In 1967, Raymond Carver and his wife Maryann filed for bankruptcy protection. Carver was drinking heavily. He decided to train as a librarian and enrolled into the master’s programme at the University of Iowa’s School of Library Science. By June, he had abandoned this plan and was hired as a text-book editor at Science Research Associates in Palo Alto, California. It was Carver’s first white-collar job. Carver’s story, ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please’, was selected for Best American Stories 1967. In 1968, Near Klamath, Carver’s first book of poems, was published in the spring. So, literary achievement, if on a small scale.
But probably the most important thing in Carver’s life had already happened. Late in 1967, he was introduced to Gordon Lish, the founder editor of Genesis West, an avant-garde magazine. Lish was also working for a text-book publisher in Palo Alto. In 1969, Lish became fiction editor at Esquire magazine and in November wrote to Carver asking for stories. (Lish’s shift from avant-garde to mainstream was ironised in his 1971 essay ‘How I Got to be a Big-Shot Editor and Other Worthwhile Self-Justifications’ – that title, a boast and a knowing, wry disclaimer, gives you some idea of how clever Lish is.) In 1970, Lish line-edited Carver’s story ‘Neighbors’ and accepted it for Esquire. Carver was grateful – for acceptance and editing.
By 1976, Lish’s assiduous promotion of Carver paid off. McGraw-Hill, under the Gordon Lish imprint, published Carver’s first book of fiction, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? The 22 stories had all been previously published in periodicals and were further edited by Lish, with Carver’s approval. In this year, Carver was hospitalised for acute acoholism and wound up in Duffy’s, a residential treatment centre in the Napa Valley. Did I mention that in 1974, Carver and his wife filed for bankruptcy protection a second time? Well, I did now.
In 1980, Carver, separated from Maryann, set up house with poet and Guggenheim Fellow Tess Gallagher in El Paso, then Syracuse in upstate New York. Carver gave a manuscript to Lish, now an editor at Knopf, and Lish edited the stories so intensively that the original was halved in length. On 8 July 1980, Carver wrote a despairing letter to Lish, insisting that, unless the original text was restored, publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love should be cancelled. Part of Carver’s problem was that several other writers, like Tobias Wolff and Stephen Dobyns, had seen the originals. They would know what Lish had done.
In the event, publication went ahead and Carver’s name was made. Though thereafter Carver was confident enough to resist Lish’s editing, ever since, there have been rumours that Gordon Lish was responsible for everything valuable in Carver’s work. The editors of the Library of America Collected Stories (not complete) have chosen to publish Carver’s original manuscript (Beginners) alongside Lish’s edit (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). They have done so at the urging of Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, who feels the original manuscript is superior to Lish’s edit. It isn’t. It is manifestly inferior. Lish was an editor touched with genius.
But does this mean that Carver was untalented? Think of Ezra Pound’s peerless and ferocious editing of The Waste Land. Every edit an improvement – and Eliot’s reputation unaffected. Think of Charles Monteith’s editing of the original typescript of Lord of the Flies: no one would wish back the 30 introductory descriptive pages of nuclear war cut by Monteith, who was Golding’s editor at Faber. What remains is brilliant and all Golding’s own work.
Is Carver a Golding or a T S Eliot? That is the fundamental question. We can test the hypothesis by examining Carver’s work before-Lish and after-Lish. Before 1971 and after 1980. A related issue is the nature of the editing. Pound and Monteith cut. On occasion, Lish added and re-arranged. He treated Carver’s stories as rough drafts – which is what they were in reality after Lish had redesigned them, a bit like Picasso taking massive liberties with Velasquez’s Las Meñinas. Except that Carver was no Velasquez.
One of the things non-musicians find difficult is the attitude of serious composers to tunes. Stravinsky lifts the opening melody of The Rite of Spring from a collection of Russian folk tunes. Beethoven writes variations on the English National Anthem. Bartok and Kodaly go out on the road, transcribing folk material. Tunes? They’re for the birds. Olivier Messiaen notates birdsong. Carver thought of the tunes: the blue-collar drunks, the spaced-out infidelities, the bitter abruptnesses of alcoholic behaviour, those inexplicable aporias. Lish composed them, sometimes radically, sometimes delicately – but never mistakenly.
‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ in Carver’s original was nineteen pages long. In Lish’s edit it takes six pages. It is improved beyond recognition. ‘I Could See the Smallest Things’ is Lish’s retitled version of Carver’s ‘Want to See Something?’ The original is seven prolix pages, the edit four pages. It, too, is changed and improved beyond recognition.
An easy example. We have two versions of a Carver story where the tune is itself taken from the judgment of Solomon: offer each mother half the child and the true mother will give up her share. (As a topos of justice, this comes in for some searching, only apparently stupid, criticism from Jim in Huckleberry Finn.) Carver’s version is the self-destructive alcoholic version, in which the two parents struggle for physical possession of a baby. It is all about the struggle of two wills. The object of the struggle, the baby, is merely the site of contention. Lish has added a brilliant, ironically affectless title, ‘Popular Mechanics’. The original is called ‘Mine’. It is a perfect, tiny touch and it is Lish’s. He has changed only one word and added two, but the effect is massive. It adds sardonic detachment, ironic contempt, to the palette of colours.
Lish has also taken out two clunks. Nothing ‘major’, you might think, but the short story depends on getting everything right. In Carver’s original, as the two parents struggle for physical possession of the child, there is an over-explanatory, distracting sentence: ‘She felt her fingers being forced open and the baby going from her. No, she said, just as her hands came loose. She would have it, this baby whose chubby face gazed up at them from the picture on the table. She grabbed for the baby’s other arm. She caught the baby around the wrist and leaned back. // He would not give. He felt the baby going out of his hands and he pulled back hard. He pulled back very hard. // In this manner they decided the issue. [my italics]’ There are several alterations to this passage, but the main one is the excision of the sentence in italics – a sentence that pulls focus somewhere else, disastrously. Lish also cuts the repetition of ‘he pulled back hard. He pulled back very hard’. In the edit, it is ‘he pulled back very hard’.
The opening paragraph is immeasurably improved by two slight, crucial alterations. Carver is a naturally repetitive writer – heavy on the gas, too reliant on the pedal. His version opens: ‘During the day the sun had come out and the snow melted into dirty water. Streaks of water ran down from the little, shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside. It was getting dark, outside and inside. [my italics]’ This is Lish’s version: ‘Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water. Streaks of it ran down from the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside, where it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.’ You lose the repetition of ‘water’ and the apparent redundancy of Carver’s ‘outside and inside’ is made quietly ominous.
Both Carver and Lish are copying Hemingway, but Lish is better at it. As the opening phrases show – ‘During the day the sun had come out’ and ‘Early that day the weather turned’. Carver’s awkward pluperfect is taken out and the time-scale is clearer. It is nothing – nothing at all – and it is everything.
Carver, of course, was copying Hemingway before Lish happened along with his dark green eye-shield, his sharp, bloody pencil and his ample spike. Nothing wrong with imitating a great writer. Hemingway is no exception. This is the famous opening of ‘Up in Michigan’, in which Hemingway takes us inside Liz’s amorous fixation on Jim: ‘Liz liked Jim very much. She liked it the way he walked over from the shop and often went to the kitchen door to watch for him to start down the road. She liked it about his moustache. She liked it about how white his teeth were when he smiled…’ The catalogue continues, all-inclusively. There isn’t anything much she doesn’t like. It ends: ‘One day she found she liked it about the way the hair was black on his arms.’ Hemingway repeats the trope in ‘Cat in the Rain’: ‘The wife liked him. She liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. The she liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her.’ And so on. The addition in ‘Up in Michigan’ of ‘liked it about’ is only two words, but those extra words are lode-bearing.
The trope itself is taken directly from that great source work Madame Bovary. Charles is in undeclared love with Emma and visits her father to supervise the recovery of his broken leg: ‘He liked to find himself riding into the farmyard and to feel the gate turning against his shoulder. He liked the cock crowing on the wall and the boys running to meet him. He liked the barn and the stables, he liked old Rouault, who patted him on the hand and called him saviour. He liked Mademoiselle Emma’s little clogs on the scrubbed stones of the kitchen floor…’
Carver has noticed only Hemingway’s notorious repetition – hence that ‘water’ twice at the beginning of ‘Mine’ [‘Popular Mechanics’]. And he knows that Hemingway’s prose is a beady necklace of terse, declarative sentences. In actuality, Hemingway’s prose can be deliberately prolix and is much more various and rhythmical in a way that escapes Carver. It can also be economical in a way Carver’s prose hardly ever is.
