The City And The City

City reflection wide

In a Guardian interview two years ago, China Mieville gave my favourite demonstration of how a writer sees the world:

“When I was moving into my new house a few years ago we were having all our kitchen stuff delivered and my then-partner got off the phone, turned to me and said ‘the fridge men are coming’. Now, it seems to me that there are two kinds of people: those that hear that sentence and think ‘oh good, delivery of the white goods’, and then there’s those people who imagine a kind of enormous cyborg thing…”

His new book, The City And The City, requires all its characters to view the world differently. They live in two very different cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, that share the same geographical space. Beszel is a crumbling mittel-European city whose industries are fading, its citizens drab. Ul Qoma, on the other hand, is booming, an emerging economy flinging up towers of steel and glass. They speak different languages, have different-sized plugs, and a call between the two is international; yet the borders are drawn between streets, houses, even individual floors. Ever since a bitter separation, several hundred years ago, both cities’ citizens have been brought up to “unsee” each other, even on the crowded streets.: if the next door building is on fire, but in the other city, you can watch on CNN but not in life.

This separation is enforced by Breach, a strange, all-powerful police force who seem to manifest from nowhere whenever a border is broken. They are fast, silent and brutal, and there’s no court of appeal. But there’s also a growing band of nationalists, some on each side of the border, who seek to reconnect the cities, and restore them to their pre-separation state. Tension between the two is growing, so when a young American is murdered, her death an apparent violation of the border, it’s soon clear that this is not going to be an easy case to crack.  And so we meet Inspector Borlu, a downbeat middle-aged cop in the best tradition of Chandler. When he realises the political implications of the murder, Borlu wants to hand it straight to Breach. But nothing in Beszl and Ul Qoma is that simple, and Borlu soon finds himself crossing the border, undercover in a city that overlaps his own. And as the bodies begin to pile up, it seems there’s yet another city lurking in the walls …

The City and The City, appropriately enough, is three novels distilled into one. There’s a classic noir mystery that is, as Borlu notes, “more convoluted than a dancing worm”. There’s a thrilling conceptual adventure as Mieville explores his world, coining bright new words and jargon — police cars are bruises; overlapping places, brilliantly, topolgangers — as he goes. And there’s a third story, hidden in the others: the story of how we all live like this. Because that’s Mieville’s real subject here: how all of us learn to unsee what’s around us, to ignore the poverty next door. Like Kafka or Bulgakov Mieville cloaks his commentary in fable, and in doing so has written one of the most entertaining, and most serious, novels of the year.

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The Craft of … Raymond Chandler

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Raymond Chandler was the Dulwich College schoolboy who grew up to be an oil executive, married a woman eighteen years older than himself (although she told him it was half that much) and created Philip Marlowe: not just one of the great fictional heroes of the twentieth century, but the very idea of the hero for the twentieth century. Here is Chandler’s own definition of the job:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man … He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him … If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

His moral and intellectual force is that he gets nothing but his fee, for which he will if he can protect the innocent, guard the helpless, and destroy the wicked, and the fact that he must do this while earning a meager living in a corrupt world is what makes his stand out.

Chandler had the rare literary gift of absolute moral seriousness without sententiousness. His books throb with rage against cruelty, injustice and the world’s hard-heartedness, but you never feel lectured to, because his purpose is not to change the world itself, but to change each of us who lives there. He also believed in the importance of art, but not in the self-importance of  art:

I wish to God that Hollywood would stop trying to be significant, because when art is significant, it is always a by-product and more or less unintentional on the part of the writer.

Which is as good a definition as any of why Slumdog should win Best Picture next weekend, rather than Benjamin Button or The Reader.

He never aspired to be a “literary” writer. He believed in the value of popular culture, and that “all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten”:

Greek drama, which is still considered quite respectable by most intellectuals, was mass entertainment to the Athenian freeman. So, within its economic and topographical limits, was Elizabethan drama. The great cathedrals of Europe, while not exactly built to while away an afternoon, certainly had an aesthetic and spiritual effect on the ordinary man. 

