William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
“I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
“Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
“Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
Though my pro wrestling fandom has waned, I was excited to see several recent works of fiction that leverage the narrative power of the sport: the colorful archetypes and illusions of professional wrestling or the elemental combat of “real” wrestling.
“I am a camera, with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” The year is 1930, and Christopher Isherwood, writing his “Berlin Diary,” is looking out his window at the “dirty plaster frontages” of houses “crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.” Which depending on your perspective may or may not sound disturbingly familiar 80 years later, as we too confront a society that seems plagued by a kind of decadence and political turmoil that makes the future feel very precarious, to say the least.
Obviously there are big differences between 1930s Berlin and the present state of affairs in say, New York City; in descriptions of Isherwood’s society (not that he ever used the word himself, as far I can tell), “decadence” is generally understood to refer to the let’s just say “adventurous” sexual mores that fell (and pretty much still fall) far outside the mainstream, to the transvestites, prostitutes, and burlesque performers who scraped out an existence in the underbelly of Berlin, whereas today’s brand of decadence seems more aptly to describe the material excesses of an upper class who think nothing of for example spending thousands of dollars on shoes while the rest of the country reels from debt and unemployment. Another difference is that we don’t have Nazis running around terrorizing the city (or at least not yet, lol?), whereas by the time Isherwood was writing, political strife in Berlin had already reached a point where the gangs of (unemployed) thugs who helped bring Hitler to power were regularly beating up (or worse) the Jews and communists who had the misfortune of attracting their attention.
Which leaving aside the question of exactly where (politically speaking) we are now in relation to where we were then nevertheless raises some interesting or troubling questions for writers like Isherwood who might also think of themselves as a camera, recording with political ambivalence, to present the world around us with an objective truth or at least the sheen of truth, to the extent that such a thing could be said to exist. If we look at The Berlin Stories for guidance, there are several moments when Isherwood and those he romanticizes come off as ignorant or cruel, for example when Isherwood describes a day on the verge of “Hitler’s summer” when his “street looked quite gay when you turned into it and saw the black-white-red flags hanging motionless from windows against the blue spring sky.”
I mean yeah, no.
Or when Arthur Norris repeatedly makes a joke about living in “stirring times, tea-stirring times,” as he sits down to a cup of tea with the narrator (Isherwood). Or when the young cabaret performer Sally Bowles looks out her window at the passing funeral cortege for German Chancellor Hermann Muller without a clue who he was: “I guess he must have been a big swell?” says her American friend, and Isherwood, also present, agrees: “We had nothing to do with those Germans down there, marching, or the dead man in the coffin, or with the words on the banners.”
Speaking of cameras in 1930s Berlin, it’s worth nothing that the German philosopher/literary critic/mystic/Marxist romantic Walter Benjamin wrote his famous essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [pdf] — about the use of film as propaganda by fascist governments — in 1936, which at first glance might seem to serve as a rebuke to Isherwood and a warning to those who would follow his path. A closer examination of The Berlin Stories, however, and despite the above examples of political ambivalence, reveals Isherwood’s camera metaphor to be not quite as facile as it may appear. For starters, while Isherwood may have not been fighting the Nazis, he certainly didn’t like them. He feels “green around the gills” when he learns about the torture and death of an acquaintance at the hands of the Nazis, and he goes out of his way to befriend a Jewish family (the Landauers) in the wake of an anti-Jewish demonstration by some “Nazi roughs” who “smashed the windows of all the Jewish shops.” Most of the Nazi sympathizers in the book are presented as unthinking idiots or hooligans, if not monsters.
A more interesting question to ask about Isherwood, I think, is whether we can take his statement about being a camera at face value, or whether, like so much else in the book, it should be understood to be a lie or at least a stretching of the truth to serve his own purposes. The most enduring of Isherwood’s subjects is of course Sally Bowles, the inspiration for the character played with such unwavering and at times unnerving effervescence by Liza Minnelli in the film version of Cabaret. Sally, who is British in the book, is a 19-year-old singer who makes no bones about her willingness to sleep with anyone if it will help her career. She is also a relentless liar; Isherwood describes an outing where Sally “told some really startling lies, which she obviously for the moment half-believed, about how she’d appeared at the Palladium and the London Coliseum.”
