Beginners, By Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver's stories weren't always so concise
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The Independent Culture

Who wrote Raymond Carver's stories? It seems like a question with a straightforward answer: the man whose name appeared on the spines, whose unyielding eyes gaze out from the jackets; the man from the Pacific Northwest who was called the American Chekhov, whose inimitable voice was nevertheless endlessly imitated in the years after his death in 1988, without ever quite being matched.

Beginners exists because it is not, in fact, anything like as simple as that. The stories here are the same stories that appeared in Carver's definitive 1981 collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, with one crucial difference: whereas in their original published form they had been ruthlessly and transformatively pruned by Carver's editor, Gordon Lish, they appear here, with the approval of Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, in their untouched original state. In their preface, this edition's editors, William Stull and Maureen Carroll, refer to the project as a restoration and a recovery; Carver's truest voice, they imply, was expansive, associative, and stifled by Lish's interventions. In this vision of things, the editor's principal influence on these stories was that of a censor.

Rhetorically, these claims are powerful; their status as a guide to literature is another matter. Whatever the merits of this book as a historical exercise, as a work of art it cannot stand on its own, and if anyone has diluted Carver's stories, it is not Gordon Lish. On this basis, to characterise him as a censor is wilfully obtuse. It is true that, in Beginners, the stories are often longer, flabbier, less precise and more sentimental; but imprecision and sentimentality are not the same things as capaciousness and generosity. By and large, it's clear from this edition that Carver – like any author at all – was far better after a judicious edit than in his rawest form.

This is not the case with every story, but then a number of these stories have already been republished in roughly the same form as they take here, at Carver's behest, which strongly suggests that he was capable of deciding for himself which of his works warranted protection. (It is a tremendous relief, in particular, that we have lived with the astounding version of "A Small, Good Thing" that Carver retrieved for his selected stories, rather than the anaemic miniature, retitled "The Bath", which made it into What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.) The rest he left alone – even after he had acrimoniously parted company with Lish – and with good reason. These versions do not feel like a different voice speaking, but a less confident one.

The way the differences manifest themselves is fascinating. Lish changed 10 of 17 titles (including that of the story that gives each version of the collection its name), deleted exposition, and recast endings. He voided whole scenes, reined back on any display of emotion he perceived as sentimental or unearned, and on the whole reconfigured Carver's set of talkative drunks as a much more mysterious, implacable crew. To read the two books side by side is as visually instructive as it is anything else, and a reminder of how physical the act of reading can be: the post-Lish staccato paragraphs, which so richly augment Carver's ironies and implications that they take on the feel of poetry, are reassembled in Beginners into lengthier chunks of text that drown the sentences' natural declarative rhythm in a visual and semantic soup. On the whole, the natural response to the edits is to think: that's right. That's how to make it soar. The unity of the result is not imposed. It is delivered.

Perhaps this comparative reading is unfair to the original text, which should not be damned by teleology. But read alone, as I read it first (and having not read the stories in What We Talk About... for at least two years), Beginners still feels muddled. Sometimes, indeed, the alterations are so obvious and so necessary that you can tell exactly where the Lish cut will come without consulting the edited version. In "The Calm", for instance, a man getting a haircut is obliged to listen to an unpleasant hunter tell the story of his day out. The unedited narrator says: "I didn't like his voice. For a big man the voice didn't fit. I thought of the word 'wimpy' my son used to use. It was somehow feminine, the voice, and it was smug. Whatever it was it wasn't the kind of voice you'd expect, or want to listen to all day." In the reworked version, this becomes: "I didn't like the man's voice. For a guard, the voice didn't fit. It wasn't the voice you'd expect."

The point is not simply that the second version is better, although to my ear, it simply is. The point is that Beginners was plainly born of a singular aesthetic that was absolutely Carver's own, one that chooses mystery over revelation, and implication over explication. Partly because he was outside of it, Lish was better able than Carver to divine its foundational importance, and better able to correct a lapse from the self-discipline that such an approach requires. It's not just that the first version of that paragraph would feel out of place in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; it feels out of place in Beginners, as well.