Home > 20th Century, American Literature, Chandler, Raymond, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Polar > The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler.

  The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Translated by Boris Vian.

  It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.

 These are the first three paragraphs of The Big Sleep. In three paragraphs, I was in the book, totally caught by Chandler’s style and the essential of the story is already there. A private detective is hired by rich Mr Sternwood and has enough of chivalry to help him on another matter, although his help is not clearly wanted. In between, many adventures happen.

Right from the start, we learn some of the basic traits of Philip Marlowe’s temper. He is utterly professional and chivalrous. He dresses properly to meet a new client and he would have helped the knight of the stained-glass panel, for the sake of the lady in distress. But maybe this knight was purposely slow to spend more time near the lady, who was enjoying his slowness for the same reason and both would have been really put out if someone had taken the initiative to help him. Philip Marlowe wouldn’t have thought of this possibility because he cannot repress the envy to save a damsel in distress.

Being professional and chivalrous seem to be his guidelines: his moral code is built to respect these two principles, even if it means breaking the law.


 Honestly, I’m struggling to write this post, always thinking that I’m either going to state the obvious or write something stupid. 

So I’m going to ask myself the basic question: Did I like this book ? The answer is YES, a thousand times yes. The Big Sleep is the kind of book I would have loved to read without stopping, by a rainy or very cold afternoon, curled up on a sofa with a huge pot of tea near me, if I still had the time to spend such afternoons. I enjoyed Chandler’s style and especially his odd and vivid way to describe people and places. I liked Philip Marlowe, the PI who doesn’t want to get married because he doesn’t like cops’ wives. I’m curious to see how Chandler developed his character in the next novels.

 I want to read more.

 PS : A word about the translation. It’s excellent. I’ve always thought it helped to be translated by an actual writer, I’m not disappointed by Boris Vian. I’ve looked for quotes in English and compared them to the French translation, it’s perfect. Boris Vian managed to be faithful to Chandler and find the appropriate French expressions which give back the atmosphere of the English text.

  1. August 16, 2010 at 11:29 am

    I think Chandler in the English is an extraordinary prose stylist. As good as any author of literary fiction.

    This is one of my favourite novels, so I’m glad you liked it. It has a wit and a clarity to it which is marvellous. Plus it’s all so evocative.

    And well done Vian. Have you read any of his own fiction? Guy reviewed one over at His Futile Preoccupations which didn’t sound at all tempting. What’s your view on him?


    • August 17, 2010 at 5:14 am

      I’ll read the next Chandler in English, I think.

      I have read several of Boris Vian’s novels. For French teenagers, he’s like JD Salinger for you.
      I’ve read L’écume des jours (Foam of the Daze), L’Arrache-coeur (Heartsnatcher), L’Automne à Pékin (Autumn in Peking), L’Herbe rouge (not translated, the title means “The red grass”). These ones have been published under his real name Boris Vian.
      I’ve also read J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I’ll spit on your graves) and Les morts ont tous la même peau (not translated, the title means “All the dead have the same skin”), published under the pen name Vernon Sullivan.
      I’ve read Guy’s review of I’ll spit on your graves once I was visiting his blog. >I read this book a long time ago and I remember I didn’t like it either. It is not at all a good way to discover Boris Vian.

      My favorite one is definitely Foam of the Daze. It’s weird and funny and full of poetry.


  2. August 26, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    I am in the process of gathering up all sorts of classic noir novels as I plan to embark on a binge.
    I can see Vian being an excellent translator for this work. He’d no doubt grasp the finer meanings.


    • August 26, 2010 at 2:40 pm

      I’m sorry, I didn’t understand your first sentence, despite the dictionnary.


  3. August 28, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    I’ll reword it. I am adding to my classic noir book collection, and then I’m going on a binge. I don’t know the French equivalent for binge. People have eating disorders and go on an eating binge (spree). Or there are spending sprees. In my case, I plan to go on a classic crime reading spree (binge). Does that help?


    • August 28, 2010 at 6:45 pm

      Thank you for the explanation. It’s very clear. I’m thinking of getting an English dictionnary, not one that gives translations but one that gives the definition of the word in directly in English, like you certainly have.
      I had found the translation of “to go on a binge” but the expression chosen in French implied to go out of the house, meet a lot of people in a noisy place and dance and drink a lot. And I couldn’t reconcile that idea with that of reading classic noir books !


  4. August 29, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    I don’t think anyone except readers think that reading can also be a binge–or even an addiction for that matter.


    • August 30, 2010 at 6:52 am

      Yes, I guess you’re right. Maybe non-readers who live with a heavy reader actually think reading is an addiction.
      “Faire la bringue”, which was the expression I found for “to go on a binge” has no possibility of a figurative sense. If it had been written “faire une orgie”, I would have understood you perfectly. It makes one think about what they read when it’s a translated book, doesn’t it ?


  5. May 30, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Just checking back on this post. Those first two paragraphs you quote at the top are among my favourite sections of pretty much any English language literature.


    • May 30, 2013 at 8:09 pm

      Bad idea to chek back on this post, it’s definitely not a good one. (Guess why there’s no link to it in the recent Chandler billet?)


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