On his own, without Lish, Carver leaves very little out. Try ‘What would You Like to See?’ It recycles something cut by Lish from ‘Want to See Something?’ – a woman killed by a heart attack at the wheel, so her car crashes slowly into the carport – but is mainly remarkable for its mantra of unremarkable detail. Not technique, so much as obsessive compulsion disorder. It reads more like a suspiciously circumstantial alibi than a short story.
The first story in this Library of America edition of Carver’s stories is ‘Fat’. It is pre-Lish. The opening story of Cathedral is (post-Lish) ‘Feathers’. This is Carver trying to describe a fat baby in ‘Feathers’, admittedly protected from criticism (you could argue) by a characterised narrative voice: ‘The baby stood in Olla’s lap, looking around the table at us. Olla had moved her hands down to its middle so that the baby could rock back and forth on its fat legs. Bar none, it was the ugliest baby I’d ever seen. It was so ugly I couldn’t say anything. No words would come out of my mouth. I don’t mean it was diseased or disfigured. Nothing like that. It was just ugly. It had a big red face, pop eyes, a broad forehead, and these big fat lips. It had no neck to speak of, and it had three or four fat chins. Its chins rolled right up under its ears, and its ears stuck out from its bald head. Fat hung over its wrists. Its arms and fingers were fat. Even calling it ugly does it credit.’
A not untypical failure. Carver’s method, in essence, is painstaking notation, the prose of a Sunday painter, only one up from painting by numbers, while shielding the point of the story. Immense literalist clarity of detail paradoxically occluding a narrative enigma. You see everything – except the point. The point usually proves to be allegorical.
In ‘Feathers’, the narrator takes his disaffected wife to supper with a work-colleague and his wife. They are the parents of the ugly baby. There is also a slightly alarming peacock in the story, the pet of the parents, which is allowed indoors because its presence soothes the ugly baby. The narrator and his wife leave – she unaccountably less disaffected and wanting her husband’s ‘seed’. As a result, she becomes pregnant and their life together enters a period of prolonged drabness and disaffection. The point of the peacock – the narrator’s wife is given peacock feathers to take home – is that the maternal instinct is a mystery, a powerful biological imperative. When the narrator’s wife plays with the ugly baby, we assume she is faking interest and affection. But the behaviour of the peacock sets us straight: ‘The peacock walked quickly around the table and went for the baby. It ran its long neck across the baby’s legs. It pushed its beak in under the baby’s pajama top and shook its stiff head back and forth. The baby laughed and kicked its feet. Scooting onto its back, the baby worked its way over Fran’s knees and down onto the floor. The peacock kept pushing against the baby, as if it were a game they were playing. Fran held the baby against her legs while the baby strained forward.’
It’s the animal in us, you see.
There is one good piece of writing in this story: the peacock ‘shook itself, and the sound was like a deck of cards being shuffled in the other room’.
In ‘Fat’, the narrator is a waitress, serving a very fat man. We know he is fat because in this story of four and a half pages, the word ‘fat’ occurs 25 times. She is telling her friend Rita what the fat man ate in detail. More Sunday painter literalism. Just before the end of the story, we reach a genuinely promising, anti-narrative point: ‘What else? Rita says, lighting one of my cigarets and pulling her chair close to the table. This story’s getting interesting now, Rita says. // That’s it. Nothing else. He eats his desserts, and then he leaves and then we go home, Rudy and me.’ Rita, like most readers, wants closure and climax. Carver appears to resist, to deny the appetite for story, for point, purpose and narrative destination, the way Wordsworth does in Lyrical Ballads. In ‘Simon Lee’, Wordsworth snubs his readers with their yearning for ‘outrageous stimulation’: ‘My gentle reader, I perceive / How patiently you’ve waited, / And I’m afraid that you expect / Some tale will be related…’
Carver, though, succumbs – succumbs to the obvious – though he is careful to include Rita’s bafflement: ‘That’s a funny story, Rita says, but I can see she doesn’t know what to make of it’. This, of course, is an instruction to the reader: make something of it. It is a story about pregnancy, where ‘fatness’ is a synecdoche for pregnancy. First, the narrator wonders ‘what would happen if I had children and one of them turned out to look like that, so fat’. (Compare, the identical topos of obese baby in ‘Feathers’.) Then when Rudy starts fucking her, ‘here is the thing’: ‘When he gets on me, I suddenly feel I am fat. I feel I am terrifically fat, so fat that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all.’ Pregnant with a foetus, in fact. O my homunculus.
