Out to sea, hunting Nazi war ships, Saul Bellow’s Augie March encounters a sailor, a brilliant autodidact, who tells him, “Pascal says people get in trouble because they can’t stay in their rooms. The next poet laureate of England—I figure—prays to God to teach us to sit still.” It would take W.H. Auden, who might well have become England’s poet laureate had he sat still, half his career to arrive at a similar conclusion about the mischief men do in pursuit of lofty goals. The centennial of his birth fell on February 21st of this year; most of the comments on this sadly muted occasion focused on the distinction between his “early” and “late” stages, which also happen to coincide with his Communism and his regained Anglicanism.
Posts For: March 5, 2007
One of the discouraging things about the Arab world is the epistemological deficit.
I am visiting Saudi Arabia now, on a State Department speaker’s program, giving talks and interviews trying to explain neoconservatism and to demystify U.S. policy toward the Middle East, as well as interviewing Saudis and learning about their country.
Many of the Saudis whom I am meeting are sophisticated and friendly to America, albeit critical of current policies. But here, as elsewhere in the region, even smart people are capable of believing far-fetched things and often seem deficient in the skills of reality-testing.
• Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976): This past winter holiday I did something I do almost every year: I got down my two-volume Raymond Chandler collection from the Library of America and re-read some of his novels. They’re still as good as ever: not only the best detective fiction of all time—better, in my humble opinion, than Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, to say nothing of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James—but also the best fiction ever written about Los Angeles (my hometown). Perhaps not surprisingly, given how good the novels are, the man who produced them was a tortured soul. (Has there ever been a good novelist who was a happy go-lucky sort?)
The picture painted by his biographer Frank MacShane is bleak. Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, but after his father abandoned him and his mother, she returned to her native England, where Chandler attended the same minor public school as P.G. Wodehouse. Finding that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, he came back to the United States and wound up in L.A. After a hellish experience as a Canadian soldier on the western front in World War I, he entered the oil business and did relatively well until his drinking got out of control. He was fired in 1932, age 44, at the height of the Great Depression. With a wife to support—he had stolen a friend’s wife, who was twenty years older—he had to find some way to make a living. He turned to producing short stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask. He then began turning his stories into novels, beginning with The Big Sleep in 1939. Although the book was an instant success, Chandler was not a bestselling novelist, and he was frustrated to be dismissed by most American critics as a mere “mystery writer.” (He got more respect in England.)
I was happy to receive Dan Fleshler’s reply to my previous post about him and other “progressive” critics of Israel. Since the column he wrote for the Forward, which I criticized, definitely gave the impression that he was singling Israel out for condemnation, he indeed did, by his own admission, err in its phrasing.
Still, I would like to pursue the matter with him a bit further. In his answer to me, he makes three points: 1) that he has respect for Israeli soldiers serving in the occupied territories; 2) that he conveys this respect to enemies of Israel on the “far Left” when he debates with them; and 3) that he recognizes that, under the circumstances, these soldiers are doing a necessary job because they are protecting both Israelis living within the 1967 borders and Jewish settlers living outside of them—who, he obviously believes, deserve protection even if he thinks that some of them, located “in the midst of large Palestinian population centers,” have “contributed to the difficulty of solving the conflict.”