Noir is commonly thought of as an American genre, if it’s in fact a genre. The films “noir” was first used to describe back in the 1940s were American; I’m thinking of the initial French writings in 1946 about a few films like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder, My Sweet, and The Lost Weekend, which French critics were viewing for the first time, and the novels and stories that these and later films were based on also were American. But of course noir is obviously a French word, coined most likely in the model of Série Noire, the black-jacketed French crime novels. So this American genre with a French name was, right from the start, international. That internationalism is one of the assumptions of this evening’s panel.
Another assumption, I think, of this evening, is that almost no one ever really plans to write or film noir; it’s a term that’s usually applied retrospectively (and maybe only can be applied retrospectively). Over and over in interviews with the great noir directors, you hear them refuse or at least deflect the name, saying they never set out to direct something called “noir.” And the same is still true, I think, of most contemporary noir writers. The reason I say noir can only be applied retrospectively is that if you set out to write something called “noir,” you almost invariably end up with pastiche, parody, or nostalgia. I prefer critic James Naremore’s sense of noir as not so much a category of items with common properties, but a looser, more slippery network of relationships and associations that develop and change over time.
That said, I want to conclude by just glancing at some of the obvious achievements of American noir. The first is that historically and in the present, noir is one of the great sources of the American vernacular and the demotic. The film and sound editor Walter Murch told Michael Ondaatje in his great book The Conversations, “I spent a lot of time trying to discover those key sounds that bring universes with them.” To focus for a moment on James M. Cain: The sounds of Cain’s sentences, particularly his first-person fictions of the 1930s and ’40s, vividly shadow pure-product American characters. A concoction of carnality in California, highways, cars, fast food, and lunges at stardom, this Cain universe is instantly tangible, rooted in objects and work, fascinated by road signs, tabloids, radio, and insurance tables, yet tilting toward fable, even surrealism.
That leads, I think, to the second achievement of American noir: It’s always been a home for experimentation. Think of the self-consuming narratives of Jim Thompson’s novels, or the notion that the only American writer that Gertrude Stein wished to meet, during her triumphal American tour after the great success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, was Dashiell Hammett. Stein esteemed Hammett as a crucial American novelist; she invoked his writing as a counterpart to her own experiments in the stripping away of nineteenth-century psychology, character, even plot from twentieth-century fiction. The following year, she would observe in her book What Are Masterpieces?, “It is curious, but the detective story, which is, you might say, the only really modern novel form that has come into existence, gets rid of human nature by having the man dead to begin with, the hero dead to begin with, and so you have, so to speak, got rid of the event before the book beings.”
And last, noir is also a home often for radical politics and for novels of political and social history. As we say in the festival program, “From Hammett through Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and on to James Ellroy and Walter Mosley, crime novels inscribed a black-mirror twentieth-century America far more dishonest and bloody than the country of official chronicles.” In Europe, until recently, despite writers like Simenon, the push for secret history and covert historical reckoning tended to surface instead in espionage fiction. But much as once all politics famously were local, from now on, all crimes probably will be global. So there is at least one salutary effect of globalization—international crime, which leads us directly to tonight and to the search for other traditions, for other histories.