I nearly forgot. The fat man, when he orders, uses the plural form to refer to himself. ‘I think we will begin with a Caesar salad.’ He’s feeding for two, is all. This could almost be clever, were it not for the insistence on the plural and the unflagging account of the items on the menu and chosen from the menu. The food in ‘Feathers’ isn’t stinted either in Carver’s account. What you have here, in both stories, is an anecdotal twist, an O Henry ending, buried under a dumpster of dog-eared detail.
Carver is sometimes described as the American Chekhov – about as routinely as William Trevor is described as the Irish Chekhov. It’s no surprise that, towards the end of his life, Carver should examine this parallel in a story, ‘Errand’. Essentially, this story narrates Chekhov’s death from TB in Badenweiler, a German spa town. Carver draws on Olga Knipper’s memoir, Chekhov’s sister’s memoir, Chekhov’s letters and journals. Carver is careful to mention that Chekhov and his friend and patron Souvorin both came from peasant stock – as Carver came from blue-collar, Bruce Springsteen-celebrated, working class. Another important part of the story touches on Chekhov’s relations with his senior writer, Tolstoy. Tolstoy doesn’t think much of Chekhov’s plays, but he admires the stories, and likes Chekhov because he is ‘modest and quiet, like a girl’. Carver’s figure for himself in the story is equally modest. He is the servant who brings Chekhov, Olga and their doctor a bottle of champagne in the middle of the night – for a last drink before death. The servant, appropriately enough, is a shambles: ‘the champagne was brought to the door by a tired-looking young man whose blond hair was standing up. The trousers of his uniform were wrinkled, the creases gone, and in his haste he’d missed a loop while buttoning his jacket. His appearance was that of someone who’d been resting (slumped in a chair, dozing a little) when off in the distance the phone had clamored…’ (‘Clamored’!)
His appearance was that of someone who has slept in his clothes – because Carver was a drunk. But the next morning, his appearance is sober: ‘he uniform trousers were neatly pressed, with stiff creases in front, and every button on his snug green jacket was fastened.’ He’s been to AA, he’s off the sauce and he’s about to become the American Chekhov – modestly.
Which brings us to the champagne cork that is the point of the story. When he doctor opens the Moët, he works the cork carefully out of the bottle – ‘to minimise, as much as possible, the festive explosion [my italics].’ What is wrong with ‘pop’? Or ‘ring’ for the telephone? Carver is writing in his suit and wearing a nineteenth-century tie.
Anyway, when he has poured three glasses, the good doctor, ‘out of habit, pushed the cork back in the neck of the bottle’. An impossibility, of course. Or people wouldn’t need to buy those chromium helmets that batten on the rim of the bottle-neck.
Why does Carver need the cork back in the bottle? Wouldn’t it be enough for the serving boy to see the cork on the floor and close his hand on surreptitiously. That way, the cork would be a figure for the servant, essential, ignored, peripheral, modest. It would also be a symbol of good writing – and the way it depends on seeing the importance of the detail, the irrelevant detail.
That, however, wouldn’t have brought Carver’s allegory home. The story isn’t about the inadvertent killer detail. The story is about Carver inheriting Chekhov’s spirit. The cork goes back in the bottle so it can leave it – like a soul leaving a body. The boy lays his hand on the soul of Anton Chekhov.
