Friday, April 02, 2010

Murakami, "The Big Sleep," Allusions to Proust

As I have been teaching Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World this spring to undergraduates, I have been tracking some of the allusions and reference points. Some, like the references to Turgenev's Rudin and Stendhal's The Red and the Black, seem to be relatively straightforward allusions, though admittedly I haven't gone to the Turgenev yet to see if there might be more to it.

However, I did notice something potentially interesting with regards to an allusion I was able to check more closely. Murakami briefly mentions Hawks' film adaptation of The Big Sleep, based on the Raymond Chandler novel. It occurs about a third of the way through the novel, and interpreting it raises some interesting interpretive challenges. Going well beyond simple correspondences between the two texts, Murakami's allusion to The Big Sleep also appears to be an allusion to Hawks and Chandler's own literary allusions (often figured dimissively -- as examples of what not to read, i.e., Proust). In other words, Murakami's invocation of Hawks' film is a kind of versioning or remixing that channels not just a voice or a character from the source text, but the source text's entire orientation to literature. There is only one instance of a direct allusion to The Big Sleep in Murakami's novel, but as many as a dozen instances of what I might call buried allusions, which are only legible once we've applied the key represented by the first, and begun to read Murakami's novel through a Big Sleep lens.

To begin with, here is the passage in Murakami that names The Big Sleep:

I finished my business and hung up, then went into the living room and relaxed on the sofa with a beer to watch a video of Humphrey Bogart's "Key Largo." I love Lauren Bacall in "Key Largo." Of course, I love Bacall in "The Big Sleep" too, but in "Key Largo" she's practically allegorical.

The reference to Key Largo might be somewhat of a red herring -- the parallels that I can think of between Murakami's novel and that other film aren't so interesting to me (both books feature father-daughter relationships and outsider protagonists). But there are more than a dozen between The Big Sleep and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and at least some are examples of the "versioning" mode I alluded to above.

Let's start with a sample allusion from Raymond Chandler's novel (the dialogue in the film from this passage is taken, word-for-word, from Chandler), from the second encounter between Marlow and Vivian Regan (Vivian Rutledge in the movie):

"Well, you do get up," she said, wrinkling her nose at the faded red settee, the two odd semi-easy chairs, the net curtains that needed laundering and the boy's size library table with the venerable magazines on it to give the place a professional touch. "I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust."

"Who's he?" I put a cigarette in my mouth and stared at her. She looked a little pale and strained, but she looked like a girl who could function under a strain.

"A French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates. You wouldn't know him."

"Tut, tut," I said. "Come into my boudoir."

She stood up and said: "We didn't get along very well yesterday. Perhaps I was rude."

The irony of Chandler's allusion to Proust is that he is both rejecting him as simultaneously too highbrow for Philip Marlowe -- and too dirty (that is to say, too much of a "connoisseur of degenerates"). Vivian's quip, "You wouldn't know him," comes across as a surface compliment, but actually it's a dig at Marlow's lower class status, and it quickly becomes clear that she actually finds that Marlow is exactly the "connoisseur of degenerates" she says he isn't.

Now, here is a moment from the beginning of Murakami's novel, from the standard Birnbaum translation:


‘Marcel Proust?’ I asked her.

She gave me a look. Then she repeated: ‘Proust.’ I gave up the effort and fell back in line behind her, trying for the life of me to come up with other lip movements that corresponded to ‘Proust.’ Truest? … Brew whist?... Blue is it?... One after the other, quietly to myself, I pronounced strings of meaningless syllables, but none seemed to match. I could only conclude that she had indeed said, ‘Proust.’ But what I couldn’t figure was, what was the connection between the long corridor and Marcel Proust? (9)

As is often the case in Murakami, the rhetorical question the protagonist is asking himself as he attempts to make sense of the professor's daughter's mysterious invocation of Proust, is actually an interpretive question that the reader might do well to apply to the act of reading. Without the reference point to The Big Sleep, there's no direct answer.

The reason the professor's daughter can't speak aloud is later explained (her father has, through one of his neurophysiological inventions, accidentally put her on 'mute'). But what is never explained is what exactly Proust might be doing here, which leads me to think that this reference to Proust is only in Murakami's novel as a kind of buried allusion to a somewhat analogous (but much more cogent) conversation in the Chandler novel and Hawks film.

There's also a more conventional interpretation of the allusion to Proust. Hard Boiled Wonderland..., after all, is a novel that is at least partly about the attempt to recover lost memories. The "End of the World" sections clearly feature a protagonist whose memories are inaccessible to him (they are with his "shadow"), and one of his goals is to try and recover them, and explain how he got there. The "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" protagonist has some other connections to Proust -– for instance, after his "shuffling activation," the smell of fruits sets of random chains of association for him.

Finally, there are a number of other strong connections between The Big Sleep and Murakami's novel, some of which are in the same orbit as the "Proust" connection. Both texts prominently feature eroticized female librarian guide figures, who help the detective/protagonist decode the mysterious signs around them. In Murakami, the librarian helps the protagonist sort out the possible significance of the unicorn skull the professor has sent him. In Chandler & Hawks' The Big Sleep, there are actually two librarians, one helpful and flirtatious, while the other (who works for the pornographer Geiger) gives him the run-around.

The librarians and bookstore proprietors in The Big Sleep operate around the same discursive axis as Vivian's quip about Proust, that "connoisseur of degenerates." That Geiger's ostensible "rare books" operation is a front for a pornography ring is not an accident. Like Proust, whose literary output must be understood as "rarefied" in market/commodity terms, the high-brow posture conceals the presence of moral rot, the discovery of which is the detective's primary job.

And of course, both texts prominently feature characters who have an unconscious life over which their conscious selves have only limited control, though the content of that unconscious is wildly divergent. In Chandler, writing in the era of Freud, our unconscious is a space of sexual rapacity and exhibitionism as well as violence. In Murakami, by contrast the "End of the World" is a kind of utopian alternate reality surgically implanted inside the protagonist's mind without his knowledge. (I am not sure how much can be done here...)

To intelligibly graph the specific parallels between The Big Sleep and the Murakami actually proves to be quite difficult, though of course Murakami's is far from the only text (even within his own body of work) where this kind of problem arises. Does anyone know of a critic who has done a schematic study that might help us describe the different modes of allusion (specifically oriented to the kind of thing happening with Proust above, for starters) that are often seen in self-consciously intertextual postmodern fiction?


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Anonymous said...

hi, i have a question regarding this book,
is there a significance to the words "sela" and "tozum'sta"?

Anonymous said...

The Proust reference is also made after this passage, which alludes to the famous madeleines and how their taste causes memories to flood back for Proust's narrator: "A hint of eau de cologne drifted from her neckline. A scent reminiscent of standing in a melon patch on a summer's morn. It put me in a funny frame of mind. A nostalgic yet impossible pastiche of sentiments, as if two wholly unrelated memories had threaded together in an unknown recess."