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. The heat 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.—Lionel Trilling, “Reality in America”, The Liberal Imagination (1950, pp. 16-7)
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.—David Goodis, Nightfall, Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (2012, p. 243)
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.”—David Goodis, Down There, Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s (1997, pp. 590-1)
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, bourgeois naïveté 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 on right 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.—Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller (2001, pp. 93-4)
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.—Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944)
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?—John Taylor, “Two cultures of the prose poem”, Michigan Quarterly Review (2005, p. 373)
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.