We think we know what Carver thought of Gordon Lish. This is from the famous letter of 8 July 1980: ‘If the book were published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story, that’s how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.’ He felt ontologically in danger – as a writer and as a person. When he wrote this letter, Carver was already walking out with Tess Gallagher, whose opinion of Lish hasn’t changed. Carver, I’d guess, was caught between a rock and a hard place – between Lish and Gallagher. Lish won the battle over What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but Gallagher has gone on fighting. Lish’s position is that the matter is closed: ‘a dead letter to me.’ In 1991, Lish sold his archive to the Lily Library of Indiana University. The evidence is out there then. Lish knows what the verdict will be. He doesn’t need to fight. He only needs to wait. Gallagher may think publication of the original unedited manuscript in this Library of America edition will set matters right, support her version of the literary record – but she is wrong. It does exactly the opposite.
The title story of Cathedral, the first post-Lish volume, is about the visit of a blind man whose wife has died of cancer. It is narrated by a lush whose wife once worked for the blind man. They have kept in fairly close touch by exchanging tapes. The narrator’s sensitivity has been permanently eroded by alcohol. The prolixity of the narrative is testing but perhaps excused by the narrator’s impaired state. The Joyce story ‘Counterparts’ is written in style indirect libre for Farringdon, the drunken protagonist: ‘He lifted up the counter and, passing by the clients, went out of the office with a heavy step. He went heavily upstairs until he came to the second landing…’ ‘Cathedral’ has comparable passages: ‘Once she asked me if I’d like to hear the latest tape from the blind man. This was a year ago. I was on the tape, she said. So I said okay, I’d listen to it. I got us drinks and we settled down in the living room. We made ready to listen. First she inserted the tape into the player and adjusted a couple of dials. Then she pushed a lever. The tape squeaked and someone began to talk in this loud voice.’ Now you know how a cassette player works.
Would you like to know how people eat food? ‘When we sat down at the table for dinner, we had another drink. My wife heaped Robert’s plate with cube steak, scalloped potatoes, green beans. I buttered him up two slices of bread. I said, “here’s bread and butter for you.” [He’s blind, see.] I swallowed some of my drink. “Now let us pray,” I said, and the blind man lowered his head. My wife looked at me, her mouth agape. “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold,” I said. // We dug in. We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn’t talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed that table. We were into serious eating. The blind man had right away located his foods, he knew just where everything was on his plate. I watched with admiration as he used his knife and fork on the meat. He’d cut two pieces of meat, fork the meat into his mouth, and then go all out for the scalloped potatoes, the beans next, and then he’d tear off a hunk of buttered bread and eat that. He’d follow this up with a big drink of milk. It didn’t seem to bother him to use his fingers once in a while, either.’
Why does he need to cut cube steak?
After this epic meal, the wife and the blind man talk. The narrator is bored, switches on the TV (to his wife’s annoyance) and rolls a joint. His wife takes a toke and is basically out of the action after that. The blind man and the narrator drink Scotch and smoke joint after joint. On TV there is a documentary about medieval cathedrals. The narrator asks the blind man what he knows about cathedrals. The answer is an amalgam of stuff from the TV. Then the blind man says he really knows nothing about cathedrals and he asks the narrator to describe a cathedral. It is a failure. ‘“I’m sorry,” I said, “but it looks like that’s the best I can do for you. I’m just no good at it.”’
The blind man makes a proposition: they will draw a cathedral together. ‘He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. “Go ahead, bub, draw,” he said. “Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you. You’ll see. Draw,” the blind man said.’
And they draw a cathedral. ‘You didn’t think you could. But you can, can’t you? You’re cooking with gas now. You know what I’m saying. We’re going to really have us something here in a minute.”’
We think we know what Carver thought of Gordon Lish. But this story is what Carver thought of Gordon Lish. It is a story about writing, a story about the editorial process – in which someone without talent is used by someone else to write. The major contributor is the blind man. He can’t do it without the boobus, but it is clear who does the writing. It was brave of Carver to write the story. And it is odd that no one, I think, has seen what it is about – mainly because it tells us something we’d rather not know – that Carver had courage to disclose the raw material, this kind of self-exposure, but Lish had the literary talent.
Raymond Carver Collected Stories edited by William L Stull and Maureen P Carroll 1019pp $40 .00 The Library of America ISBN 978 1 59853 046 9