He worked hard to make his prose seem casual, to hide the craft that makes it flow. He resisted analysis of his own style, afraid of becoming too self-conscious. Occasionally, though, he gives us a clue to his approach.Here’s a Giles Coren-worthy letter to Edward Weeks of the Atlantic Monthly, whose proof-reader unwisely tampered with his work:

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few dozen words of bar-room vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive … I think your proof reader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a pretty clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street in between.

All writers in all genres debate the balance between character, atmosphere and plot, but few balanced them as well as Chandler. Here’s another insight into his technique:

A long time ago when I was writing for the pulps I put in a story a line like “he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water”. They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they  cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they care very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.

Chandler wrote beautifully crafted genre fiction. There are heroes. There are villains. There is a dark, corrupting world. But every element is individual, every detail lovingly observed. Every character has his or her own clothes and voice and walk. His style has become famous, often imitated — “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window” — but what his imitators neglect to add is the humanity, the particularity, the heart. And this is really why we need him, why he’s always worth re-reading. The world is in a mess, no question, and there’s no shortage of pundits saying, “this is where we went wrong”. But what Chandler shows us is: forget the “we”. If we blame “we” we get nowhere. The world can only be rebuilt by every individual being responsible, having a conscience, taking a stand. We blame individualism for getting us into this mess: maybe, just maybe, it’s a different kind of individualism that can get us out of it. Chandler once said that:

I wrote melodrama because when I looked around me it was the only kind of writing I saw that was relatively honest and yet was not trying to put over somebody’s party line. So now there are guys … telling me I have a social conscience. P.Marlowe has as much social conscience as a horse. He has a personal conscience, which is an entirely different matter. 

Or, even more succinctly:

The more men are ruled by law, the less they are ruled by honor.

I started this post calling Marlowe a great twentieth century hero. Perhaps he should be a great twenty-first one too.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

The One from the Other

In choosing Ian Fleming as a hero of this site I compared him to such masters of genre fiction as Eric Ambler (James Bond’s favourite writer) and Raymond Chandler. One of Chandler’s contemporary heirs is Philip Kerr, whose Bernie Gunther trilogy transposed the detective novel to pre-war Berlin, as Bernie uncovered dreadful secrets against the even darker backdrop of the Nazi party in its pomp.

Now, in The One from the Other, the war is over but the world no less murky, as former Nazis mingle with new enemies in Allied-occupied Germany. Bernie is now in Munich, assisting in the post-war clean-up as his clients search for their lost relatives, lost property and lost morals. As with Chandler, the joy of the Bernie Gunther novels lies as much with the prose as with the plotting, in particular the way he introduces characters. Here are three of my favourite examples from The One from the Other: if you like these you’ll love the book.

“The man in the chair was heavyset with longish, fair hair and a beard you might have picked for an important chat with Moses. The moustaches were waxed and left his face like the quillions on a broadsword … On his feet were black Miesbacher shoes with a high heel and a fold-over tongue. They were the kind of shoes you wear when you want to slap someone wearing leather shorts.”

“If Heidi had grown up she might have looked something like the nurse of the man in the wheelchair … She was blonde, but not the sunny kind of blonde, or the gilded kind, but the enigmatic sulky kind you might fond lost in some sylvan glade. I tried not to notice her bosom. And then I tried again, only it kept singing to me like it was perched on a rock in the Rhine River and I was some poor, dumb sailor with an ear for music … Some women look more like nurses than others. And some women manage to make being a nurse look like Delilah’s last stratagem.”

“Being a detective I spotted Father Gotovina within a few seconds of going through the door. There were a lot of things that gave it away. The black suit, the black shirt, the crucifix hanging around his neck, the little white halo of his collar … The thick dark eyebrows were the only hair on his head. The skull looked like the rotating dome roof on the Gottingen Observatory and each lobeless ear resembled a demon’s wing … He had a mole on his left cheek that was the size and colour of a five-pfennig piece and walnut-brown eyes, like the walnut on the grip of a Walther PPK. If the Medici had still been siring popes, Father Gotovina would have been what one looked like.”