April 10, 2009

Good Raymond (Carver)

I have a friend who likes to throw little ripostes at me when we sail past each other on the library floor after he's read my blog. The most recent was “Philip Seymour Hoffman!” That was an actor who deserves three names. The one before that was “Raymond Carver?” That was for the perfect short story.

I gave this one some thought. Raymond Carver is a writer I have loved for years. And yet, “perfect” has never been the word which has occurred to me upon finishing one of his stories. In fact, imperfection has a lot to do with why they appeal to me, something about their intimacy and about their realism, and those sort of gear-scraping shifts he makes between the two.

Two days later I was reading a TLS back page – that's their gossip page – and there was Raymond Carver, of all people, and at the centre of the piece, his perfect imperfect short stories. Did the stories in What we talk about when we talk about love lose their identities when Carver’s friend and editor Gordon Lish chopped anywhere from 50-70% out of them? Wrote an occasional sentence himself? Changed endings?

This year the Library of America will publish an edition of What we talk about when we talk about love which will contain the stories exactly as Carver wrote them, before Lish’s editing. To be called Beginners, which is what the title story was called pre-Lish, the book was willed into being by Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow, flame-keeper and literary executor, who engaged in a long battle with Knopf, Carver’s publisher and Lish’s employer, which started over ten years ago. Living overseas, I missed it. I did read The New Yorker once a year when visiting my parents, but it was a haphazard thing, involving flipping through old copies stacked in the guest room, mostly during that wide-eyed, hungry hour the time change would throw at me every night between 3:00 and 4:00 AM. My intake of literary news was uneven to say the least.

Now the wonder world of online archives has filled me in on the controversy. You too can read and enjoy DT Max’s intelligent and highly readable discussion of the editorship vs authorship issue, “The Carver Chronicles” from The New York Times.

Or, “Primary Sources” from The New Yorker lets you see the original draft of Beginners with Lish’s cross-outs and additions, and there’s a slideshow which includes a rather Sarah Bernhardtian photo of Tess at the Gravesite.

One thing I did read on one of those long ago nights was an beautiful piece of writing by Richard Ford remembering his friend Raymond ten years after his death. If it is Raymond Carver you want to know more about, and you like good writing, this is the one to read:

"Good. More for me,” he’d say when you turned down some offer he’d made you – to split a reading fee, to go fishing in Puget Sound, to divide up a last doughnut. He was always offering you something – a piece of his good fortune. He thought that was what it was for, part of why it was good. But if you didn’t want yours, he still did. 

From “Good Raymond” by Richard Ford






April 01, 2009

Tobias and T Coraghessan

This is so great: Rose Hoare, with whom I often have pleasurable encounters en dĂ©shabillĂ© late on Sunday mornings, (well, okay, not really her, her Sunday Star Times articles), contributed a comment to last week’s post about “Bullet in the brain” with a link to a New Yorker online podcast with the novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle. When they asked him to choose a favourite story from the New Yorker archives to discuss and read aloud, he said, it took him all of 30 seconds to pick “Bullet in the Brain” -- about the same amount of time it took me to get the podcast going.

These things were fun: finding out what people call T. Coraghessan in person (“Hi, Tom”, “Hi, Deborah”); the moment when “Tom” declared “Bullet in the Brain” to be a perfect story; hearing him call Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver “Toby” and “Ray”; imagining them with this skinny frizzy-haired non-hunting guy who had changed his name to Coraghessan when he was 17 (at which age Tobias Wolff would have been in the Army, or just about to join, and Raymond Carver married with a kid, or about to be); listening to his reading, which was very very good, including the New York accent, which I realized three lines into the story was overwhelmingly right. And for free! Consider that where he lives, in Santa Barbara, people recently paid anywhere from 100 to 2500 US dollars to hear him read at a party.

And this thing was fantastic: getting then to the archive of past New Yorker monthly fiction podcasts, all with this same format of authors reading their picks from New Yorker fiction. They go back about two years and the names are all over the place, Mary Gaitskill reading Nabokov, Jonathan Lethem reading James Thurber, someone reading “The Lottery”, that monument to the “perfect short story” which I forgot to include in my list, and, at the bottom, from Christmas Day, 2006, Richard Ford reading John Cheever’s heart-breaking story “Reunion”, the one which starts “The last time I saw my father was in Grand Central Station.” Heart-breaking, that is to say, as John Cheever does heart-breaking: the father is a mean drunk. Lots of us have known one of these; John Cheever did, right side-out and inside-out, for it was he.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/podcasts/fiction


Tobias Wolff’s childhood memoir This boy’s life was something I’ve been meaning to read forever, since I saw the film version with Leonardo di Caprio as Toby and Robert de Niro as the mean stepfather. You could tell from the movie that the book would be really good. Last week, I finally got around to taking it home from the library to read, and it is.

It’s not just about the boxing match with his stepfather, in which they were always locked in one of those clutches the referee has to pry you out of, but there was no referee. That was the part the movie dealt with, but in the book there was also growing up in the 1950s in towns called things like Chinook, wanting to be called Jack instead of Toby, wearing white Ts, smoking, screwing up, and telling lies.

Consider the final lines of the dedication:

My first stepfather used to say that what I didn’t know would fill a book.
Well, here it is.



The world's fastest Hemingway

Anthony Hopkins is going to play Ernest Hemingway in a movie to be produced, written, directed and co-starred in (in the role of a Cuban fishing boat captain) by Andy Garcia. The news is out and also the puns. The best one is the title of The Risky Biz blog post which I believe is also the one which broke the news last week: “The Bell Tolls for Andy Garcia”. The Guardian’s “For Whom the Camera Rolls” is far behind, perhaps not even in the running.

Read the Risky Biz post. Read as far as the comments. As often happens, they are the funniest part, involving an actor -- actually an “author-performer”-- of that kind who uses three names, failing at self-promotion. I laughed out loud. Then I was trying to think of performers who were great enough to deserve three names but I couldn't think of any. I mean, I thought of George Bernard Shaw but I believe he was only a performer offstage. I tried asking my daughter if she could. She thought for a moment and offered “Robert Downey Junior?”

 
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