Heroes, do we still have heroes anymore? Are we too grown up, too cynical, too knowing to call anyone a hero, does the idea even exist outside the worlds of movies or fiction or comics?
What about literary heroes. As a writer, and I’m sure something I hold in common with other writers, I have writers I admire, and yes I would call them my literary heroes. Writers I look up to because of their skill, their dedication and the fearlessness with which they engage with their subject matter. All the while as I try to write they sit on my shelves looking down on me, whispering in the silence that if I want to call myself a real writer I have to be willing to go as far as they went, put as much on the line as they did, be willing to be as brave and as courageous as they were with what they put on paper.
But what about literary characters, are any of those heroes?
I’m always reluctant to call the main characters in anything I write the ‘hero’, it sounds like they should be running around with a fedora and a wisecrack, besides, none of them ever do anything particularly ‘heroic’, I always like the idea that someone does something wrong and their life unravels as a result, much more interesting than the indestructible hero with the chiselled jaw, the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and the dame simpering at his feet.
A friend of mine prompted this. She happened to be telling me one day that her favourite book is Jane Eyre, she was rereading it for the first time in years, and that the character of Jane Eyre is still a hero if her’s. Now while I don’t know the book that well and rely on film adaptations to be honest for my knowledge of it I can see why this character is so admirable, her intelligence and strength of character are certainly attributes to admire, and knowing my friend I can see aspects of Jane in her, see why this particular character would appeal to her.
So what about me, do I have a literary character hero, is there some character out there that I admire more than others? Can I pretend that I’m too cool for such an idea, that as a writer these things are beyond me? Thankfully not.
Most of the books I read tend to be one-offs and while certain characters stick in my mind, the unnamed narrator of Beckett’s The Unnameable, the lost souls of the Philadelphia dive bars from the world of David Goodis or the equally lost denizens of Georges Simenon’s romans dur struggling in their world in which one mistake has caused their lives to descend into misery, or where they try to escape from lives that have closed around them like traps, and of course not forgetting the eternal losers in the smoke filled bars of Patrick Hamilton’s world. Don’t get me started on the protagonists of Richard Yates’ brilliant books, all starting off well and going downhill faster than an Olympic luge. And yes, I do see a pattern but at this moment in time I’m sitting in a chair not lying on a couch so we’ll let that one float on by for the moment if you don’t mind.
Admirable as all of these characters are in their own way I couldn’t really count them as heroes, much as I would sympathise with them and wish them well as they try to snatch one small victory from life’s defeats I still wouldn’t call them my heroes.
Thinking over the idea of a literary character as a hero I eventually realised mine was a literary type, specifically in two series of books, with the honourable mention of a third. Each of these characters inhabit the same basic characteristics and are all essentially variations on the same theme, and while many have imitated them over the years I don’t think this character has been better defined than in these examples.
The versions of the same character I’m talking about are Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Derek Raymond’s nameless Detective Sergeant in the Factory series of books and the mention goes to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series set in Nazi Germany.
For most Philip Marlowe is the embodiment of the Private Eye, fedora, mac, cigarettes, bourbon and wise-cracks, Humphrey Bogart eyeing up the dames as they saunter into his office, yadda, yadda, yadda. Even if you’ve never seen Bogart as Marlowe (and why the fuck haven’t you!) you know the type, and Bernie Gunther is very much a carbon copy of same. Indeed if your crime novel includes a private detective and isn’t set in a country house or cruise liner a la Christie, then chances are your main character is a version of what I’ve described. But it isn’t the wise-cracking street-smart Shamus that interests me, it’s another aspect of their character, and one the three examples I’ve picked share in spades.
These characters exhibit something beyond a world weariness, to me it’s an inherent sadness, sadness at the world around them, the sadness of knowing that the more they learn about the world the worse it gets. These are characters that live in worlds without pity, without justice, without love, everyone they meet is lying, corrupt, or just pure evil in their own way. But it’s the relentlessness that I admire, knowing just how shit the world is they choose to go on, they know that the world will not be a better place when they finish, they know they will not put things to right but they go on, hoping that in their own small way they can let a little chink of light penetrate the darkness, even for a moment.
Chandler’s Marlowe is the oldest of the three, and serves as the template for this kind of hero. It’s no coincidence that in an earlier version I believe the character was called Malory after the creator of Le Morte D’Arthur, the classic tale of chivalric knights in search of the holy grail, because in his own way Marlowe, and the Detective Sergeant, and Bernie Gunther are knights, they are men out of time on their own quests, eternally seeking for something they will never find. I see these figures as romantic heroes, not in the sense of chocolates and flowers and jumping in a lake fully clothed (if you’re a fan of BBC mini-series), no I mean romantic in my own reading of the original sense of the word.
The romantic knights in their quest to find the grail weren’t necessarily looking for a cup (or a bloodline or any of that shite); I even believe some of the early tales refer to grails, not just one. The quest for the grail was a quest for the divine, for perfection, for an ideal, an ideal that they can never find because it doesn’t exist in this world. I’ve always felt that a cynic has to begin life as a romantic, someone with the concept of the ideal but who realises that this ideal cannot exist and now sees the world around them as something tawdry and lacking because of the absence of this perfection that they may once have had a glimpse of but now forever remember. Marlowe to me is such a knight, transplanted from medieval Europe to the Los Angeles of the 1940s, like the cosmic balance to Mark Twain’s story. Marlowe tries to live by his code, to live with what are now alien concepts such as truth, justice and decency but everywhere he looks he sees these ideas corrupted, everywhere is a corruption of the ideals he tries to cling on to.