Isherwood idolizes Sally and becomes briefly infatuated with her, although in the book, unlike the stage and film adaptations, there is never any romantic interest for obvious if never-quite-made-explicit reasons. She tells him that he “understands women…better than any man she’s ever met” (which as we’ll discuss in a moment is a clue to what I think is really going on with Isherwood) — and he helps her to get an abortion. He only once loses patience with her when she convinces him to write an article on her behalf and declares it unworthy, “not snappy enough” for her needs, but he forgives her a few days later after she is swindled by a young con he introduced her to. “People who never get taken in are so dreary,” Sally concludes in the last conversation she has with Isherwood before disappearing from his life forever.
The other liar we meet is Arthur Norris, the effete dandy who is the subject of “The Last of Mr. Norris,” or the first half of The Berlin Stories. Like Isherwood, Norris is a British ex-pat who (unlike Isherwood) we eventually learn is involved in all sorts of nefarious activities, including the buying and selling of secrets between the French government and the German communists. He blows whatever money he makes on anything from expensive wigs to silk underwear to gourmet dinners to three-times weekly visits from a sadistic prostitute/role-playing-schoolmistress who spanks him. With equal parts compassion and curiosity, Isherwood is slowly drawn into Arthur’s world in ways that have the potential to be quite dangerous (Arthur generally operating well beyond the line of legality and thus drawing the attention of the authorities).
The point being, to understand Isherwood is to understand his infatuation with liars, which — returning to the camera metaphor — I think makes it reasonable to ask whether he himself was lying, or at least half-lying in a way he could find almost believable.
The question then becomes exactly what is he lying about and why do we as readers long to be taken in?
Throughout The Berlin Stories, Isherwood employs a kind of code in which he alludes to non-heterosexuals (like himself, not unimportantly) without ever explicitly stating what’s going on. Arthur Norris, for example, is “more like a lady than a gentleman,” remarks the landlady of their apartment, while boys are referred to as “delicate,” or — by a right-wing/Nazi-sympathizer doctor whom Isherwood strongly dislikes — as “degenerates” who “always revert” and who should be “put into labor camps.” This conversation, incidentally, occurs in the middle of a story in which Isherwood and two younger men — one clearly very much in love with the other, but in ways that leave the physical side of the affair to the imagination — spend a summer together in a house at the beach. There are similar references throughout the book to what readers can understand to be “gay bars” — or at least bars frequented by gays — and “gay cruising areas” such as public urinals and deserted park tunnels.
The only characters Isherwood takes no pain to shield from the homosexual spotlight are those who are either Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. Arthur tries to “set up” Isherwood with a rich baron/Nazi whom we meet early on at a party, where he is on a couch in “the embrace of a powerful youth in a boxer’s sweater.” The baron next invites Arthur and the narrator (Isherwood) to his summer house, which “was full of handsome young men with superbly developed brown bodies which they smeared in oil and baked for hours in the sun.” Ridiculously, the baron is also infatuated with vaguely pornographic books about young men on desert islands. Eventually the baron becomes obsessed with a Nazi youth with a complete lack of interest in “finding a girl,” but who is comfortable complaining about Europeans “with no national pride, mix[ing] with a lot of Jews who were ruining their countries.”
Isherwood, by the way, was hardly the only one to note the prevalence of not-really-closeted homosexuals in the ranks of the Nazis, particularly among the ranks of the Brownshirts under the leadership of Ernst Röhm, whom Hitler dispatched in the infamous purge, “The Night of the Long Knives.” On this subject, and as a possibly even more disturbing counterpart to Cabaret, it’s worth watching Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film The Damned, which shows the summer-camp orgies of the Brownshirts followed by the execution of Röhm and his like-minded subordinates.
What’s remarkable about homosexuality in The Berlin Stories is the pervasive but diffuse quality it takes on in Isherwood’s world. It’s this feature of the book where his statement about being a “camera” becomes most disingenuous but interesting, in the same manner of his most compelling characters. Near the end of the novel, Isherwood becomes friends with Bernhard Landauer, said by his cousin to be “a strange man,” and who is described by Isherwood as “over-civilized, prim…soft.” (Or in short, gay.) Like Isherwood, Bernhard presents a troublingly passive nature with respect to the political problems in his country — as a rich Jewish business owner, he regularly receives death threats — but at the same time, he is a character with whom Isherwood (ironically enough) expresses a revealing frustration. “Bernhard told stories very well,” Isherwood writes, “But…why does he treat me like a child? He is sympathetic and charming [but] he is not going to tell me what he is really thinking or feeling, and he despises me because I do not know. He will never tell me anything about himself, or about the things which are most important to him. And because I am not as he is, because I am the opposite of this, and would gladly share my thoughts and sensations with forty million people if they cared to read them, I half admire Bernhard but also half dislike him.”
