as we recognize our own tics and foibles and foolish verbal strategies in singing over this gulf of silence that separates us from the person in the next seat.
The desire for verification on the part of all of us, with regard to our own experience and the experience of others, is understandable but cannot always be satisfied. I suggest there can be no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily true or false; it can be both true and false. A character on the stage who can present no convincing argument or information as to his past experience, his present behaviour or his aspirations, nor give a comprehensive analysis of his motives is as legitimate and as worthy of attention as one who, alarmingly, can do all these things. The more acute the experience the less articulate its expression.
—Harold Pinter, “Writing for the Theatre”, Plays One, p. 11
The literary architecture of Sleuth
The rôle of architecture, and its relevance to literature, is pertinent here. As a thoroughgoing homme du théâtre, the most influential actor-dramatist in English letters since William Shakespeare, architecture, both concrete and abstract, is as relevant, I will contend, to Mr. Pinter’s art as it is to mine.
The architecture of a stage as the setting for a drama; the architecture of a room, that battlefield of verbal violence, power and domination in his comedies of menace; and the asymmetric, pyramidal architecture of power itself as manifested in domestic space: this is, to revert to Mr. Chesterton, ‘the pattern or type of architecture’ on Mr. Pinter’s secret planet, ‘the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander….’ And as Mr. Billington goes on to say:
That makes it sound romantic-idealist, but Pinter’s own secret planet turned out to be a cratered paradise destroyed by the serpent of sexuality and the desire for domination.
—Billington (1996, p. 26)
He neatly summarizes for us the key motifs of the Pinter world we find time and again repeated in his plays and screenplays—‘a room, a space, a territorial battle, a triangular encounter between two men and a woman, a reversal of power.’
That summary not only sets the stage, but it tells us in one sentence the entire plot of almost every Pinter play and screenplay. And curiously, it’s the motif, startlingly present and clearly delineated, as Mr. Billington tells us, in Mr. Pinter’s first surviving piece, written in 1949, when he just nineteen, and his last script, for the film Sleuth (2007), nearly sixty years later. It shows how much his work was of a piece.
But despite the award of the Nobel Prize two years before the release of Sleuth, I suspect that by 2007 Mr. Pinter had become somewhat of a ‘fabled figure’, one of those writers of the 1960’s, like his contemporary M. Robbe-Grillet, whose truly revolutionary impact on literature and film had been so thoroughly absorbed and digested by the popular culture that subsequent generations, X-ers and Millennials, could no longer truly appreciate how unique and original literary stylist he was, and what a gift it was to have this final film, written virtually on his deathbed, from the hand of one of the great writers of the previous century in our own.
Given that it recapitulates in a postmodern form the lifelong themes, motifs, concerns and abstract architecture of one of the landmark dramatists of high, literary modernism, Sleuth seems to me an elegant demonstration as much as it is a culmination and a summation of Pinter, the man and his world.
Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth (1970) is, without putting it pejoratively, the absolute opposite of Mr. Pinter’s theatre. It’s theatre as spectacle, an absolutely first-rate entertainment, as is the 1972 film adaptation written by Mr. Shaffer himself and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
And with respect to the two film versions of Sleuth, I don’t think the usual criticism about the original being better than the remake obtains in this instance: the original Sleuth is an absolutely first-rate entertainment, but the remake, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, transcends the original material and improves considerably upon it.
This is largely thanks to Mr. Pinter’s script, which shears away ‘the fat’ of theatrical spectacle, the convolutions of the plot which give Sleuth I its scopic pleasures as both play and movie. Sleuth II is slightly more half the length of the original, and at less than eighty minutes, is considerably shorter than most movies made even in 2007, when the taste for bloated two-and-a-half-hour spectacles had not yet quite taken hold of commercial cinema.
As we will see further on in this section, this ‘stripping away’ of the commercial ‘fat’ of theatrical spectacle to reveal the lean essence of human drama is eminently characteristic of Mr. Pinter’s approach to screen adaptation and central to his conception of the ‘architecture’ of a piece, both abstractly, as a written blueprint on a page, and concretely, as enacted theatre.
In spite of Mr. Branagh’s bristlingly cinematic treatment of the Pinter script, Sleuth II is even more of a ‘play’ than the original Shaffer script; which is to say that Sleuth I is a theatrical entertainment, while Sleuth II is theatre: it is Art.
As a point of comparison, note the architecture in Sleuth I. The baronial estate belonging to mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Sir Laurence Olivier) is a space of intrigue reflective of the man: we—and Sir Michael Caine’s Milo Tindle—discover Wyke dictating his latest locked-room mystery in the cosy midst of a labyrinth beside his mock-Gothic pile.
The space of his Wiltshire manor (designed by the great Ken Adam, so we know this ‘bad interior design’ is no mistake) is ‘busy’ with gewgaws, automata, and all manner of mechanical gadgets and games. This overwhelming and unsettling baroque encombrement of the frame is but itself a busy frame for the similarly baroque performance of Lord Olivier. As Mr. Caine said of his performance, Lord Olivier plays Wyke as a ‘dangerous English eccentric’: his mania for games and puzzles, theatre and play-acting sets us immediately at a remove. Consummate stage actor that he is, we ‘enjoy’ Lord Olivier’s performance, and thus the piece as theatrical spectacle.
Even the film’s title sequence, zooming in on a diorama, alludes to its origins on the stage as a ‘play’, a game of counterfeit appearances into which we, the audience, willingly enter, and self-consciously sets up a mise en abyme effect: house, hedge-maze, game, puzzle—all elaborate visual metaphors for a nested, ludic text, a casse-tête of multiple layers, like sliding panels, the pleasure of which, for the viewer, resides in rearranging the overlapping surfaces of recursive lies until they lock into place and this rebus forms ‘the picture’ of what is really going on—the ‘truth’, the ‘solution’ to Sleuth’s game of theatrical Cluedo.
This is why I say that Mr. Shaffer’s original conception of Sleuth is an absolutely first-rate ‘entertainment’. We are not plunged too deeply into the eccentric nightmare Milo finds himself in as he must navigate and extricate himself from the labyrinthine toils of Wyke’s dangerous game, but remain at a remove, entertained and not involved.
We know, since the detective story is a genre of fiction whose commercial value, as entertainment, is strictly linked to technocratic capitalism’s assumption of a rational symbolic order, that there must be a rational ‘solution’ to Wyke’s apparently irrational game, and only rationality can get Tindle out of his predicament.
These are the capitalistic assumptions of crime as a genre of commercial entertainment, and the concrete architecture of Sleuth I reflects a rational order beneath the surface disorder of apparent ‘busyness’, a belief that the foundations of reality are as firm as an English country house, the lineaments of which can be eventually divined beneath the ivy-covered walls.
Compare this architectural vision to Mr. Pinter’s in Sleuth II. I’ve already quoted Mr. Pinter’s famous credo given at Bristol, that he believes ‘there can be no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false’, and that, moreover, a thing ‘can be both true and false.’
This radical scepticism about reality, apart from being another key feature of modernism in art, is incompatible with the capitalistic assumptions of the commercial crime genre. Mr. Pinter, in his early comedies of menace, as in his end-of-life adaptation of Sleuth, is writing what I call ‘literary crime’: As an artist, as a researcher who is earnestly investigating, through the medium of written words, our modern confrontation with an existential Void that lies beneath our language, Mr. Pinter is not possessed of any received assumptions, any commercial certainties about a ‘solution’ to our global problems, about what is real and what is unreal, about what is true or what is false.
In that world of ambiguity and radical scepticism which is Mr. Pinter’s secret planet, the concrete and the abstract architecture of his interpretation of the Sleuth plot strips away the baroque busyness of Mr. Shaffer’s play to its essence: ‘a game with a knife and a gun’, a contest, a competition between two men, a naked power play between Andrew Wyke (now played by Michael Caine, graduating to the Olivier rôle) and Milo Tindle (now played by Jude Law).
Michelangelo, great sculptor, but equally a great architect, said that sculpture (which I would contend is directly derivative of architecture) is unique among the art-forms in that is an art of subtraction rather than addition: the sculptor reveals the form within the stone by taking away.