From Idiots by Jakob Arjouni (translated by Anthea Bell)
Ohio rose from his desk and, limping slightly, went down the hall, past four other rooms, and into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea. The apartment seemed quieter and emptier every day. In fact it was full of furniture, some of which was inherited from his grandparents, and a collection of pop art posters. The expensively framed Warhols and Lichtensteins were all propped on the floor, leaning against bookshelves and walls. He had seen this effect in a documentary film about Picasso: pictures all over the house but none of them hanging. He had begun collecting the posters some time in the seventies. At that point Ohio had hoped for a while that with the new interest certain German publishers and newspapers were taking in American crime novels and light literature, he might finally join the ranks of those authors who were taken seriously. And because the people interested in this kind of literature were mostly young and modern, he began creating himself a new lifestyle, even though he was over fifty. Instead of listening to whatever was on the radio, drinking beer, and buying naïve paintings from Lake Constance, he suddenly began going in for French chansons, jazz, white wine, and pop art. He spent a whole summer going to readings by long-haired young authors, he visited exhibitions in damp cellars where bottled beer was drunk and New York bands played, and in the evenings he went to the Charlottenburg bars frequented by students and artists. He had a three-day affair with a girl student of American literature; it lasted until he gave her one of his novels. She read half of it, told Ohio his American Indians were racist clichés, and threw him out. Other acquaintanceships that he made that summer never lasted any longer than three days either. Sometimes a discussion in a bar about comparative structures of narrative in novels and movies would go on until eight in the morning, sometimes he spent the afternoon by the lake with a group of art students, all stoned out of their minds, who kept sending him to the kiosk every half hour to buy chocolate bars and pretzels, and once he was invited to a private porn movie show, which made him, apparently unlike everyone else, feel first embarrassed and then, also apparently unlike everyone else, horny—at least, after the show they all drank tea and discussed the difference between sex and eroticism. Ohio could do what he liked: be curious, interested, serious, ironic, get drunk, stay sober, boast, talk big, listen, chauffeur people through the Berlin night in his Cadillac, stand them drinks in bars, buy pictures from young painters, which his wife immediately stowed in the cellar, praise poems of which he understood nothing except that they mustn’t rhyme, watch films of young people sitting on sofas, looking out of windows, and breakfasting half naked, take note of more and more new music groups, whose disks he bought and listened to in the afternoon so that he could join the discussion of them in the evening—but all the same, at the end of that summer he was still the weird old guy in cowboy boots, jeans, and denim jacket who wrote some kind of Wild West nonsense.
He put the kettle on the stove, took a teabag out of its packet, hung it in the cup and waited for the water to boil. It wasn’t really quiet in the apartment either. Some kind of modern music echoed up from the floor below day in, day out, and there’d been renovations in progress on the floor above for the last three weeks. All the same: an empty, quiet apartment. Since his last mistress, Marita, moved away from Berlin, he had had exactly nine visits in four years. Four times, always at Christmas, his widowed sister came. She’d hated him ever since, in that hopeful summer in the seventies, he had described her husband, a police officer, as a Nazi and a petit bourgeois (he really did it only on account of the student of American literature, so that he could feel close to her once more; that was two weeks after she threw him out, and he hadn’t seen her again). Twice he had a visit from his son, who worked as a head of department for the Karstadt chain of stores, speculated on the stock exchange as a side line, and spent his visits sitting on the sofa following the share prices on television. Once his daughter came with her new boyfriend, about the fifth since her divorce; the boyfriend’s parents had emigrated from Turkey and he kept making jokes about the Turks, which first irritated and then infuriated Peter Ohio. And finally there were two visits from the Giselle Publishing concept manager, aged thirty-one, who wanted to persuade him to lend his name to a new series written by a young team. The central character was a kind of Greenpeace version of James Bond, who in the course of the first twelve episodes turned out to be the disowned and repudiated son of an Arabian royal house. Brought up as a child by a lonely old Christian lady, he had seen so many accidents at oil wells and pipelines in his native land that when he reached twenty he decided to save the earth. Meanwhile, he appreciated good champagne and would remain a bachelor for the time being, breaking hearts but never a promise to God.
“What utter tripe!” said Ohio. “Who reads that sort of stuff today?”
“Oh, Peter!” The concept manager succeeded in giving him a smile that was both admiring and superior. “You may have changed, but the world hasn’t. People still want this kind of thing. Come on, do yourself a favor, you’ll get a quarter per cent, and what do you have to lose?”
My name, Ohio almost said, but he saw the trap just in time. “You probably won’t understand me, but all the same: I’ve been writing this stuff for forty years, and there’s no realistic prospect of the name Ohio being connected with anything but cowboy adventures, but it’s been my pseudonym for over forty years, and at least once I want to write a real book under it.”