It is this paragraph, I think, that perfectly describes our relationship as readers to Isherwood’s narrator. Like Bernhard, he is good at telling stories, he is sympathetic and charming, but there is a limit to how far he can go, and it’s clearly stretching the truth to say he would “gladly share his thoughts and sensations with forty million people,” when he has spent an entire book doing the opposite, or at least working more with innuendo and code than openly expressing himself. This point, I should add, is not at all meant to be a criticism of Isherwood, but rather a measure of his genius in writing about subjects that were (and to some extent still are) considered illicit or worse — for example homosexuality was still illegal in England in the 1930s — while giving readers the keys to understanding what he was doing, and what he meant to accomplish.
Far from being “passive,” Isherwood actually walks a very fine or you might say “delicate” line between divulging just enough to get his point across — namely, that gays were worthy of being written about — while leaving out anything that could have landed him in hot water. Not everyone appreciated Isherwood’s balancing act; in the Time magazine review of the book from 1935, the reviewer states that with regard to Isherwood’s story about Arthur Norris, “This portrait of an old rapscallion is satire too cold to be amusing; it is written with the analytic distaste of one who watches without pity the dwindling of a pathologically older generation.”
What the reviewer failed to understand is that Isherwood’s coldness — his aloof ambivalence — was mostly an act, which is something we are finally in a better position to appreciate 75 or so years after the fact.
“I could show you memories to rival Berlin in the thirties,” is a lyric from a Jonathan Richman song — “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” — later covered by Galaxie 500. It’s a line I thought about quite a bit as I reread The Berlin Stories, because Richman, like Isherwood, transforms a reference to political turmoil into what is better understood not as ambivalence, but as psychological insight and trauma.
Isherwood may have been a camera in certain ways, and was definitely an outsider in many others — a non-German, a non-Communist, a non-Jew, a non-heterosexual — but he manages to convey a psychic pain that continues to reverberate through the work of many writers who (whether we like to think about it or not) are still immersed in battles for political and social acceptance. He writes with a masterful bitterness, or what you might call a passive aggression, one that manages to feel disconnected from (yet critical of) the world in which he lives, and for this reason very contemporary.
MH RoweJanuary 12, 2018 | 3 books mentioned6 min read
Dorothy wonders what it even means to feel “embarrassment” in the situation of sex with a six-foot-seven-inch aquatic monster-man. The upshot is: no shame. They spend the rest of the day having sex all over the house.
Fans of Raymond Carver’s short fiction got a treat last year when the Library of America published the celebrated writer’s Collected Stories. Yet for some of his readers, the book cast a disquieting shadow over his career and work. Editors William Stull and Maureen Carroll included in this new volume a manuscript which they entitled Beginners, an alternate version of the 1981 Carver collection published by Knopf as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Nearly thirty years ago, Carver’s editor Gordon Lish cut this manuscript by some 55 percent, essentially against Carver’s wishes. Though WWTA went on to become a critical success and a watershed in Carver’s career, the extent of Lish’s influence on the book has raised questions about just who is responsible for Carver’s artistic success.
In that regard, the Library of America volume’s inclusion of the complete manuscript of Beginners, all seventeen stories, offers readers a chance to draw their own conclusions about who Carver was as a writer, and about the meaning and worth of these contested stories. What follows are my own conclusions.
1: Just Leave Well Enough Alone? I do understand the feelings of those who, perhaps without having read Beginners, feel a certain weariness at the idea of it. On the way to a chess match today, I was talking with a student at the high school where I teach. In his English class, he’s reading Robert Penn Warren’sAll the King’s Men. There’s been some confusion because a number of students purchased a different edition of the novel, one that includes scenes that Warren’s editors removed from the novel for its original publication. Only recently, decades after All the King’s Men has become a modern classic, have these additional scenes been spliced back in. In addition, Willie Stark, one of the central characters in the novel, has had his name changed to Willie Talos, Warren’s original name for him.