Non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concetto
c’un marmo solo in sé non circonscriva
col suo superchio, e solo a quello arriva
la man che ubbidisce all’intelletto.
The greatest artist hath not any idea
Which the rude block, circumscribed by its excess,
Does not first contain in itself; to free the captive
Is all the hand which obeys the intellect can do.
—Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concetto” (my translation)
Compare this to Pauline Kael’s remark that, in contradistinction to most screenwriters, who add (often infuriatingly) what is not there to the material they adapt, ‘Pinter’s art is the art of taking away.’ Dirk Bogarde, who had the benefit of interpreting two Pinter scripts for the screen, The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967), co-signs Ms. Kael’s statement, saying that ‘addition was a very rare event because you just don’t find writers of his calibre in cinema.’
There’s a reason why we call artists like Mr. Pinter ‘playwrights’ in English rather than ‘playwriters’: like a shipwright, or a naval architect, he maps and constructs a form—abstract in his case—that must, despite its great ventilation and airiness, nevertheless be solid and serviceable, that must ‘float’ when given to a crew of actors and their captain, the director.
With Mr. Pinter, the written form, the wrighted form, must be ‘right’.
Mr. Pinter finds the sculptural, the essential architectural form beneath and within Mr. Shaffer’s busy, baroque script, and the coincidence of it is that, when you strip out all the commercial set decoration, the wheezing, steam-driven mechanics of mystery and suspense, the hard, naked architectural ‘form’ of the Sleuth plot maps precisely to the one artistic apprehension Mr. Pinter has about life, the one thing in the whole calamitous mystery of the modern world he’s absolutely sure about and can write with authority on—the concrete architecture of dramatic space, and its relationship to the abstract architecture of power.
The Sleuth plot is, au fond, about two men standing before us, naked in their humanity, and locked in a gladiatorial duel to the death.
The minimalist approach to mise-en-scène in Sleuth II not only reflects the architecture of Mr. Pinter’s writing, his ‘ventilated style’, but a different conception of ‘the game’ and game-playing, which is also architecturally structured by ‘rules of combat’, as the central conceit of the plot. Whereas Mr. Shaffer favours a labyrinthine thriller, ‘full of twists and turns’, Mr. Pinter strips the game back to a primitive struggle for power, a hierarchical ‘game of positions’.
Games people play
Detective Inspector Black: So what did you two do when you got together?
Wyke: We played a game.
Black: A game…
Wyke: A game with a knife and a gun.
Black: A lethal game?
Wyke: No. Just a bit of fun, that’s all.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
Games, as rules-based architectures modelling social relations, figure very significantly in the Pinter œuvre, which is not surprising given that this poet and playwright was also a fanatical cricketer and, by all accounts, an extremely competitive sportsman. Mr. Billington detects a deep link between dangerous masculine competitions and the sacredness of male friendship chez Pinter.
The vector of connection, as Davood Gozli observes in his Transactional Analysis of Sleuth II, is obviously homoerotic, but we should be careful about stopping here. To say that Mr. Pinter, with his stripping away of architectural excess, raises to the surface a subterranean homosexuality which is implicit in the Wyke/Tindle rapport of Mr. Shaffer’s plot, that their relationship in Sleuth II is simply the adventitious manifestation of a latent sexual deviance the two men discover in each other is, as I will show further on, too superficial an analysis, and fails to adequately describe the truly depraved nature of the game that Wyke and Tindle are playing in its deepest, and final, iteration.
The potentially lethal ‘game of positions’ between two men who are simultaneously perverse friends and deadly rivals has its most archetypal and architectural expression as a dramatic and cinematic image in Mr. Pinter’s first film, The Servant. I’m talking about the famous scene on the staircase in the ‘chic’ but claustrophobic London flat belonging to Tony (James Fox), where he and his manservant Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) viciously peg a tennis ball up- and down-stairs at each other.
There are evidently rules to this obscure game and an object to it, though I cannot, for the life of me, work out what the object is. Are they trying to defend the two bibelots set in niches at either end of the staircase? Then too, there is clearly a ‘strategy’ to the game that reveals its atavistic nature as an archetypal (as well as architectonic) ‘game of positions’, as evidenced by the servant Barrett’s complaint that the advantage lies with the master, Tony, for he himself is ‘in the inferior position of playing uphill.’
This archetypal image from The Servant literalizes the hierarchical game of positioning for dominance that is the chief architectural pattern of social relations on Mr. Pinter’s secret planet. The ball, an inoffensive symbol of co-operative play, is literally weaponized as an injurious projectile. And where we have weapons, we have crime.
The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
Yet our equipment all the time
Extends the area of the crime
Until the guilt is everywhere.
—W. H. Auden, “New Year’s Letter (January 1, 1940)”
On Mr. Pinter’s secret planet, there is no solution: only the crime remains.
This is the distinction between what I am calling ‘literary crime’ and crime fiction as a commercial genre of entertainment. For the serious artist who is necessarily a researcher into ‘the situation of our time’, as Mr. Pinter is, there can be no comforting, rational ‘solutions’ to the existential problems of modernity, as technocratic capitalism assumes, but merely the acknowledgment that ‘our equipment’—the technological equipment of modernity—is the very weaponry we have used to commit our ‘Original Sin’ as Faustian men:—the murder of our God with the golden calf of Science, the murder of our Highest Value, and the Source of all our values.
The modern equipment of technocratic capitalism, the exponentially smarter shovels we iteratively design to dig ourselves out of the mess we are in, spreading the crotte even further afield, is the Cluedo arsenal of ‘smartknives’ and ‘iGuns’ which implicates us all in a game of mutually assured destruction.
Banished from the architecture of Mr. Pinter’s Sleuth is the mechanical gadgetry whose complicated and occult workings are concrete metaphors for the meshes of Wyke’s intellectual game in Sleuth I. With a kind of ‘Lord of the Flies’-style atavism, Mr. Pinter strips out the machinery of the commercial crime entertainment to its most fundamental ‘equipment’—a simple knife and gun, the primitive fulcrums by which men leverage elemental power over each other.
Behind the façade of the eighteenth-century villa in which Mr. Caine’s Wyke resides, we—and Mr. Law’s Tindle—are confronted with an eminently gladiatorial space: an über-masculine, über-brutalist concrete cube that resembles an art gallery or a stage set, a place for ‘performance art’.
Both characters claim that the house has been designed by Wyke’s wife, Maggie, the ostensible object of their contest, but it hasn’t a feminine touch at all: even the absurd and uncomfortable chairs don’t match.
Wyke: Like the house?
Wyke: You know who designed it, who the ‘interior decorator’ was?
Tindle: Yes; your wife.
Wyke: You knew?
Tindle: Yes, I knew.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
If, indeed, this arena has has been architecturally designed by a woman, it’s is a Spartan space designed for men: it’s a boxing ring, a field of battle in which Wyke and Tindle are going to verbally beat each other to a pulp for possession of Maggie, the third term in their triangular territorial contest, and who, despite never being seen, can still be regarded as an active competitor in this game of mutual attrition.
At a meta-level, the game between Wyke and Tindle is an example of what Eric Berne, in his famous bestseller Games People Play (1964), terms a ‘Sexual Game’. More specifically, it’s a game he calls “Let’s You and Him Fight”, in a which a feminine player engineers a duel between two masculine players for sexual possession of her.
As Rick Baer says in his video essay comparing the two Sleuths, the design of the house in Mr. Pinter’s ruggedly skeletal and architectonic version of the script is not merely ‘uncomfortable’, but ‘downright hostile’. It’s not a home at all, but a ludic space that has been deliberately designed to unsettle, to arouse and agitate two men to an outcome, rather than to relax and soothe them. Neither the audience nor Milo are ever at ease in the place, and Wyke’s uncanny ability to remain unflappably comfortable and in charge of his abode—which, as Mr. Baer says, ‘seems to telepathically understand Wyke and do his bidding’—suggests a spider in its web, capable of making its home in the most precarious places and circumstances.