I recently reread Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, not one of his best and one I haven’t read in years. This book does display the flaws that others have pointed out in Chandler’s work, namely that the plotting can get a bit confusing and convoluted, though as always it is the character of Marlowe that keeps you interested. What I noticed this time is the all-pervading sadness in the book. Marlowe is hired to find a man’s missing wife, in doing so he discovers the body of another woman, the titular lady in the lake and the plot continues weaving both strands together until the finale. The sadness infects almost every line; it’s as if Marlowe knows that this will not end well, not for him the satisfaction of solving a crime or uncovering a murderer. As I said it’s the gradual revelation of the venality of the people he meets, the slow revelation that almost no one he encounters can even pass as a decent human being. This is also something I find in Simenon’s Maigret books, the cases are never solved triumphantly; he finishes every investigation almost regretting that he has found out what he has.
Chandler famously described the character of Marlowe in The Simple Art of Murder (1950):
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
That pretty much sums him up. But as I said it’s the almost unworldly aspect, the idea that he is a man out of time, the idea that he will hold on to his principles no matter what, knowing that what he is doing is essentially futile and meaningless. That to me is what makes him heroic.
Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther is a more recent version of this hero but his stories take place in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Even more so that the Los Angeles of the 40s this is a great example of the hero trying to hold to his code in a world of horror. How more futile can it be to hold to such ideals in the horrific world of the Nazis, what’s the point in scraping out one iota of justice in this particular circle of hell? And yet he does it, he tries. Again it’s the self-knowledge of the character, realising that it is all completely futile, and being aware of it, that perversely in his own way makes him heroic.
The nameless Detective Sergeant of Derek Raymond’s Factory series adds a more modern slant to these two errant knights. For him it is the mean streets of Thatcher’s Britain, where famously there is ‘No such thing as Society’. The Detective Sergeant is assigned to investigate crimes that no one cares about. People die, unwanted and uncared for so it is to the unwanted of the Metropolitan Police Force that they turn for answers, though nobody really cares whether the cases are solved or not. Raymond’s hero perfectly encapsulates the world of noir fiction in one beautiful, perfect sentence
‘For the span of my own lifetime I would always arrive too late’
(I Was Dora Suarez, Derek Raymond, 1990)
In his two masterpieces, He Died With His Eyes Open and I Was Dora Suarez the Detective Sergeant investigates the murder of two unwanted people, one a failed writer confining his thoughts to a series of taped confessions (a thinly veiled self-portrait of Raymond himself) and the other an unwanted immigrant working as a prostitute. In both cases it is the compassion of the Detective Sergeant for the two victims that shines through, even though he knows that the resolution of the investigation will bring no justice and that no one bar him will even care. As the Detective Sergeant prepares to confront Dora’s murderer he says a silent prayer to her, acknowledging that he, like everyone else, has failed her in life and hoping that in some way his actions now will bring her some peace.
Despite his prayer and in common with Marlowe the Detective Sergeant is well aware of the futility of his actions, what he does will not change the world, no one cares and they are often blunt in telling him that, yet he tries in a vain attempt to atone for the worlds failings. It always reminds me of a line I remember from a television show years ago, I can’t remember what it was, but the line stuck with me, it may even have been borrowed from something else, I don’t know (ok a quick Google has now revealed the line comes from Joss Whedon’s Angel, ok not the great classic work I was hoping for but I’ll stick by it, I always liked that line and the guy can sure write):
‘When nothing we do matters all that matters is what we do’
So that’s it really, my literary hero is not one but two characters, but basically two sides of the same coin. Philip Marlowe and the nameless Detective Sergeant, both prowling their own mean streets, both trying to shine even a little light in a world that’s long since gone dark, both failing, but trying again. Both knowing that there is no reward, in this world or the next but they do what they do because there is no reward, because it is the right thing to do, and for no other reason than that.
(I don’t know, maybe I should just invent a superhero, indestructible, infallible, omniscient, leaping tall buildings, saving the day, walking off into the sunset with his best gal as the credits start to roll, but where’s the fun in that?)
Incidentally, speaking of walking off into the sunset. I’ll leave you with an image, possibly one of the greatest images in cinematic history, from John Ford’s The Searchers. While John Wayne doesn’t exactly fit into the mould of my literary heroes as described above (neither of them would have made a pro-Vietnam War movie like The Green Berets which famously ends with Wayne standing on a beach in Vietnam looking out to a glorious sunset, even though Vietnam doesn’t have any westerly facing beaches) the last scene of this movie does demonstrate how the hero does exist outside of the rest of the world, my own heroes exist outside a rotten and corrupt society while Wayne’s character feels his violence is more attuned to the wilderness, not the domestic world of the settlers. Either way, it’s easy to see my two heroes walking away, alone, as they know the rest of the world is one in which they do not belong.
I’m into anti-heroes; Walter White (for screenplay) Humbert (for literature) and Shylock (for theatrical drama). I can’t get enough of them. Your post has reminded me that it’s not just about creating a protagonist but a legend.
Thanks for the comment Jen. I suppose it’s all about avoiding the cartoonish perfect hero, they become too unreal so impossible to stick with in a story for any length of time. The flaws and the failings are what keep us interested