Monday, November 18, 2019

A survey of literary gangsters of the 1920s - “We got to keep amused, haven’t we?”

I’ve been reading heavily, over the last year or two, in the literature of the 1920s, and that means one thing: gangsters.  Criminals who organize their crimes.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and The Threepenny Opera (1928) are German variations on the theme.  The Odessa Stories (1923-4), Isaac Babel’s other masterpiece, cover a Russian version.

Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza (1989) takes care of Japan.  This one is non-fiction – I believe it is thought to be accurate, but with this subject, who knows.  Junichi, a doctor, transcribes the life story of his patient Eiji Ijichi, a professional criminal. He covers roughly the 1910s through the 1940s, but the 1920s get disproportionate attention, when Eiji was setting himself up as a Yakuza, primarily, says he, in the gambling racket.  The section about the 1923 Tokyo earthquake alone is worth reading, if you do not mind that it is a horrible nightmare.  Recommended to anyone interested in Japanese culture – this is not a story I had seen anywhere else.

The United States is at this point going through the episode of mass delusion known as Prohibition, giving gangster plenty to do.  They enter literature slowly.  The earliest I encountered are in The Great Gatsby (1925), where they are either a minor or major part of the story depending on how receptive you are to  - now here I am going to refer to an idea that is not exactly a spoiler of the plot, but is perhaps something worse – to the idea of Gatsby as murder mystery.  Meaning, does our narrator Nick get Gatsby’s murder right, and if he gets it wrong is he ignorant or obfuscating, and if the latter is it unconscious (hiding something from himself) or purposeful (hiding something from me).  Regardless, any complete interpretation of the novel had better figure out what to do with the gangsters and Gatsby’s con-artist bond scheme.

Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” is the next place I get a good dose of gangsterism.  The twelve-page story spends eight pages just watching a couple of hired killers perform, like an early version of Pulp Fiction.  “In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team.”  They act like a vaudeville team.

“I don’t like it,” said Al.  “It’s sloppy.  You talk too much.”

“Oh, what the hell,” said Max.  “We got to keep amused, haven’t we?”

A curious, possibly central, aspect of enjoying Hemingway’s writing as art is feeling where he slips into kitsch, but this entire story is about someone else’s kitsch, a representation of kitsch, which is perhaps why it is so good.

1929 saw two great monuments to the American gangster.  One is Dashiell Hammett’s violent, lunatic Red Harvest, in which a detective solves a town’s gangster problem by arranging the murder – occasionally personally murdering – every thug who lives there.  Around the three-quarter mark, I was thinking that I should have kept track of the murders, but then in Chapter 16 the detective tallies them up for me: “’That’s sixteen of them in less than a week, and more coming up,’” and the next chapter is actually titled “The Seventeenth Murder.”

The other book, not as good but possibly more important, is W. R. Burnett’s Little Caesar, a nominally realistic picture of Chicago’s small-time gangs, with Capone as the big figure in the background.  Burnett’s great problem, as he spent years on this book, was that he wanted it to be literature, to sound like Edith Wharton or something, but at some point he realized that he should use the simpler, almost stupid, language of the gangster’s themselves, or at least something that sounded like their language.

Rico [our little hero] smiled.  Then he took out his billfold and handed Seal Skin a ten.

“There’s a little cush for you.  You ain’t sore at me cause I socked you, are you?  I got red hot mad, that’s all.”

“You didn’t sock me hard,” said Seal Skin, “but it was ten dollars’ worth.”  (Ch. 6)

This kind of writing is pretty much screenplay-ready, so it is no surprise that the film that made Edward G. Robinson famous appeared in 1931.  More surprising is that it spurred a wave of gangster films, including Public Enemy and Scarface (which Burnett co-wrote); in other words, Burnett’s novel led to the creation of the genre of the gangster film.  Amazingly, Burnett pulled off the same trick a second time, writing the heist novel The Asphalt Jungle (1949), which is made in to a heist film that more or less creates or popularizes the genre of heist film.

This particular kind of high-speed entanglement of literature and film seems like something new.

As far as I can tell, nothing by W. R. Burnett is currently in print in the U.S.  We have so little sense of history.  Heaps of Burnett novels, Westerns, mysteries, everything, are in print in France, of course.


  1. I should read Yakuza again; I've forgotten all about the earthquake. It does seem to be unique as a memoir. I've forgotten Berlin Alexanderplatz too, which is a little more difficult to rectify given the length...

  2. Berlin Alexanderplatz is pretty much designed for forgetfulness. So many shifts and bounces in focus and register. I am almost done with it. The end has been getting more and more gangsterish.

    The Tokyo earthquake, in the Yakuza book, is beyond horrible. The author sees some bad bad things. I might come back to it a bit, glancingly, when I write about BA.

    1. Have you seen Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz as available on Criterion? Highly mischievous entertainment!

  3. Really glad to hear of the Burnett and that Yakuza book, both unknown to me. Have been meaning to read (reread?) Hem's short story as I've seen at least one of its transformations into film and loved that. Gangsters are good for literature and film...

  4. Not that Little Caesar is such a great book, although it's plenty of fun, but it's outrageous that it's not in print. It's a piece of history. It is highly instructive. Many worse books are in print.

    The Hemingway story is one of his best.

    Back when I watched a lot more movies, that Fassbinder was unobtainable, like a rumor of a film, so I never saw any of it. Now it is in some sense just waiting for me inside my computer. Wild. It would be a good project. Unlike at a film festival, I can now watch it in sensible intervals.

    Oh no, I botched the Junichi Saga book - I knew I would. Junichi is the doctor who took down the story of Eiji Ijichi, the gangster. I'd better stitch that up.

  5. The Fassbinder movie is maybe the best thing he ever did (and I used to go to Fassbinder retrospectives when I was living in NYC); it inspired me to read the novel. And the Criterion set includes an earlier movie made in 1931, when Alexanderplatz was still as Döblin described it (it was destroyed later); the movie isn't at all bad, though of course it isn't Fassbinder and it cuts out a lot.

  6. How curious. It would be worthwhile just to see the novel's setting in motion, so to speak.