Analysing Mr. Pinter’s take on the Sleuth plot through Dr. Berne’s lens of psychological games, I’ve detected at least seven distinct phases to the ‘meta-game’ played by Wyke and Tindle across the two acts of the film:
English Gentleman: a game of verbal badminton
Caper 1: Robbers
The Real Game: humiliation (emasculation) through masculine force.
Caper 2: Cops
Caper 3: Robbers
Reprise of English Gentleman
The Real Game: humiliation (emasculation) through feminine seduction.
As you can see, I’ve identified at least three distinct psychological games in operation in Sleuth II, each of which is played at least twice. When all three games are cycled through so that both Wyke and Tindle have had an opportunity to assume the ‘superior position’ over each other, we have the ‘meta-game’ that is Sleuth II.
Playing at ‘being English Gentlemen’
The game I’m calling “English Gentleman” is the fundamental Pinter game, and one which we encounter at some point in almost every play and script. “English Gentleman” is not a ‘gendered’ game: it can be played by two men, or by a man and a woman. I don’t know of an instance in Mr. Pinter’s œuvre where it’s played by two women. Gender is not salient to the game; I merely use the word ‘gentleman’ to qualify the archetypal nature of ‘Englishness’ I’m perceiving in Wyke’s and Tindle’s initial interaction, the pattern of which, on reflection, I see repeated in the architecture of all Mr. Pinter’s plays and films.
In their first meeting on the steps of Wyke’s house, Andrew draws attention to the size of both his and Tindle’s cars. You might say that “English Gentleman” is a game of ‘Mine is Bigger Than Yours’, only in reverse:—the object of being a true ‘English Gentleman’ is to deprecate oneself, to minimize oneself, to make oneself appear more modest, more polite, more civil, more civilized than one’s opponent—to make him appear to be the ‘bigger’, more gauche, more vulgar man.
This is the nature of the game that Wyke and Tindle enter into for the first quarter of an hour, the first half of Act I. “English Gentleman” is a game of passive-aggressive politeness—a parody, in effect, of what it is to be both ‘English’ and a ‘gentleman’. And if there is any ‘comedy’ at all in Mr. Pinter’s comedies of menace, it lies precisely in these games of “English Gentleman”, where characters pass a veil of insincere colloquial Anglicism over a verbal badminton match where they are batting poisoned darts at each other.
It’s obviously a class-based game, but we have to remember where Mr. Pinter ‘comes from’—temporally speaking: He’s a playwright who emerges in the late 1950’s and comes to dominate the British theatre in the early 1960’s, a period when the structural integrity of the British class system was being deeply challenged—not least by the voice and ear of this Cockney son of a Jewish tailor.
There is, therefore, in the game of “English Gentleman” a pretence of equality, of egalitarianism, the nervous sense, post-Suez, that if the sun is setting on the Empire at a rapid clip, then at least ‘we are all English together’, all united by a culture and a language that, in its irregular verbiage and often perverse idiomatic expressions, can at least keep the foreigners ‘out’.
That is really what it means to play the game of “English Gentleman” chez Pinter: In a British society where aristocracy is suddenly devalued, to be ‘English’ is suddenly to be part of a ‘common aristocracy’—the common patrimony of culture and language. And the English language being notoriously difficult to master, we see how, for a singular playwright like Mr. Pinter, that ‘musician of language and silence’, the arcane formulæ of colloquial English, that glossary of clumsy Anglicisms which suddenly ring tinny to his extraordinary ear, becomes as hermetic and exclusionary as jargon or terms of art.
Are you in or are you out? Can you mouth the coded platitudes of an English gentleman? Which is to say, given the embarrassing situation in which Wyke and Tindle find themselves in at the beginning of the Sleuth plot, can both men pretend not to notice the awkwardness of sharing a woman and wear the mask of vacuous English civility with each other to the hilt—a mask that becomes eminently Pinterian when the torrential silence of English colloquialism is poured over the Void between them? And more to the point, in this verbal badminton match, can either Wyke or Tindle play the game of passive-aggressive politeness so well that is the other is rattled into an unforced error?
Wyke: I understand you’re fucking my wife.
Tindle: That’s right.
Wyke: Right. Yes, right. So we’ve cleared that up?
Tindle: We have.
Wyke: I thought you might have denied it.
Tindle: Why would I deny it?
Wyke: Well, she is my wife.
Tindle: Yes, but she’s fucking me—
Wyke: Oh, she’s fucking you too, huh? Well, I’ll be buggered! [Guffaws, coquettishly half-covers his mouth.] Sorry.
Tindle: Yes, it’s mutual.
Wyke: You take turns.
Tindle: We fuck each other, that’s what people do.
Wyke [shortly]: Yeh, yeh… I follow.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
One can say, not unfairly to Mr. Pinter, that the quintessentially ‘English’ dialogue of Sleuth II, this game of “English Gentleman” is a little dated. That’s not a criticism; it’s what gives the film its charm. For the last time, we’re hearing the brittle, brutal dialogue that made Mr. Pinter such a revolutionary force in the sixties.
The British class system having effectively collapsed, and incivility having taken over public discourse in our century, people ‘don’t talk like that any more’:—they haven’t the ‘class’ to wear a mask of civility over their emotions the way ‘English gentlemen’ of the old, Pinterian school, like Wyke and Tindle, do.
The object of the game is to get the other man’s mask of politeness to slip, to get him to acknowledge, through an unforced error, the outrageousness of the situation—sitting across the table from the man who is (as Inspector Black will later put it) giving your wife ‘a good going-over’ and making amiable, drawing-room chit-chat with him. And as the dialogue above shows, the advantage goes, initially, to Milo: as the present possessor of Maggie, he is playing ‘in the superior position’.
But I said above that “English Gentleman” is, chez Pinter, a necessarily exclusionary game, one designed to ‘keep out’ the foreigner, the one who is ‘passing’ for an English gentleman in this radically democratized society rendered ambiguous by a putative ‘equality’.
In Sleuth I, Mr. Shaffer makes much of class, and of Milo Tindle’s dubious background. In the original conception of the Sleuth plot, Milo is a hairdresser, the owner of two salons, and the son of a poor Italian watchmaker, a certain Tindolini. In Sleuth II, Mr. Pinter jettisons much of this obvious social commentary, but what he retains is telling about how he conceptualizes the game between the two men.
In Sleuth II, Mr. Law’s Tindle is now an actor, mostly out of work, a specialist in killers and sex maniacs. He’s still got the Italian papà sullo sfondo, though Wyke, in a typical Pinter manœuvre, ignores this information and high-handedly attempts to tell him that his father might actually be Hungarian.
More pointedly, in an even more aggressive version of this gambit of calculated rudeness, it is Wyke who brings up what vestigially remains of the ‘hairdresser’ backstory and tells Tindle that he ‘thought Maggie said that you were a hairdresser.’
It is a customary gambit in Mr. Pinter’s plays for a character to take some piece of information which is flatly denied or contradicted by another character into his head and never let it go, stubbornly insisting on this self-invented falsehood or deliberate misunderstanding as a point of fact.
This is the essence of the game of “English Gentleman” which Mick, for instance, insists on playing with Davies in Mr. Pinter’s most famous play, The Caretaker (1960), refusing to believe that this scurrilous tramp isn’t ‘an experienced first-class professional interior and exterior decorator’, despite having made this elaborate ruse up out of his own head in order to trap Davies and evict him from his house.
In Sleuth II, the factitious fact of Tindle being an ‘Italian hairdresser’ becomes a running gag throughout the piece. In attributing the misapprehension to Maggie, Wyke places a veneer of plausible deniability on what is frankly a ruse to embarrass Milo and put him at a positional disadvantage.
The point of the gambit is that if Wyke can get Tindle to inhabit his frame, getting him to admit the validity of Wyke’s invented falsehood that Milo’s father is actually Hungarian, that he’s not English at all but really Italian, or that he’s not an actor but in fact a hairdresser, then he gains the superior position over him by dictating to his opponent the identity he has invented for this (as Wyke sees it) pathetic interloper in his house and his marital bed, and thus disposing of Tindle as a challenge to his masculinity.
