Review of Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Raymond Carver

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“L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.

He said, ‘I just want to say one more thing.’

But then he could not think what it could possibly be (p.134).”

This passage, the conclusion to the final story in this collection, ‘One More Thing,’ is emblematic of the world which Raymond Carver so precisely describes and dissects. In post-war America and subsequent decades, mostly young and inexperienced couples struggle to understand the bourgeois mores they are expected to observe and to find something meaningful in the suburban world of consumption and commerce they inhabit. Generally, they are unable to do so and so we see L.D. thrown out of the house by his wife after being abusive to their 15-year old daughter after what is “… another tragedy in a long line of low-rent tragedies (p.130).” In the end, faced with the consequences of their actions, inadequate as they may be in the face of overwhelming forces beyond their ability to influence, they are reduced to silence. The image brings to mind the conclusion of Dante’s Inferno, where we are brought into the presence of Lucifer, who has been reduced to glacial, frozen immobility because of his inability to bring the universe under his own control.

In the eponymous story around which this characteristically slim collection is based, the characters try with only limited success beyond the obvious and the physical. Estranged seemingly from both religion and political ideology, they have few resources when seeking to explain or to understand their own circumstances. They search for something special in love, as if such a construct could genuinely provide some meaning to life. They are also reduced to silence and then all the gin runs out.

Carver was a wonderful writer and while, on the one hand, it is possible to appreciate and enjoy these short stories for what they are, on the other hand there is some measure of regret that he did not write something more substantial to outline his world view in some more depth. Instead, he moved towards verse an while poetry is of course a perfectly good medium for dealing with the big picture, it does seem that he preferred to pare down his work until he could illuminate daily life in a haiku or a moment of zen-like enlightenment. The stories in this collection are a little bleaker than in other collections and the sense of optimism to be obtained is very fragile and ephemeral. The most that people can hope for, it seems, is that things are not worse than they are now and then things do get worse and then they die. Usually in silence. At least they can have a drink while they get through it all – something that Carver himself had to give up in order to save his life and launch his writing career. He became a major part of modern American literature.

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Review of Elephant and Other Stories by Raymond Carver

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Elephant and Other Stories

Raymond Carver

Was it Trotsky who complained that artists could not be trusted because they always insisted on their own ability to create art above and beyond any intervening ideology. This is true of Raymond Carver’s world, in which the characters refuse to comply with what might be expected of them in the confines of the society in which they were living. This was the America of the post-war decades, where people smoke, drink and eat the dreadful American food of the time. The characters cannot quite fit into society but cannot tell why or even how. The truth is that society was moving into a more intensive form of capitalism and generating, as a result, greater feelings of alienation and isolation as familiar social relations are replaced by market relations and life becomes centred on production and consumption. Not everyone, of course, is able to make sense of this transition and so cannot fill the role expected of them by themselves or by others.

In the first story in this extraordinary collection, ‘Boxes,’ the protagonist’s mother spends her life packing and unpacking the eponymous boxes as she cannot find a place to live that suits her. She wants to live somewhere warm but then it is too warm and people disappoint her and life is impossible, so then she goes to live in the same town as her son but then her relationship with him fails to live up to her expectations and other problems emerge and so she decides to move on somewhere else. Her peregrinations are the outward sign of the internal turmoil that the other characters feel and that both affect her and are affected by her. All of this is expressed in the most extraordinary immersion into everyday life and the use of a form of discourse that is thoroughly conditioned by it:

“My mother passes the chicken to Jill and say, ‘I wrote that lady I rented from before. She wrote back and said she had a nice first-floor place I could have. It’s close to the bus stop and there’s lots of stores in the area. There’s a bank and a Safeway. It’s the nicest place. I don’t know why I left there.’ She says that and helps herself to some coleslaw (p.18).”

The inability to deal with capitalism is revealed in a different aspect in the title story ‘Elephant,’ which chronicles the life of a patient working man, who has to provide financial support for his children, mother, inadequate brother and others who are all struggling to reach their own form of accommodation with society, their aspirations for what they each consider to be a decent standard of living and their ability to mobilize the resources for that standard of living.

Failed and failing relationships fill these stories and most of the others. The exception is the final one, ‘Errand,’ which is a dramatic retelling of the facts of the death of Chekhov, with whom Carver was often compared. Here, the purpose of the fiction appears to be the separation of what is real or perhaps authentic from what is not, as in the meaning of the art separated from the way in which it is expressed:

“Do you understand what I’m saying, Olga said to the young man. Leave the glasses. Don’t worry about them. Forget about crystal wineglasses and such. Leave the room as it is. Everything is ready now. We’re ready. Will you go (p.124)?”