For Pete’s sake, I found myself thinking. Do we really need this? Wasn’t the novel great enough as it was? And long enough already? Can’t we just leave well enough alone? Willie Talos?
For those who fell in love with Carver’s work while reading WWTA, I can imagine a similar reaction to the publication of Beginners. There’s a feeling of having been baited-and-switched, perhaps. Or of having received an assignment to re-do work one had already completed. There’s an impulse to just throw up one’s hands and say, “It is what it is, and there’s no turning back time.” Or even to say that Lish was the one who made Carver great in the first place.
I understand these reactions. But having read both versions of this story collection in their entirety, my conclusion is that Beginners is vastly superior to WWTA, and indeed a work of art at least equal to Carver’s subsequent collection Cathedral. I don’t mean to be histrionic, but while reading the two versions side by side, I often felt that Lish’s treatment of Carver’s stories verged on the criminal. In a just world, Beginners would be published as a stand-alone volume to replace the shell that Lish made of it.
2: I See a Darkness
The conventional shorthand is that Lish’s versions are bracing and bleak, Carver’s verbose and sentimental. In actuality, however, many of the stories are more disturbing in their original form than in their eventual published form.
In the story “The Fling,” for instance, a father meets his adult son in an airport bar and makes a long confession about the affair that ended his marriage to the man’s mother. “I’ve got to tell this to somebody. I can’t keep it in any longer,” he tells his son. The son, who narrates the story, doesn’t want to listen, much less to forgive. The encounter ends in further estrangement between the two:
He hasn’t written, I haven’t heard from him since then. I’d write to him and see how he’s getting along, but I’m afraid I’ve lost his address. But, tell me, after all, what could he expect from someone like me?
It’s a story about the human need for reconciliation, the sacramental quality of confession and our inability, sometimes, to provide that for those who’ve hurt us. In the original version, the father’s guilt is compounded by the fact that his affair also led to the ghastly suicide of his mistress’s husband. In addition, he characterizes his first sexual encounter with this woman as a kind of rape. In comparison to the WWTA version of this story, entitled “Sacks,” this earlier version has an even darker view of the human capacity for evil—and concomitantly the father’s guilty desire for forgiveness takes on an even more profound resonance.
The most chilling example of the darkness in Carver’s vision, though, is the story “Tell the Women We’re Going,” which culminates in the rape and murder of a woman by one of the main characters. This story is one of the creepiest I’ve read in my life, right up there with Dan Chaon’s “Here’s a Little Something to Remember Me By.” It’s creepy largely because of the patience with which it builds to its horrifying climax. It follows a pair of high school chums who grow into adults with wives and children, then one Sunday afternoon leave their families to go for a drive in the countryside. They drink all afternoon and then head out toward Painted Rocks and the Naches River, encountering a pair of women on bicycles along the way. Their dealings with these women begin with flirtatious banter, then gradually gain menace, until one of the men is half-chasing (and then truly chasing) one of the women up an isolated rock. The violence is described in awful detail, but what makes it most awful is how understandable Carver makes it: we’re in the murderer’s head, seeing the steps that lead to his terrible acts.
At the same time, Carver also does a brilliant job of distinguishing between the two men, one of whom is reluctant to participate in the back-and-forth with the women, and who has parted from the other woman after nothing more than a brief conversation. At the end of the story, he comes upon the scene of the crime and is horrified by what he sees:
Bill felt himself shrinking, becoming thin and weightless. At the same time he had the sensation of standing against a heavy wind that was cuffing his ears. He wanted to break loose and run, but something was moving toward him. The shadows of the rocks as the shape came across them seemed to move with the shape and under it. The ground seemed to have shifted in the odd-angled light. He thought unreasonably of the two bicycles waiting at the bottom of the hill near the car, as though taking one away would change all this, make the girl stop happening to him in that moment he had topped the hill. But Jerry was standing now in front of him, slung loosely in his clothes as though the bones had gone out of him. Bill felt the awful closeness of their two bodies, less than an arm’s length between. Then the head came down on Bill’s shoulder. He raised his hand, and as if the distance now separating them deserved at least this, he began to pat, to stroke the other, while his own tears broke.
