Thursday, November 4, 2010
Book #31: Not So Hard-Boiled After All
Yesterday evening, I was puttering around the library doing research on Dashiell Hammett. It almost felt like back in my geeky grad school days. But no, I'm not working on some dry dissertation, I'm writing what I truly want to be writing - my memoir about how reading changed my life. One chapter deals with The Maltese Falcon. My dad and I read this novel together a few years ago, during a rocky period in both our lives, when everything was spiralling out of control like in film noir. As my dad and I were reading it together, I came to see him as bearing some remarkable similarities to the cynical, hard-boiled anti-hero Sam Spade, and the question of what had made him this way compelled me to delve into his past and discover some family secrets.... (More on this later.... I'm writing this chapter as we speak).
Anyway, I have to confess that the chapter feels like it's missing something, and I'm starting to feel very anxious about it. Nauseous, actually. I get that way when I'm writing. Insomnia, teeth grinding, bizarre cinematic dreams. So this was why I found myself at the library late last night.... I found myself wanting to know more about the author himself, because I'd gotten it into my head that the key to understanding my father lies in gaining insight into Hammett and Sam Spade. Not exactly a logical leap, I'll admit. But this is how my mind works.
How lucky I was to stumble upon a memoir written by none other than Hammett's own daughter! Jo Hammett's Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers gives an unflinching look at the man and the convoluted dynamics of father-daughter relationships, where the daughter is caught between idolization of her old man, guilt at having not done enough when he was dying, and an ever-present yearning to have been closer to him when she had the chance. Hammett was no model father, indulging in bouts of drinking and womanizing and plagued by illness, yet Jo Hammett gives a surprisingly balanced portrait of her eccentric dad. What emerges is a portrait of a very shy, self-conscious person, who needed drink in order to be around people at all, and his solitude was intrinsically tied to his ability to write. Lillian Hellman, his long-time lover, understood this about him and often remarked on how his lust for solitude had taken its toll on her, cutting her off from society, especially as the couple aged.
In a particularly moving scene, Jo Hammett writes about visiting her father at his San Francisco Post Street apartment, where he wrote The Maltese Falcon; she remembers the elevator, with its folding brass grille, closing. For anyone who has read the novel, this memory is clearly reminiscent of the final scene, where the femme fatale is led out in handcuffs, yet Jo Hammett focuses instead on how trapped her father must have felt in that elevator - stomach constricted, air sucked out of his lungs. He suffered from claustrophobia all his life. Not a tough guy like Sam Spade, the Hammett she brings to life is full of vulnerability and depth. Exactly the characteristics I want to bring out in my dad.
Photo from: here
- Leslie Shimotakahara
- Toronto, ON, Canada
- Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.