Intimacies and Elephants Review, Everyman Palace, Cork
Published 06/11/2011 | 06:00
The book editor who carved up Carver -- and made him a star
At 8 one morning in July 1980, a recovering alcoholic in Syracuse, New York, wrote an anxious letter to a literary editor. The man was a writer, and he had been up all night reviewing the editor's changes to his latest short stories
Those changes were extreme. The writer was panicking. "My very sanity is on the line here," he wrote.
The writer was Raymond Carver, a master of the short story. (A play based on Carver's stories opens on Monday in Cork). The editor was Gordon Lish, the man who had discovered Carver.
Lish had cut some of Carver's new stories by more than half. Anything that gave the stories and their characters context or history had been stripped out. They were enigmatic, verging on absurd. The world that emerged was strikingly bleak.
And it was too bleak for Carver. He was, he said, "awed and astonished, startled even", by Lish's insights, but he couldn't bear to let the cuts happen. He begged Lish to reconsider them, or else to halt publication of the collection. Carver was terrified that Lish's edits would humiliate him in front of the friends to whom he had already shown the stories.
Carver had successfully quit drinking a few years before, having nearly drunk himself to death.
"I've come back from the grave here to start writing stories once more," he said. Now, he was afraid this stress would push him back to the bottle.
But Lish resisted -- and won. When the collection came out, the following year, under Lish's title, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, it was a huge critical success. It cemented Carver's reputation. His signature, spare style became iconic.
Rather than destroy Carver's confidence, the success of What We Talk About emboldened him, and he began to fight back against Lish's edits. In later stories, he allowed his style become more "generous".
Even still, when the extent of Lish's influence was revealed in 2007, in an article in the New Yorker magazine, Carver's reputation was, for some, destroyed. The stories were Carver's own, but the iconic style owed much -- perhaps too much -- to Lish.
Others argued that all literature is a collaboration between author and editor, and that what counted was the quality of the story at the end, not who was responsible.
Now, 23 years after his death, Carver faces having to relinquish control again. In Cork, writer-director Pat Talbot has taken three of Carver's stories and set them on stage, under the title Intimacies and Elephants (opening at the Everyman Palace in Cork on Monday; see www.everymanpalace.com).
Carver's stories don't seem like obvious stage material. True, Robert Altman wove a number of them together for a well-received film, Short Cuts, but he had a large ensemble of Hollywood A-listers to draw on. Carver's stories can seem too curt to make for satisfactory theatre.
Talbot, though, has found his own way to weave them together, and it sounds true to Carver's inspiration. Carver regularly went to AA meetings, and it has been suggested that the "spoken confessions" at meetings may have influenced his stories.
Each of the three stories Talbot has chosen is written in the first-person voice of "ordinary American men in various stages of emotional crises". Talbot has placed them in an environment that allows the men to tell their stories to each other -- he doesn't say, but it could be an AA meeting.
The result, says Talbot, is a play for here and now: Carver's stories of men buckling under the weight of financial, social and familial pressures echo in Ireland today.
And yet, says Talbot, the words on stage are all Carver's. Though whether they were ever Carver's in the first place is, of course, another question.