These latter two intersections of identity—nationality and occupation—become particularly weaponized as fulcrums of power: To be ‘Italian’ (a ‘funny lot’, according to Wyke, who don’t go in much for ‘culture’) is to be distinctly ‘un-English’, and to be (of all things) a ‘hairdresser’ is to be distinctly ‘not a gentleman’. Worst of all is to be both Italian and a hairdresser, for, in the mordantly dubious construction Wyke places on these two things together, is to be, in the game of coded language that is “English Gentleman”, una specie di culattone.
And the Cockney Caine/Wyke of Sleuth II is not, I think, sans raison in pressing with leaden-footed heaviness on the triggering peddle of Law/Tindle’s dubious ‘passing’ as an English gentleman. I said above that the kind sub-Coward subversion of drawing-room comedy dialogue with which Mr. Pinter first came to the stage is ‘just not done anymore, old boy’; that young Brits of today just don’t talk like that.
For all the heaviness of his Cockney accent, Mr. Caine is more convincing as an English gentleman of the old school than Mr. Law, but that disconcerting ‘falsity’ of Mr. Pinter’s version of Tindle as being a product of the public school system, and thus on terms of equality with Wyke in that ‘easy grace’, the affected sprezzatura with which both men approach an embarrassing personal matter, is rendered with a beautifully studied ‘foreignness’ in Mr. Law’s interpretation of the rôle.
As a Gen-X’er, Jude Law is really too young to be well-acquainted, as Mr. Caine is, with the ambiguous codes of English speech in the collapsing class system that Mr. Pinter made his special field of research during the 1950’s and ’60’s. When Mr. Law’s Tindle, therefore, attempts to speak like a creature of the drawing room, those clumsy Anglicisms, those elaborate colloquial forms for saying nothing at all which ring so tinny to the ear when rendered by Mr. Pinter, sound actually as though they are being spoken by a foreigner.
When Mr. Law’s Tindle suggests that he and Wyke ‘get down to “brass tacks”’; when he greets Wyke’s criminal proposition with the ultimate in English clichés, that he is ‘all ears’; or, most especially, when he calls the older man ‘old boy’, he speaks almost as I write, with such dripping sarcasm and such bitter satire that neither Jamesian quotation marks nor Flaubertian italicization are enough in themselves to frame and underscore the freezing irony with which he is employing these empty bourgeois terms of polite art.
He speaks the colloquial English of the game of “English Gentleman” like a foreigner, an outsider, uno straniero to the environment of the drawing room—like an Italian, in fine, aping English manners and mores.
Wyke: … I’ve never heard of an Italian called Tindle.
Tindle [sotto voce]: My father’s name is Tindolini.
Wyke [bitterly]: Now that’s lovely. That’s like a little bell. Why don’t you go back to Tindolini? It suits you.
Tindle: You think so?
Wyke: Yes. So if and when you marry Maggie, she’ll be ‘Maggie… Tindolini’. She’ll get a kick out of that.
Wyke: What name do you act under, Tindle or Tindolini?
Wyke: Why have I never heard of you—?
Tindle [quietly]: You will, before long.
Tindle [quietly]:In spades.
Wyke: That sounds threatening—
Tindle: Does it—?
Wyke: Doesn’t it?
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
The big store
The game I am calling “Caper” is really the only game that Mr. Pinter retains from the original plot of Sleuth. “Caper” is that ‘movement’ in both acts of the drama where the commercial mechanics of the crime entertainment are thrown into some vestigial and perfunctory operation, a kind of dramatic bridging device designed to sweeten the transition between the two atavistic games that interest Mr. Pinter, “English Gentleman” and “The Real Game”, the former being a more civilized version of the latter.
Moreover, “Caper” is the only Pinter game in Sleuth II that maps more or less neatly onto the psychological games taxonomized by Dr. Berne. It’s in the genus of games he calls ‘Underworld Games’, and fractionates into two variants—“Robbers” and “Cops”.
“Robbers” maps to Dr. Berne’s “Cops and Robbers”, which, as he explains, is not like the children’s game of cops and robbers at all, but rather like hide-and-seek, ‘in which the essential element is the chagrin of being found.’ Wyke and Tindle’s hunt for the safe in which the jewels are hidden represents the sub-game of “Robbers”, and since Wyke, in the first iteration of the game, knows where the safe is, and both players know where it is in the second, the pleasure of the game, as Dr. Berne says, lies in Wyke’s feigned defence of the jewels (which are indeed well-hidden) while all the while betraying their location as he aids and abets Milo in finding the safe.
If father finds [the child] too easily, the chagrin is there without much fun. But father, if he is a good player, knows what to do: he holds off, whereupon the little boy gives him a clue by calling out, dropping something or banging. Thus, he forces father to find him, but still shows chagrin; this time he has had more fun because of the increased suspense. If father gives up, the boy usually feels disappointed rather than victorious. Since the fun of being hidden was there, evidently that is not where the trouble lies. What he is disappointed about is not being caught. When his turn comes to hide, father knows he is not supposed to outwit the child for very long, just long enough to make it fun; and he is wise enough to look chagrined when he is caught. It soon becomes clear that being found is the necessary payoff.
… At the social level [“Cops and Robbers”] is a battle of wits, and is most satisfying when the Adult of each player does his best…. Not being caught is actually the antithesis. Among older children, one who finds an insoluble hiding place is regarded as not being a good sport, since he has spoiled the game. He has eliminated the Child element and turned the whole thing into an Adult procedure. He is no longer playing for fun.
In some sense, while Wyke is the nominal Parent in the first iteration of “Robbers”, helping Milo, in the Child position, to find the safe like the good father of Dr. Berne’s example, both men, I would contend, enter into the Child position to some extent. From Wyke’s perspective, knowing that the safe really is in an ‘insoluble hiding place’, he nobly declines to turn the sub-game of “Robbers” into ‘an Adult procedure’, a sporting contest of wits between equals, but enters with Tindle into ‘the Child element’ of the game, ransacking his bedroom in simulated search of the safe with even more gusto than Milo.
In the second iteration, the presence of the revolver as a salient element in the game-play puts Milo in the Parent position. But he reciprocates the ‘sporting chance’ that Wyke gave him in the first iteration of “Robbers” and insists (albeit with irony; that is to say, at gun-point) that Wyke—who is now very obviously in the Child position—help him to find the safe, the location of which he pretends to be in ignorance of.
Thus I would say that, in contradistinction to Dr. Berne’s contention that there must be a ‘complementarity’ in the ego-states of players of psychological games, in “Robbers”, both men adopt the Child position to some extent, insofar as they both enter with gusto into the darkest aspect of children’s play—its savagery, its malevolence, its destructiveness. They share this savagery, malevolence and destructiveness more or less equally, and the sub-game of “Robbers” is (in its first iteration at least) the only time in Sleuth II we really see Wyke and Tindle on something like a genuine footing of equality.
The sub-game of “Cops”, on the other hand, reflects the classic dynamic identified by Dr. Berne: one player must take the Parent position, the rôle of authority, and the other, the complementary Child position. “Cops” maps to Dr. Berne’s Underworld Game “Let’s Pull a Fast One on Joey”, which, as he says, is the prototypical psychological game that forms the basis for the ‘Big Store’—the multi-iteration caper of the long con game, the architectural mechanics of which are described by David W. Maurer in one of my favourite books, the classic treatise on the subject, The Big Con (1940).
The confidence game, the social game of verisimilar appearances and strategic dissimulation, is the ‘crime of our time’ identified by Mr. Auden as the salient feature of technological, capitalistic modernity. The confidence game as an architecture of ambiguous, plausible, but ultimately fake appearances—an utterly abstract architecture, totally platonic—is, to my mind, the chief poetic metaphor for the situation of our time—the ‘meta-crisis’ of the sensemaking crisis, the impossibility, despite our technological ‘equipment’, of discovering ‘Truth’ with it:—For the knife of Science with which we ‘cut through’ reality, with which we have algorithmically engineered the ‘world of fakeness’, the labyrinthine galerie des glaces narcissiques in which we now find ourselves trapped and lost, is the same knife we have plunged—and daily plunge in our mutually implicating games of (self)-deception—into the side of God, murdering our Highest Value, and the Source of all our meaning.