Carver was a great genius and this short volume portrays this to considerable effect. I wonder what his fiction would have been like if he had attempted to write consistently in a long-form? If anything, he moved in the opposite direction towards poetry in the attempt, as it seems to me in any case, to identify the meaning of things in the skein of everyday things. T.S. Eliot famously wrote of John Webster that he could see the skull beneath the skin. Here, Carver sees the nature of American society beneath the cigarette and the possibly-not-cooked-properly chicken breast.

 

A Country Doctor’s Notebook

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A Country Doctor’s Notebook

Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov is of course best known for his extraordinary work The Master and Margarita, which I first read in Athens nearly 30 years ago but which remains vividly with me to this day. However, before reaching that stage of his life, Bulgakov wrote a series of short stories about his experiences as a young medical doctor in rural Russia in 1916-17, just before the time of the revolution and published after it took place. The stories tend to focus on the inadequacy of the teaching of the doctor and, to a greater extent, the ignorance and superstitions of the peasantry. The ability of science to shine a light on this ignorance and banish it was clearly popular with the authorities and the stories were published in various journals, as pointed out in the short but useful introduction, if slightly old-fashioned, from the translator Michael Glenny. The records of those journals have helped to contribute to the nine stories in this quite slender volume. It is helpful to have the stories collected together because of the difficulties Bulgakov faced in getting published for most of his subsequent life. It is published by Vintage Books in London, which company also publishes his other works as part of the Vintage Bulgakov series which has the company’s trademark and rather pleasing bright red spine.

The early stories follow a common theme and style, which is not very surprising given that the young writer was still finding his voice and because of the power of his subject matter, not to mention the fact that he could place stories in a variety of different markets. At first, the young doctor, fresh out of medical school, is introduced, against the background of remote Russian villages, with their lack of facilities, punishing snowstorms and emotional and intellectual isolation. He is then challenged by a patient who presents with a medical condition he has not treated before and may never even have seen. He feels overawed and unable to cope but, having little choice but to take action (and possibly assisted by his feldsher helper and two midwives) he finds the knowledge obtained from studying textbooks and attending lectures becomes transformed into actionable knowledge when push comes to shove. Later stories reflect on endemic problems among the peasant families, such as the generational persistence of syphilis within a family, the danger of morphine addiction and the role of a doctor within revolutionary action.

The stories are short, slight, complete and quite conventional in structure. Each has a beginning, a thickening of the plot and then a resolution and there is no hint of modernist or post-modernist trickery in their construction They are rooted in the material conditions of the time and it is notable that this attention continues in works such as The Heart of a Dog, which is centred on the fantastical eponymous hero. The translation of the stories is clear and unfussy and Glenny does the most important work of a translator, which is to keep out of the way of the text.

This is a book which is of interest not only in its own right but also as a historical document and an indication of the development of one of the more significant Russian writers of the twentieth century. I read through it very quickly and would have been happy with more.

Review of Raymond Carver’s Cathedral

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This collection of short stories, Cathedral, is said to mark a turning point in Raymond Carver’s relatively short but spectacular writing career from the documentary-like Would You Please Be Quiet, Please?, which I have read and reviewed elsewhere on this site to the more poetic works of his later career, which I have not (yet) read. It is certainly true that the eponymous final story concludes the collection on a different note than when it began.

Read the full review here.

Review of Erikson’s The Devil Delivered and Other Tales

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As the name rather suggests, The Devil Delivered and Other Tales is a collection of stories, three in total and each of a length to suggest novelette status rather than short story. The three stories are quite different in setting and mood but contain several similarities with Erikson’s writings in general (I have reviewed much of his extensive oeuvre in the world of the Malazan in particular elsewhere on this site). The first similarity is the complexity of the action – the action may be asynschronous or polysynchronous in nature and the individual point of view may not be clear.

Read the full review here.

Review of Hamilton’s Manhattan in Reverse

Peter Hamilton is best known for his extensive space opera sagas, which generally extend over several volumes, feature numerous characters and commonly feel like the author is making it all up as he goes along and has only a vague understanding of what the ending is going to be. However, Hamilton has in the past proved that he is capable of writing coherent and enjoyable shorter novels and, indeed, short stories with the same qualities.

Read the full review here.