Following an incredibly intense narration of a brutal murder, this passage puts us into the experience of the murderer’s friend: the violent shift in his perspective on his old buddy; the surreal quality of coming face to face with this enormity; and, simultaneously, the recognition of the murderer’s humanity despite his new and unbridgeable differentness.
Compare all of that to Lish’s version of the ending (the pursuit, murder, and reaction, in their entirety):
Bill had just wanted to fuck. Or even to see them naked. On the other hand, it was okay with him if it didn’t work out.
He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.
Lish has stripped the story’s ending of its narrative drive and emotional power and replaced them with a cheap jolt. Both stories are bleak, but only Carver’s version expands our understanding of the world by taking us viscerally into the abyss.
3: Less is Less
The radically truncated stories in WWTA cemented Carver’s identity as a minimalist in many people’s minds. Yet a comparison of the stories in Beginners with their counterparts in WWTA demonstrates how false that label is, and how impoverished the minimalist versions really are.
In one of his letters to Lish about the manuscript, Carver wrote the following:
I’m mortally afraid of taking out too much from the stories, of making them too thin, not enough connecting tissue to them.
His fears were well-founded. Lish took from these stories their rich sense of human possibility—their meaningfulness, to put it bluntly.
Lish altered the title of “Want to See Something?” to “I Could See the Smallest Things,” a telling change. For in Lish’s version, the narrator, an insomniac woman who walks out to her backyard in the middle of the night to find a troubled neighbor at war with slugs, comes away from the story with only the smallest changes in her perceptions about her life. She returns to her husband, hears him snoring, then says:
I don’t know. It made me think of those things that Sam Lawton was dumping powder on.
I thought for a minute of the world outside my house, and then I didn’t have any more thoughts except the thought that I had to hurry up and sleep.
In Carver’s version, the woman’s nocturnal sojourn has given her a new perspective on her life and her marriage. She returns to bed and is moved to talk to her husband about her love for him along with her fears about their relationship:
I felt we were going nowhere fast, and it was time to admit it, even though there was maybe no help for it.
Just so many words, you might think. But I felt better for having said them.
He’s still asleep during all of this, but she realizes that that doesn’t matter, and that, in fact, “he already knew everything I was saying, maybe better than I knew, and had for a long time.” The story is about a dark night of the soul, a revelation, a moment of intense awareness that leads to no apparent solution or change except for the profound internal change in the narrator. Lish’s version gives us only the faintest whisper of such a realization.
Many of these stories, as Carver notes in his letters to Lish, are also deeply connected with Carver’s recovery from alcoholism. “If It Please You,” for instance, is about a former drinker, James Packer, who has overcome his desire for booze by taking up needlework, something that another alcoholic recommends as a way to fill up the time formerly devoted to drinking. It’s an activity he finds satisfying. He also knits things that connect him to others’ lives—“caps and scarves and mittens for the grandchildren,” “two woolen ponchos which he and Edith wore when they walked on the beach,” and an afghan that he and his wife sleep under.
In the end of this story, James is full of bad feelings: anger at some “hippies” who cheated at bingo earlier that night; and fear about his wife, who may have uterine cancer. In Carver’s story, he tries to pray—to take solace in another activity endorsed by AA, which demands belief in a higher power. The story ends with a powerful meditation on prayer, and a real spiritual change for James:
He felt something stir inside him again, but it was not anger. He lay as if waiting. Then something left him and something else took its place. He found tears in his eyes. He began praying again, words and parts of speech piling up in a torrent in his mind. He went slower. He put the words together, one after the other, and prayed. This time he was able to include the girl and the hippie in his prayers. Let them have it, yes, drive vans and be arrogant and laugh and wear rings, even cheat if they wanted. Meanwhile, prayers were needed. They could use them too, even his, especially his, in fact. “If it please you,” he said in the new prayers for all of them, the living and the dead.
Lish appears to understand or sympathize with none of this. In his version, called “After the Denim,” there’s no prayer at all, and even the knitting is depicted only as an expression of lonely anger, the desperate act of a man on a shipwrecked boat (recalling a photograph James sees earlier in the story):
Holding the tiny needle to the light, James Packer stabbed at the eye with a length of blue silk thread. Then he set to work—stitch after stitch—making believe he was waving like the man on the keel.