And knowing my fascination with con games and other Machiavellian social games of strategic deception, dear readers, you will perhaps begin to appreciate why I admire the abstract architecture of Mr. Pinter’s version of the Sleuth plot as a serious literary investigation of ‘the crime of our time’, for he abstracts the literalized labyrinth of Mr. Shaffer’s original conception and gives the metaphor a further twist: The concrete architecture of Wyke’s house, full of the airy blankness of the Void, becomes a Borgesian maze of the mind where the ‘twists and turns’ are the abrupt and jarring incongruencies of character as each man reveals a different ‘facet’ of himself to the other, and the reversals in social positioning between them.
Moreover, in its industrial brutalism, like those empty spaces con artists rent out and deck out in the décor of a stock exchange or a private gambling parlour, and in his wholesale transference of the concrete architecture of ‘the Game’ of Mr. Shaffer’s Sleuth into the abstract arena of the mind, Mr. Pinter makes of Chez Wyke a ‘Big Store’, a protean conceptual space, like the ‘caja blanca’ of a gallery, for the bravura performance of ‘the Art of the Big Con’.
“Capers” 2 and 3, the con game engineered by Tindle, together comprise a ‘short con’ and is played as an end in itself: true to his Italian heritage, he merely wants to get revenge on Wyke by ‘pulling a fast one’ on him. Once he has both deceived and humiliated Wyke, the score is settled, and the meta-game, from his perspective, cycles back to the parodic civility of “English Gentleman”.
This is his strategic error in the meta-game, the error of an impatient youth when pitted against the cunning of old age; for as I said above, “English Gentleman” and “The Real Game” are, in fact, one and the same game, the only difference being that, in “The Real Game”, Mr. Pinter removes the mask, the veneer of civility and civilization altogether.
“The Real Game” is essentially ‘thereal Pinter game’, the game of Silence and the Void that lies beneath the characteristic game of “English Gentleman” which is a feature of all his plays.
Hence, when I said that the “Caper” is a bridging device in the architecture of Sleuth II between “English Gentleman” and “The Real Game”, we can see how Wyke approaches the long con, how he architecturally ‘orchestrates’ the game-play of Act I, versus how Tindle orchestrates the short con in Act II, and consequently where Milo’s fatal error lies.
“English Gentleman” must end in “The Real Game”: “English Gentleman” is ‘the set-up’ of “The Real Game”—which is, in turn, ‘the pay-off’ to the meta-game that is Mr. Pinter’s Sleuth. You cannot play the “Caper”—even a fractionated version of it—as Tindle does merely as an end in itself and then go back to the civilized sniping of passive-aggressive politeness.
As Wyke tells Inspector Black, ‘it’s not worth playing a game unless you play it to the hilt.’ And where ‘the real game’, as he admits, is a game of humiliation between two men, you cannot merely reduce the other to ‘a shivering, frightened, fucking wreck in front you,’ and then give him ‘a drink and a pat on the bum’ and let it go at that, as Tindle does.
The “Caper” is, as Wyke very well understands, a form, a gambit, ‘the convincer’ that serves an essential function in the overall architecture of the con game. Only a child, like Milo, would think that the “Caper” is the con game itself.
The object of the “Caper” is not simply to deceive your opponent and humiliate him with your deception, to ‘take off’ the other player in a short, smash-and-grab con of one iteration. It is to ‘frame the gaff’, to ‘bill the mark in’ to the Big Store of the long con, iterated over several turns of play; it is to take him off repeatedly until the mark is completely played out.
Thus we come back to the architecture of the house as ‘Big Store’. If we are to believe the report of the two characters and accept that Maggie is responsible for the design of the house, she has ‘framed the gaff’ in which the long con of Wyke’s “Real Game” is set to take place. In this reading of the architecture of the Pinterian meta-game, she is the ‘roper’ who has ‘mitted in’ the mark, Milo, introducing him to the ‘inside man’—Wyke—who manages the Big Store she has designed as a game for Tindle.
In other words, Maggie and Wyke are in on the “Caper” together, which is why I say that, despite the fact that we never see Maggie in the film, we can consider her to be a competitor in the triangulated game of “Let’s You and Him Fight”. A careful viewing of Sleuth II yields several clues in support of this hypothesis. Though it’s assumed, in this version, that the game is a perverse sexual conspiracy between Maggie and Wyke to destroy Milo, a variation on the game Mr. Pinter plays in The Comfort of Strangers (1990), such a dangerous caper could easily go awry—in which case I see the femme fatale Maggie very readily giving herself to Tindle, having dispatched, through him, a husband who has nothing to recommend him but his money.
This interpretation of the meta-game sees Maggie as the final iteration of the enigmatic Pinter woman we encounter so many times, particularly in his string of plays in the early 1960’s which deal, as Mr. Billington says, with ‘sexual politics’—The Collection (1961), The Lover (1963), and, most particularly, his masterpiece, The Homecoming (1964)—all plays in which a woman, despite her passivity, emerges as the only victor in an attritional sexual contest between men, rising above their claims to possess her even as she submits to being ‘the spoils of war’.
But in another, more intellectually delicious conceptualization, I see Wyke as being the roper for himself. He is both roper and inside man, and in the recursive, nested game of Act I, in which “English Gentleman” frames the simulated “Caper” of stealing the jewels, and this farce in turn frames the gaff for “The Real Game” which is the pay-off of “English Gentleman”, he mitts Milo in by introducing him to successive versions of himself, facets which are distinct from each other and thus mark the iterations of the game-play.
The ‘roper’, as he says, is the ‘crooked exterior’ of the Big Store/house which extends its hand to Milo on the steps in the first scene and ‘mitts him in’ to the big con. Under this is the inside man, the ‘simple, honest man’ Wyke claims to be, and as every inside man knows, you can only convince a mark to play a con game by appealing to his ‘honesty’—the truly larcenous nature behind his front as an upstanding citizen—and by giving the appearance of respectable probity yourself.
In the long con, each time you play a mark, you must let him win ‘the convincer’, that turn in the game-play that gives him the confidence to go on and greedily redouble his stake. You must let him win a couple of substantial hands off you before you lower the gaff and play him for the big block—everything he’s brought to the table. And this is what Wyke, the master manipulator, does in the games of “English Gentleman” and “Caper” in Act I: he lets Milo best him in the first two games, lets him get the girl and the jewels off him.
And once Tindle is ‘all in’, once he has bought into the ruse of the “Caper”, Wyke lowers the gaff on Milo, revealing the ‘jewellery story’ to have been but a blind, a Big Store for “The Real Game”:
Tindle [laughing nervously]: Listen—will you put that gun down?
Wyke [quietly, curiously]: Why?
Tindle [still laughing]: It’s pointing directly at me; I’m not very happy about it.
Wyke [curiously]: Why not?
Tindle: Look, is this a game?
Wyke: This is a real game.
Wyke [grimly]: The real game has just begun.
Tindle [laughing, ironically]: What’s ‘the real game’?
Wyke: You and me.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
Men without women
When the mask of civility is lifted, when the veneer of civilization comes off, the game of “English Gentleman” reveals “The Real Game”, the game of Silence and the Void, that is beneath all of Mr. Pinter’s plays and films. “The Real Game” is ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’, which he facetiously claimed was what his plays were, au fond, all about.
In Sleuth II we see the final, brilliant iteration of ‘the real Pinter game’ when those two silences—a torrent of words and no words at all—are deployed as desperate, last-ditch, murderous measures between two men to tarnish over the existential Void between them.
In the long con game, a gun is a conspicuous prop in the play that is enacted for the benefit of the mark. A gun is also a form of convincer that is used to ‘cool out’ the mark once he has been ‘taken off’: the inside man, who has formed a conspiracy with the mark to keep an eye on the mark’s handler, the roper, typically ‘shoots’ the roper in outrage when the ‘sure thing’ he had with the mark goes awry. Being bound together as two ‘honest’ men, the mark is implicated as a witness to the inside man’s ‘crime’, and is convinced to take a run-out powder and cool off—sans all his cash.
