The Mystery of the Swiss Waiter

I sometimes give talks.  My focus is somewhere on the interface between writer and publisher; that’s the interesting part: boundaries are where the friction happens.  Unfortunately, I always seem to run out of time to talk about Raymond Chandler, and Chandler was a byword for friction with his publishers.  Probably his best-known blow to the publishing nose is the following:

“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 stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.  The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.

I think that part of the reason passage gets into dictionaries of quotations is the bit about the Swiss waiter.  Whilst I have sampled a few Swiss restaurants, I must have paid insufficient attention to the speech patterns of the staff, because I cannot recall any peculiarity that links them to Chandler.  I suspect that what he was getting at was that people from multi-lingual countries* may speak sentences in one language using word order transposed from another.

Chandler was being self-deprecating in saying that the method was all he had. He knew exactly what he was doing.  What he was doing was writing dialogue in an adopted persona.  The following comes from another of his letters (to the editor of the Atlantic monthly) about an article he has written:

I should like to mention one error in this article because it is the kind of thing I can never understand. (…)  It reads: ‘and not examine the artistic result too critically’.  What I wrote was: ‘and not too critically examine the artistic result’…  It is obvious that somebody, for no reason save that he thought he was improving the style, changed the order of the words.  I confess myself completely flabbergasted by the literary attitude this expresses, the assumption on the part of some editorial hireling that he can write better than the man who sent the stuff in, that he knows more about phrase and cadence and the placing of words that he actually thinks that a clause with a strong stressed syllable at the end, which was put there because it was strong, is improved by changing the order so that the clause ends in a weak adverbial termination.

Chandler was one of the great stylists of the twentieth century.  He wrote the Philip Marlowe detective stories in the first person and, since that person was the archetypal rough diamond, the emphasis is deliberately on the strength of the phrase rather than grammatical elegance.  If he wants to split an infinitive, just stand back and admire the Chandleresque results.

Writing in the first person is to inhabit the character.  It’s what playwrights do in creating dialogue that differentiates one role from another; the speech patterns belong to the character, not to Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  Thus I wince every time an editor or proof reader reports that a script was full of bad grammar.  However, before heaping scorn on the editorial hireling, it is worth noting that most of this criticism applies not to the construction of dialogue but to the stage directions.  Whilst dialogue may well be a voyage of discovery for the actors, the directions should be beacons of clarity.

So, by all means aspire to be a stylist with your own esque, but if you want your editors to leave your dialogue unchanged, your stage directions have to be perfect.

Raymond Chandler

* The best multi-lingual waiter I ever came across was in Brussels. I was dining with a Dutch colleague and there was a French couple on the next table. The waiter addressed the French people in English, the Dutchman in French and me in Dutch in what I suspect was a deliberate equality of insult.

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