Tuesday, 27 September 2011

I Sleep On Books: Raymond Carver

"It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader's spine - the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That's the kind of writing that most interests me."

"You've got to work with your mistakes until they look intended. Understand?"

“That morning she pours Teacher's over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window."

"I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark."

I love Raymond Carver and his spare, intense style. He writes about the life in between the action, illuminating the small dramas that inform our days; the glue that fixes us and ultimately keeps us together. In a life dedicated to short stories and poetry he often described himself as "inclined toward brevity and intensity" which is kind of understating it; but then understatement was his thing; "Get in, get out. Don't linger. Go on." was his mantra. Another stated reason for his brevity was "that the story (or poem) can be written and read in one sitting" which is why I always have Carver in the crapper and by the bath. "Minimalism' and 'dirty reality' doesn't do him justice. I find his working methods helpful to my approach when writing songs; "no tricks" he would say, shunning affectation:

“I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don't need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing- a sunset or an old shoe- in absolute and simple amazement.”

I think that he would have been a great writing teacher. How clear and simple this insight is:

“V.S. Pritchett's definition of a short story is 'something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.' Notice the 'glimpse' part of this. First the glimpse. Then the glimpse gives life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we're lucky -- that word again -- have even further ranging consequences and meaning. The short story writer's task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He'll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things -- like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right they can hit all the notes.” 

Carver's stories were famously chronicled in Robert Altman's brilliant 'Short Cuts', a film that featured fine acting performances (amongst many) from Tom Waits and Lyle Lovett in a troupe of dislocated players who stumble in and out of each other's (mainly) dysfunctional lives. One of the tales 'So Much Water, So Close to Home' was also the sole focus of an Australian production, 'Jindabyne' starring Gabriel Byrne and directed by Ray Lawrence who also oversaw the excellent 'Lantana'.
Many see Carver's late collection 'Cathedral' as his best, most focussed work, but I say get this fabulously presented collection, 'Collected Stories' by the 'Library of America' for reference (and just the sheer pleasure of smelling the quality paper and binding), plus 'All of Us', a collection of his poetry. But for me, the best knockabout collection is 'Where I'm Calling From' which is a brilliant selection of his best stories. No WC should be without a copy.
Have a listen to this fractured man reading his own poems here.
You sense that he had a difficult relationship with his dad, also Raymond, which he details in this heartbreaking piece and poem, written after his father's death:

Among the pictures my mother kept of my dad and herself during those early days in Washington was a photograph of him standing in front of a car, holding a beer and a stringer of fish. In the photograph he is wearing his hat back on his forehead and has this awkward grin on his face. I asked her for it and she gave it to me, along with some others. I put it up on my wall, and each time we moved, I took the picture along and put it up on another wall. I looked at it carefully from time to time, trying to figure out some things about my dad, and maybe myself in the process. But I couldn't. My dad just kept moving further and further away from me and back into time. Finally, in the course of another move, I lost the photograph. It was then that I tried to recall it, and at the same time make an attempt to say something about my dad, and how I thought that in some important ways we might be alike. I wrote the poem when I was living in an apartment house in an urban area south of San Francisco, at a time when I found myself, like my dad, having trouble with alcohol. The poem was a way of trying to connect up with him.

Photograph of my Father in His Twenty-Second Year

October.  Here in this dank, unfamiliar kitchen
I study my father's embarrassed young man's face.
Sheepish grin, he holds in one hand a string
of spiny yellow perch, in the other
a bottle of Carlsbad Beer.

In jeans and denim shirt, he leans
against the front fender of a 1934 Ford.
He would like to pose bluff and hearty for his posterity,
Wear his old hat cocked over his ear.
All his life my father wanted to be bold.

But the eyes give him away, and the hands
that limply offer the string of dead perch
and the bottle of beer.  Father, I love you,
yet how can I say thank you, I who can't hold my liquor either,
and don't even know the places to fish?

Carver wrote this about the wake after his father's funeral:

I listened to people say consoling things to my mother, and I was glad that my dad's family had turned up, had come to where he was. I thought I'd remember everything that was said and done that day and maybe find a way to tell it sometime. But I didn't. I forgot it all, or nearly. What I do remember is that I heard our name used a lot that afternoon, my dad's name and mine. But I knew they were talking about my dad. Raymond, these people kept saying in their beautiful voices out of my childhood. Raymond.

Carver recognised that he was his father's son ("Booze takes a lot of time and effort if you are going to do a good job with it") and was a recovering alcoholic for most of his adult life; his writing was duly informed by the damage done.  Understanding and agreeing with Hemingway's sanguine observation that "all stories end in death" Carver flourished in recovery, working with a new found energy garnered from the love and support of the poet Tess Gallagher.
"Ray was coming back from a death, really" she recalled. "He was a Lazarus. He was so bright, and so looking forward to the day every day. And I fell in love with that, too, I think – that here is somebody who loved life, and didn't want to live back in the rubble of past lives that had failed. "Listen" I told him, "I love you. But I did not come 4,000 miles across this country to get bad luck. My luck is good and I want it to stay that way. You'd better change your luck."
And Carver did change his luck. 
He learned to believe in hard work, good luck and the importance of leaving something behind: 
"That's all we have finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones."
He chose the right words here in the last thing he wrote before cancer took him in 1988 at the age of 50.

Late Fragment 

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth. 


  1. I've got a faber anthology of 3 of his collections which I bought (shallow as I am) because Lloyd Cole mentioned him in an interview and I love the way the faber white spines look on my bookshelf!

    I spine is now cracked from regular dipping in - funny how i've never re read a novel but keep getting drawn back to Carver's stories

  2. A knackered cover is always a good sign.
    I have a copy of 'Where I'm Calling From' by the bath.
    It's responsible for my prune like skin...