In his version of “The Real Game”, Wyke uses the pistol he produces in the “Caper” to convince Tindle of his verisimilar intent to murder him. More specifically, he fires two live rounds—these are the convincers in the game-play—followed by a blank cartridge.
Wyke: I’ll tell you exactly what I did. I pretended to kill him. I shot him with a blank, I frightened the shit out of him. Your man was right, your spy, whoever he was. There were three shots: the first two were real, the third one was blank. He was terrified. When I shot him he fainted. When he came round, I gave a drink, pat on the bum, he left the house, his tail, if you want to call it that, between his legs – and I haven’t seen him since.
Black [incredulously]: You gave him ‘apat on the bum’?
Black [with growing outrage]: You gave him a metaphorical ‘pat on the bum’?
Black: How did he take it?
Wyke: He was fine, he told me that it was game, set, and match to me.
Black: So this guy had a sense of humour, is that what you’re saying?
Wyke: Oh yes, he left the house with a ‘twinkle in his eye’.
Black: So tell me, what was the point of all this—?
Wyke: Humiliation! It’s nice to see your wife’s lover a shivering, frightened, fucking wreck in front of you! As a matter of fact, I liked him; I thought he was attractive. I thought we could’ve become good friends. The shortest way to a man’s heart, as I’m sure you know, is humiliation. It binds you together.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
“The Real Game” at the heart of Sleuth II, therefore, is humiliation, but two distinct variations on the game are played in the two acts of the drama.
In Act I, Wyke avails himself, through the convincing prop of the pistol, of masculine force to humiliate Milo, and in embarrassing him, emasculating him. He reduces him to the condition of being a mere ‘Italian hairdresser’ of a man, placing him firmly in the ‘inferior position’, the identity he has constructed for him with that phrase, of being una specie di culattone.
But as Robert Greene tells us in the preface to his book The Art of Seduction (2001), there are two distinct strategies to obtaining power. One of them is through masculine force, and the other is through feminine seduction.
In “The Real Game” of Act II, both men engage in a game of mutual humiliation, mutual emasculation not through force, but via a strategy of feminine seduction.
Seduction requires the player to ‘adopt’ the inferior position as a ruse for eventual dominance through submission. One gives up a lot of the immediate, hard power one can exercise through force in order to gain a more subtle and enduring ‘soft power’, the power of persuasion, but also the power to withhold sexual rewards, and to blackmail or extort compliance in exchange for sexual rewards.
This is ultimately the power that Stella, in The Collection, exercises not only over her husband James, but also over the homosexual couple of Harry and Bill; that Sarah exercises over her husband Richard in The Lover, cuckolding him with himself; and that Ruth, in the most complex articulation of this essential architecture of power chez Pinter, exercises over her husband Teddy and all her male in-laws in The Homecoming.
I said above that there is an obvious homoerotic dimension to the Wyke/Tindle rapport in the Sleuth plot, one which is more or less latent in Mr. Shaffer’s original conception, but which it pleases Mr. Pinter, ‘the supposed trader in mystery and ambiguity’, as Mr. Billington calls him, to raise to salience through his excision of the commercial plot dynamics.
But I said also that we should be careful about falling too quickly on the facile conclusion that, au fond, the plot of Sleuth II is merely about ‘discovering’ this latent homoeroticism in the two characters, ‘outing them’, as it were.
That would be to do a fundamental disservice to Mr. Pinter as a dramatist for whom the Nobel Prize was an acknowledgment that he was a serious social scientist, a serious researcher into the physics and the chemistry of human relations, in the laboratory of the theatre.
The nature of “The Real Game” of modern human relations chez Pinter, of men stripped down to their primitive humanity and locked in these atavistic sexual contests for possession of a woman, a hierarchical ‘game of positions’ to determine who is ‘top’ and who is ‘bottom’, doesn’t reduce to an unambiguous homosexuality, but instead reduces to the ambiguity of the Void beneath our ‘social costumes’, the noisy game of “English Gentleman” we play with each other as a civilized version of this real, silent, gladiatorial contest to the death for personal power—the origins of political power in what Mr. Billington calls the ‘sexual fascism’ at the heart of Mr. Pinter’s plays.
But any intelligent men [sic] with a passionate commitment to male friendship, such as Pinter has, is bound to ask himself at some point whether male bonding carries with it implications of homosexuality. It is also intriguing how often Pinter returns to the subject of what René Girard calls ‘triangular desire’, in which two men are drawn together by their urge to possess the same woman.
—Billington (1996, p. 138)
There’s some confusion where “Caper” 3 ends and the reprise of “English Gentleman” begins in Act II. Having got the safe open and the jewels out of it, Milo oscillates between joking good-naturedly with Wyke and sadistically torturing him. This is because he is a younger man, impetuous, impatient, and inexperienced at this kind of calculated brinkmanship.
He plays the game with (as Dr. Berne says with respect to “Cops and Robbers”) the Child’s sense of fun. He doesn’t realize that Wyke is playing the meta-game from the Adult ego-state, that ‘[h]e is in the same class as the owner of a casino, or some professional criminals, who are really out for money rather than sport.’
Even when he’s caught off-balance by Tindle’s abrupt switches of mood, you can distinctly see in Wyke’s eyes that he is quickly clocking to where they are in the meta-game and pacing Milo. You can also see the point at which he perceives Tindle’s fundamental weakness as a callow, egotistical, impetuous youth, and resumes the lead by adopting ‘the inferior position’, the feminine position, with respect to him.
Wyke: You like games, don’t you?
Tindle: Some. Not all.
Wyke: But you like being incharge – of the game?
Tindle [somewhat uncertainly, as if sensing a trap]: Oh yes; sure.
Wyke: I like a man who wants to be in charge of things.
Tindle: Do you?
Wyke: Yes, I do.
Wyke: You know something, I – I like your mind.
Tindle [rather luxuriantly, as if used to being complimented]: Do you really?
Wyke: It excites me. I like the way you go about things.
Tindle: You mean… you like my ‘style’.
Wyke [pensively]: Oh, I-I like your style. I like it very much.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
Tindle has the typical vanity—and the insecurity—of the actor, and Wyke seeks to place him permanently in the inferior, feminine position he has designated for him by the subtle ruse of first adopting the feminine position himself. He pretends to be dominated by Milo’s mind (which Tindle interprets, vaingloriously, as his ‘style’ at game-play), by a mind that is equal in its Machiavellian intricacy to Wyke’s own.
He also seeks to put this Italian hairdresser ‘in his place’—in the ‘little boy’s room’ of the guest suite.
In Mr. Pinter’s plays dating all the way back to his first, The Room (1957), the conquest of a room by an invader who dislocates and ejects the inhabitant from it is the central motif, the essential pattern of the architecture on his secret planet. Finally, in his last work, the game involves putting one’s opponent in a room, inviting the invader into one’s space, and containing him in a corner of one’s domain and empire.
In Sleuth II, introjecting the invader into oneself—like a woman—swallowing and suffocating him in the claustrophobic room of one’s choosing, becomes the winning move in “The Real Game”.
Wyke [quietly]: I’m a rich man. What do you want to do? I can subsidise anything you want. You want to open a bookshop in the village? An art gallery? Or, of course – a little theatre! You’re a wonderful actor, you could choose all the plays and play all the leading parts.
But — this would be your home.
And this would be your bedroom.
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
In a deliberately ambiguous Pinterism designed to raise, in the unsubtle, the suspicion that Wyke, beneath all the violence with which he has competed for Maggie, is merely an ‘old queen’, he tells Tindle that he is ‘my kind of person’, and Tindle, although taken aback, is clearly moved by this confidence.
Very few people have ever liked Milo ‘for his mind’;—plenty have admired him for his body, of course, but no one except Wyke has ever appreciated his lively wit and his child-like sprezzatura at play. And sensing an advantage over Wyke—that he has at last found his weakness—Tindle, the actor who can turn on a dime, begins to play up the ‘Italian hairdresser’ rôle for the old man—the occulted ‘queerness’ that Wyke has suspected in him from the start—as he entertains the idea of becoming the old man’s catamite.
