Let me muse for a moment on Raymond Chandler, someone I often turn to when I’m hungry for something beautiful. I go to him to settle myself in an atmosphere of balance, rhythm, and tone. His prose is vernacular, the purest American language I know, but it is shaped in the graceful classical style he learned reading Latin as an English schoolboy. Ann Patchett calls his writing “flat-out gorgeous.”
Consider the quick, panned-in moment when Philip Marlowe first encounters Anne Riordan in Farewell My Lovely:
I put the light on her face and she blinked. It was a small neat vibrant face with large eyes. A face with bone under the skin, fine drawn like a Cremona violin. A very nice face.
The moment is electric, and cinematic like most of Chandler’s prose. “Blinked” is the critical word. Like the click of a camera, it freeze-frames Miss Riordan’s face, locking her eyes on Marlowe as he tries not to fall in love with her.
The violin is a characteristic Chandler simile, a good one, but it is not facile wordplay. The violin vibrates with the taut strength of Miss Riordan’s face, alive in the delicacy of curved bone beneath it. It suggests a face, and an underlying mind, that is airy and resonant with life, and sings like a violin.
And it’s not just any violin. It is a Cremona violin, an elegant 16th century artefact, probably a Stradivarius, whose wood and varnish sang Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and Gluck to the Medici and to the supplicants at St. Mark’s– a classical perfection of tone from the old masters which is treasured and sought-after today. That’s Anne Riordan’s face.
Even more exciting is “fine drawn,” which extends the simile’s reach into the tight, astringent drawing of a bow across a violin’s strings, vibrant with life and beauty– or, in Marlowe’s world, a knife across the throat.
The scene momentarily stuns Marlowe, as surely as it does Riordan, and it fires Marlowe’s innate Romanticism.
But then, with a cinematic caesura, Marlowe steps back, and adds a wry qualification, “A very nice face.” That’s the conflicted Marlowe to the core.