Mystery Men

I’ve been meaning to get to Judith Freeman‘s new biography of Raymond Chandler, The Long Embrace, which dispenses with the usual biographical look-at-everything altitude and barnstorms the writer’s relationship with his wife, Cissy. Pico Iyer‘s excellent review in the New York Review of Books is behind a paywall, but my friend Liz at Cahiers du Moment gets at a similar argument, pinpointing what makes Freeman’s approach at once fascinating and frustrating:

Freeman fully inhabits what she’s got. Some of the incidents she rounds out really do help us get a sense of what this woman might have been like, how Chandler was so attached to her, such as a meeting with George Cukor (somehow that just fits, given Cukor’s talent with women). But in the end it still all feels vaporous, because it is. It’s hard to get a sense of the power in the Chandlers’ relationship, whether she was serving him, or he was serving her with their somewhat reclusive life. Cissy still….flits. The questions are still louder than the answers.

A review of Philip Davis’s Bernard Malamud: A Life in Haaretz (HT: Critical Compendium) uncovers a similar problem with the subject. Chandler was cryptic because his relationship with his wife was opaque; Malamud is cryptic simply because he was a worker, sacrificing an action-packed life for the sake of his work:

After Malamud died [in 1986], [his wife] Ann described him as “someone who towards the end of his life must have felt in some way that he hadn’t lived.” The same might be said of Malamud’s characters, who are best understood as the critic Robert Alter has understood them: “large and resonant in their smallness.” Their smallness resounds because it urges us to contemplate our own, and because it awakens a sense of empathy and enigma.

Many of Malamud’s men are imprisoned, like Yakov Bok, in a czarist jail in “The Fixer,” Lesser in his tenement in “The Tenants,” or Bober in his grocery store in “The Assistant.” Malamud’s creatures seem most of all locked in themselves, however, entrapped by guilt, captives to sex, to middle age, or to the contaminations of the past. As Levin discovers in “A New Life”: “The prison was really himself, flawed edifice of failures, each locking up tight the one before.”