Thus, you see, dear readers, there is not, as appears on first view, an uncomplicated sexual deviance adventitiously discovered at the heart of the Wyke/Tindle rapport in Sleuth II. Instead, having spent most of the film competing for the ‘superior position’ over each other, in the final iteration of the game-play, each man having truly met his match in the other, and having exhausted all the strategies of emasculation through force, both men now jockey to adopt and occupy the inferior, feminine position in the short-term as a strategy to ultimately dominate the other in the long-term.
“The Real Game”, in its ultimate iteration, is a game of mutual humiliation, mutual emasculation through the castrating tyranny of feminine seduction. The game, in its deepest iteration, is far more depraved than superficial sexual deviance: for, like scorpions crouching down so as to raise the stinging tail higher over the other, or crocodiles locked in a death roll, both men are going to debase themselves—cut off their own cojones, albeit momentarily—so as to seduce the other into an inferior position he can never escape from.
What gives feminine seduction its longer-lasting, though unstable, power when it is obviously the ‘weaker’ of the two strategies, lies in the ‘feminine prerogative’, that irrational inconstancy we men find so fatiguing and frustrating to deal with.
The superior, masculine position being the position of ‘conscious control’, it demands rational predictability. The inferior, feminine position, while complying submissively with the masculine, ceding willingly to its attractive display of force, reserves for itself the arm of irrationality, the right to perversely ‘change its mind’ on a dime, to be ‘owned’, ‘possessed’, but never ‘controlled’—for that would be to make itself ‘predictable’, and thus subject to masculine control.
Having been ‘boxed in’ to the guest suite, having been played into a corner by Wyke’s verisimilar pretence at being seduced, Tindle senses his predicament. The only strategy open to him from this square is to embrace submission to the hilt and to obtain a lasting dominance over Wyke through strategic deployment of irrational inconstancy—blackmailing and extorting submission to him by what he sees as Wyke’s secret sexual weakness.
Tindle: … [P]erhaps I am ‘your kind of person’, who knows?
Tindle: But you would have to be very – nice – to me; for instance, just at this moment, I need a drink.
Wyke [quietly]: You can get your own drink.
Tindle: No, you get it for me and I might be ‘nice’ to you.
Wyke: Nice to me?
Tindle: That’s what I said. [Snapping his fingers] Whisky, please!
—Harold Pinter, Sleuth
The ‘feminine position’, as this dialogue demonstrates, is truly to be playing the game from Dr. Berne’s Child ego-state: the last weapon that is available to the feminine player is the impetuous tyranny of the ‘tantrum’, that nuclear option that women know they can threaten to deploy at any time, and the fear of which is usually sufficient to extort compliance from weak men, those, that is to say, who have insufficient will to access to their funds of force in a nuclear confrontation.
It’s a dangerous strategy, which is why I say that seduction is a longer lasting iterative strategy for obtaining and maintaining power than force, but an unstable one. While the feminine player can obtain and maintain an advantage over a weak masculine player almost indefinitely through the tyranny of seduction, it’s a calculated bet, and at some point, when the coercive nudging and tantrums finally becomes too fatiguing and frustrating, a weak man generally snaps, accessing all his supply of force, seeing and raising the nuclear option in a way the women can’t match, going ‘all in’.
This is the dangerous situation that Tindle is in. Like a needling woman, he doesn’t know how close he actually is to the button he is flirting with, cannot calculate or calibrate himself to the supply of force occulted by Wyke’s poker-faced silence. To paraphrase M. de Sade, in Wyke Milo ‘ne connait pas le monstre auquel il a à faire’: he does not perceive to what extent crime has been enthroned in the ‘dank and deep architecture’ of that perverse soul.
Tindle is playing from the Child’s position, but Wyke, a professional underworld gamesman as a crime writer and a past-master at these long strategies of slow strangulation, is playing from the Adult position: he is, as Dr. Berne says, ‘no longer playing for fun. He is in the same class as … some professional criminals, who are really out for money rather than sport.’
And as Mr. Caine revealed, while in Sleuth I Lord Olivier was constrained by the commercial architecture of Mr. Shaffer’s plot to play Wyke as a ‘dangerous English eccentric’, he and Mr. Branagh decided to base their interpretation of the Pinter Wyke on a psychological treatise they discovered on morbid jealousy—a condition which has often led to the murder of lovers by aggrieved spouses.
Thus, ‘the game’, “The Real Game”, from Wyke’s, the professional crime writer’s, perspective, is ‘The Most Dangerous Game’—the deliberate, calculated hunting of a human being as sport.
And yet it’s clear there is some genuine and mutual attraction between Wyke and Tindle that is more than merely platonic: the strategy of mutual emasculation through seduction couldn’t be effective if they weren’t actually seduced by something in the other. The woman is no longer salient: as a field of contest over which they have fought, as a token of palpable possession in the conceptual game-space, Maggie has been exhausted of her relevance and her value as the object of the game:—they have, as Wyke says, ‘cut her out’, ‘let her rot.’
She is ‘nowhere’, and as Milo admits, ultimately, ‘This is a game between us, “old boy”, between you and me.’
My kind of person
In Wyke and Tindle, these two figures of commercial ‘fun’ adopted and adapted from another playwright, we have the two sides of Harold Pinter himself, the writer and the actor, the master in charge of the game and the great counterfeiter. They come together in the deadly symbiosis of a final reconciliation, the final statement of a great artist on the concerns of his life—the concrete architecture of domestic space—of houses, of rooms—and how the private, personal sphere gives rise to the abstract architecture of political power.
Mr. Pinter is ‘my kind of person’. I like his mind; it excites me. I like the way he ‘goes about things’. I like his ‘style’ very much.
In the outback town where I grew up, I was a member of the local theatrical society as a teenager. In the first year of my membership, a season of four one-act plays was staged. Les gosses, the junior thespians, had their chance first up to ‘put on a show’, and then, after the dress rehearsals, and later, when the season was in full swing, I would slip around and sit front of house, anxious to watch the third play on the bill.
I had become fascinated by a play which featured two men in a room, one lying on a bed reading a newspaper, the other sitting on another bed, tying his shoe. It was Mr. Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (1958). I had never heard such dialogue—unfunnily funny, banally menacing. And I had never heard such prolonged silence on a stage, like the continual, suspenseful build-up to a gag which never comes, or if it came, was not funny, was not a release in tension but a tightening of it.
Over about two months of watching the dress rehearsals, and then the play before an audience, it slowly dawned on my young brain who and what Ben and Gus, the two men in the room, were, and I became obsessed by the puzzle of trying to figure out how they move from their first positions through their weird iterated game-play, like a pair of music-hall comedians kibbitzing with increasing momentum through a routine where the laughter slowly dies, to the final tableau of the play, their final, silent confrontation with each other across the Void.
Having read the play many times, nearly thirty years later, I’m still not quite sure how he does it, how Mr. Pinter pulls off ‘the prestige’ of his magic trick, and yet the image of two men in a room at the end of that play has endured for me as one of the key æsthetic experiences of my life.
In the way the artistic soul inchoately senses, even in its youth, here was an image that had ‘high signal’ for me, that confirmed what I had already intuited about life—that the modern world is an absurd ‘black comedy’.
Then, when I was fifteen and sixteen, I had a go at our local eisteddfod and tried my hand at something I think was called a ‘Character Study’ or something like that—an ambitious competition, often the preserve of serious drama students, gosses who imagined they would go on to study drama at uni, and which involved performing a monologue of your choice, in costume, with appropriate props.