4: It’s All Right to Cry
In his drastic cutting of Carver’s stories, Lish evinces a real discomfort with, or perhaps blindness to, the sacramental—moments of transcendent awareness, spiritual awakening, and yearning for reconciliation. His aesthetic is one of surfaces. Perhaps he’s aiming to make Carver’s stories more like Hemingway’s, with only the tip of the iceberg visible and the weight concealed. But mostly what he does is lop off the bulk of the berg, leaving just a floating ice cube.
He cuts out the moments that are most tender and beautiful. For example, in “Gazebo,” a story no less heartrending and sad in Carver’s version, a woman talks with her adulterous husband about a time when she believed that their marriage would last a lifetime:
I remember you were wearing cutoffs that day, and I remember standing there looking at the gazebo and thinking about those musicians when I happened to glance down at your bare legs. I thought to myself, I’ll love those legs even when they’re old and thin and the hair on them has turned white. I’ll love them even then, I thought, they’ll still be my legs. You know what I’m saying? Duane?
It’s a wonderful moment, and a sad one, a moment of palpable love and lost hopes. It’s the type of detail that sticks in your head, that you remember years after reading a story. Lish cuts it.
In “Beginners,” a contemporary version of Plato’sSymposium in which two couples sit around a table with gin and tonic and talk about love, Mel McGinnis tells a story that he thinks illustrates what real love is. In that story, an elderly husband and wife named Henry and Anna Gates are hit by a drunk driver and nearly die. Mel, a doctor, gets to know Henry as he and Anna recover in separate rooms, and Mel is moved by his account of their long marriage. The couple used to be snowed in alone all winter in their country home, and each night they would play records and dance together before falling asleep under piles of quilts. Henry, incapacitated in the hospital, is depressed because he’s separated from his wife. When they are finally reunited, though, the scene brings observers to tears:
She gave a little smile and her face lit up. Out came her hand from under the seat. It was bluish and bruised-looking. Henry took the hand in his hands. He held it and kissed it. Then he said, “Hello, Anna. How’s my babe? Remember me? Tears started down her cheeks. She nodded. “I’ve missed you,” he said. She kept nodding.
As I read this scene, I found myself crying, not only because of the beauty of the moment, but also out of a sadness that this scene was axed from the version of this story that most people know. In Lish’s version, Mel’s story culminates with the rather mundane observation that the husband’s “heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.”
This version of the story doesn’t bring us to tears, and maybe that’s how Lish intended it, fearing what he called Carver’s “creeping sentimentality.” But, of course, there’s a difference between sentiment and sentimentality. The point of Mel’s story is not that everyone does or should or can love each other as the Gateses do; Carver even leaves open the possibility that the story isn’t entirely true. But in this contemporary re-working of Plato, the story of Anna and Henry is a kind of idealized vision of love, one that beguiles and inspires the four people in the story, who have been hurt but live on to love again.
Carver himself was hurt by what Lish did to his stories, judging by the letters he wrote him. That hurt must have been complicated enormously by the critical success that the altered stories went on to attain. What’s inspiring, though, is how Carver held on to his own vision: the stories in his 1983 collection Cathedral hew to the model of those in Beginners, and include the story “A Small, Good Thing” essentially in the version originally prepared for Beginners.
In this story, a little boy named Scotty is struck by a car on the day of his own birthday party. He falls into a coma and, after several days in the hospital, dies. His mother had ordered a birthday cake for him a few days before the accident, and the baker who has made it begins calling with nasty messages because Scotty’s parents have not picked it up.
Lish amputates the second half of the story, which he titles “The Bath”: Scotty never dies, and the story ends ambiguously, with Scotty’s mother getting another phone call from the baker.
But in Carver’s version, after Scotty’s death his parents go to the shop and confront the baker. Though he is initially defensive, the baker is suddenly struck with shame. He apologizes and gives the grieving parents hot rolls to eat, telling them that “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.” The story ends with another sacramental moment, one of communion between these broken people:
“Here, smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. “It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
It’s all right to come together in times of sadness, this story assures us. It’s all right to risk being sentimental by entering into the sacramental. It’s all right to cry. And it’s all right to write a story that might make someone cry, that might squeeze someone’s heart with horror or sadness, or with small, good things like eating, dancing, knitting, or prayer.
The subsequent evolution of Carver’s career makes it clear that he realized it was okay to write such stories. The publication of Beginners offers a lavish bounty of them.