In the first year, I chose Pete’s revelation of his dream in Mr. Pinter’s The Dwarfs (1960):
Pete: The apprehension of experience must obviously be dependent upon discrimination if it’s to be considered valuable. That’s what you lack. You’ve got no idea how to preserve a distance between what you smell and what you think about it. You haven’t got the faculty for making a simple distinction between one thing and another. Every time you walk out of this door you go straight over a cliff. What you’ve got to do is nourish the power of assessment. How can you hope to assess and verify anything if you walk about with your nose stuck between your feet all day long? You knock around with Mark too much. He can’t do you any good. I know how to handle him. But I don’t think he’s your sort. Between you and me, I sometimes think he’s a man of weeds. Sometimes I think he’s just playing a game. But what game? I like him all right when you come down to it. We’re old pals. But you look at him and what do you see? An attitude. Has it substance or is it barren? Sometimes I think it’s as barren as a bombed site. He’ll be a spent force in no time if he doesn’t watch his step. [Pause.] I’ll tell you a dream I had last night. I was with a girl in a tube station, on the platform. People were rushing about. There was some sort of panic. When I looked round I saw everyone’s faces were peeling, blotched, blistered. People were screaming, booming down the tunnels. There was a fire bell clanging. When I looked at the girl I saw that her face was coming off in slabs too, like plaster. Black scabs and stains. The skin was dropping off like lumps of cat’s meat. I could hear it sizzling on the electric rails. I pulled her by the arm to get her out of there. She wouldn’t budge. Stood there, with half a face, staring at me. I screamed at her to come away. Then I thought, Christ, what’s my face look like? Is that why she’s staring? Is that rotting too?
—Harold Pinter, The Dwarfs, Plays Two, pp. 89-90
An ambitious choice. I came runner-up. I just lost my claim to the medallion with on the narrowest margin of points through an unforced error: in rehearsals, I had decided to start off the monologue facing away from the audience, a calculated gamble on my part. It’s a difficult opening from a standing start, particularly when taken out of the context of the scene, and I knew I would have to really project to get the first sentence or two out to compensate for that risky choice. On the night, in the auditorium, I didn’t quite have the power in my lungs I needed.
Having learnt my lesson, I came back the following year, determined to claim the medallion. This time I interpreted Len’s closing monologue:
Len: They’ve stopped eating. It’ll be a quick get out when the whistle blows. All their belongings are stacked in piles. They’ve doused the fire. But I’ve heard nothing. What is the cause for alarm? Why is everything packed? Why are they ready for the off? But they say nothing. They’ve cut me off without a penny. And now they’ve settled down to a wide-eyed kip, crosslegged by the fire. It’s insupportable. I’m left in the lurch. Not even a stale frankfurter, a slice of bacon rind, a leaf of cabbage, not even a mouldy piece of salami, like they used to sling me in the days when we told old tales by suntime. They sit, chock-full. But I smell a rat. They seem to be anticipating a rarer dish, a choicer spread. And this change. All about me the change. The yard as I know it is littered with scraps of cat’s meat, pig bollocks, tin cans, bird brains, spare parts of all the little animals, a squelching, squealing carpet, all the dwarfs’ leavings spittled in the muck, worms stuck in the poisoned shit heaps, the alleys a whirlpool of piss, slime, blood, and fruit juice. Now all is bare. All is clean. All is scrubbed. There is a lawn. There is a shrub. There is a flower.
—Harold Pinter, The Dwarfs, Plays Two, pp. 104-5
I won the medallion.
I didn’t go on to study drama. Unlike Mr. Pinter, as a writer I’ve found my calling to be an actor on ‘the stage of the page’, one of those introverted souls who give their private performance in the rehearsal of deep ideation undertaken in the backstage of life.
But I admire Mr. Pinter’s style comme homme du théâtre. As a dour, splenetic soul not much given to mirth, but with a liver that is a veritable and prodigious factory producing the black bile of bleak satire, I like his ‘comedies of menace’ very much. I howl with laughter at Sleuth: I like a joke that feels like a knife against my throat. His comedies of menace—The Room, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, even, to some extent, The Caretaker—fall under that rubric I am calling ‘literary crime’.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the era, that is, of modernity, it somehow became the writer’s dubious rôle and still more dubious responsibility to be ‘the conscience of his society’.
It’s a rôle and responsibility I sneer at, which I think is a misapprehension, a conflation of logical premises, but which I recognize as an inevitable consequence, just the same, of the faulty, scientistic, capitalistic logic of modernity: Conscience and conscience—the French ‘consciousness’—being one, the writer, the literate artist who is the guardian and custodian of his society’s language (and thus its historian and its prophet) is charged with performing that ‘deep ideation’, working through the problems of his time with what I call ‘the algebra of human language’—words, that abstract symbology which is the conceptual architecture of human consciousness.
Mr. Pinter did just that. He perceived ‘the crime of our time’, the crisis in meaning that is the result of technocratic, capitalistic modernity, the way we have murdered all our values with the knife of Science, and how it has alienated us from the world and from ourselves.
He wasn’t an entertainer; he did not treat the serious subject of crime trivially, as commercial entertainment. He was a literary artist, and the ambiguity of his plays, their banality, their irresolution, are the bane of those who seek ‘entertainment’ in the theatre, comforting distraction from the networked problems which, in the course of the last 100 years, have mounted to such a point that we cannot, in our lifetimes, now see around them.
The baffling crime of our time is all around us, and we are all implicated in the game of our mutually assured destruction. We commit it every day, haul the Void closer to ourselves with the nihilistic criminality of our own ambiguous banality.
We’ve all got our hands on the roulette wheel, and everything we do is a ‘move’ that, in externalizing the costs of individual rent-seeking, our vain grasping for personal ‘influence’, to the collective, iterates us all towards a mutually assured, universal holocaust.
As an artist, Mr. Pinter was comfortable to remain in a state of ‘negative capability’, not drawing any conclusions, for the networked problem is so vast that its variety confounds the algebra of human language. We have not the abstract symbology to sculpt the conceptual architecture of the hell that is now all around us. A thorough model of the problem is yet to be articulated in writing, and without a model that compasses the scope of the variety, a networked solution cannot be ideated.
In fine, we have not the language—the words—to even know what the reality is that is around us.
We have not described it; we have not yet modelled it, and we cannot—yet—but we must try.
I tire of that species of writer who, as Mr. Pinter says in “Writing for the Theatre”, ‘clearly trusts words absolutely,’ those souls who still labour under the naïve commercial assumptions of entertainment, believing that there is a direct ratio between words and their referents, that they unproblematically compass the variety of reality, that the world is ‘known’ by the words we use, ‘conquered’ by human language, and ‘knowable’, ‘conquerable’ through them.
Le monde lui-même n’est plus cette propriété privée, héréditaire et monnayable, cette sorte de proie, qu’il s’agissait moins de connaître que de conquérir…
Notre monde, aujourd’hui, est moins sûr de lui-même, plus modest peut-être puisqu’il a renoncé à la toute-puissance de la personne, mais plus ambitieux aussi puisqu’il regarde au-delà.
The world itself is no longer a private property, inheritable and vendible, a species of prey, of which it is a less a matter of understanding it than of conquering it….
Today, our world is less sure of itself, possibly more modest, since it has renounced the all-powerfulness of the human being, but also more ambitious, since it looks beyond it.
—Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Sur quelques notions périmées”, Pour un nouveau roman (1961, p. 28, my translation)
The ‘radical scepticism’ about the world of verisimilar appearances evinced by Mr. Pinter should be a salutary example to us as writers.
It’s time to ‘buck your ideas up’, as he says in Sleuth. The time for entertainment is over. It’s time for us, as writers, to ‘get down to “brass tacks”’, to begin to map the dimensions of the meta-crisis, to articulate the architecture of the networked hell that is all around us, and we only do that through the earnest modelling of actuality that is serious Art.
The network of impressions and intuitions that come from serious artists like Mr. Pinter, writers who use the algebra of human language to scope what they see—to report ‘high signal’ to the collective—is, I think, the only, but probably insufficient, means we having of compassing the variety, the only way we can bring the human dimension accurately and faithfully to the equation unbalanced by Science.
The Spleen of Melbourne project is my attempt to do just that, to present impressions from the field of my flâneuristic researches, through my prose poetry and ficciones, such as “The Trade”.
So too is that ‘literary crime’ I’ve been plotting since lockdown, and of which “The Trade” is a further experiment, a further attempt to articulate what I think is really going on in the world, the great ‘crime of our time’, the global confidence game of ambiguous appearances, of fakeness and personal grasping for ‘influence’, we engage in daily, the problem to which there is not yet a solution, since our language, as Mr. Pinter showed, is yet too weak to map accurately the reality of it.
If you find value in my ideation and would like to support me in my research, consider purchasing the soundtrack to “The Trade” below for $A2.