Author Raymond Carver. Flickr

Recounting Facts

His stories tell of little daily events. His characters are ordinary people. And yet emerging from their miserable affairs is beauty and the pity that lifts men above their baseness.
Luca Doninelli

The name of Raymond Carver (born in Clatskanie, Oregon, in 1938; died in Port Angeles, Washington, in 1988) has been tied–besides to the film America Today, for which director Robert Altman took inspiration from some of his short stories–mainly to the vicissitudes of the Minimalist literary movement (David Leavitt, Jay McInerney, Susan Minot, etc), which took as its explicit point of reference the creative writing classes taught by Carver in the 1970s. But Raymond Carver himself is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. His name can stand worthily beside those of Chekhov, Proust, Mann, Kafka, Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, and few others. I say this with certainty, because Carver is among the very few in literature who had something new to say, something that had never been said before, and said it.

His stories cannot be summarized. They tell of little daily events, which are like an infinite variation on one single theme, daily life in a very homogeneous social group, with people who often do the same things (a large number of stories and poems are about fishing, for example). Carver’s stories unfold in a restricted geographical, human, and thematic area. This attitude reveals, better than anywhere else, his ideal discipleship with Anton Chekhov, to whom Carver dedicated one of his most beautiful and moving stories, “Errand,” shortly before his death.

The first thing that strikes the reader of Carver’s work is the great humanity of this writer. “A boundless humanity,” writes Fernanda Pivano. It is a good way to tell a great artist from a mediocre one. The great artist, the great poet and writer are striking in the human passion that drives them. It is easy to see what is rotten, and equally easy to develop a narrative technique suited to this rot, if one has a modicum of talent. But the ability to bring out the beauty in the ugliness of the story (because, in effect, the stories are full of ugliness, if one wants to maintain even a minimal relationship with reality), the pity that lifts man a step above his baseness, the attention not only to the predictability of the characters but also their unpredictability, a prose that increasingly resembles not a predefined idea but life as it really is: this is the hard part, and the beauty, of art.

Raymond Carver possessed these qualities to an unusual degree. Even a reading of his early, harsher and sadder stories communicates to us his extraordinary attention to the density of his characters’ human experience, even when this experience appears petty and miserable.

The second thing that strikes the reader who approaches Carver’s work is the absence in his stories of ordinary narrative development, which usually begins with an introductory picture, continues moving into the body of the story, and then reaches a final resolution, in which all the tangles are untangled and the essence of the story is condensed into a particularly significant phrase or image or passage.

On the contrary, Carver’s stories seem to have no development. They present fragments of a story that is suddenly broken off, or situations whose elements and relationships appear only sketched in. In short, they often leave the reader hanging, and the feeling of humanity that pervades us is accompanied by another one of moderate disappointment because the story is unfinished. We would like to know more about these characters, about what happens to them; we would like to know how a certain relationship or a certain little undertaking turn out. We even become attached to the inanimate objects in his stories–an automobile, a dirt road, a river, a vacuum cleaner–but in the end, everything dissolves at the most interesting moment.

And yet Carver was a perfectionist, who sometimes rewrote a story up to thirty times until there was not one superfluous word, not one unnecessary comma. This explains, in part, the lack of development and climax in his stories; he simply ended them when in his opinion they had said all they had to say.

This explanation, however, is not sufficient. Reading Carver, we understand that in this apparent lack of development and moral there is something profound and crucial.

The Polestar
As the excellent critic who writes for Civiltà Cattolica, Antonio Spadaro, SJ, observed (in A Spadaro, Carver. Un’acuta sensazione di attesa [Carver. A Keen Sense of Expectation], Padua, Messaggero, 110 pp), although he achieved insuperable levels in his short stories, his work begins and ends with poetry. The center of his work is poetic and has the density and intensity of poetry, even in his most blatantly prosaic passages.

In a celebrated autobiographical passage, entitled “The Polestar” and included in the posthumous collection A New Path to the Waterfall, Carver recounts the beginning of his literary vocation. He was not yet twenty years old and was working as an errand boy in a pharmacy. He had to start working very young, and at age 18 was already married and a father. During one of his deliveries, he entered the house of a man of letters and was struck by the great number of books placed more or less everywhere. He was struck, albeit confusedly. The man realized this and encouraged him, giving him a copy of the magazine to which he contributed. Carver ends his reminiscence with these words: “At the time I was only a naïve kid, but nothing can explain, or diminish [note: explain, or diminish] that moment: the moment when the thing I needed most in my life–call it a polestar, a point of reference–was given to me by chance and with generosity [note: by chance and with generosity]. Nothing else that even vaguely approaches that moment has happened to me since.”

This passage is extremely important because it recounts a fact. And in that fact is the idea of Destiny which Carver would embrace forever. Carver’s stories, his ordinary characters, his ordinary situations do not achieve their truth within the story’s development. They do within the story, but not in its development, not in its climax. Would what the naïve kid intuited that day have been less true if he had not succeeded in becoming the great writer that he was? I think not. The truth is in the story, but is not resolved in it. Therefore, Carver does not yield to the psychological need for a climax, a moral. In this, he resembles Flannery O’Connor, although it seems that in other aspects, he did not like her work very much.

But what is even more interesting is that this sense of destiny as something “other” did not arise from a “feeling of expectation,” but from something that happened to him, that can be told more or less as it happened, with no need to add anything–no evocative details or deep feelings. If the facts are persuasive, they are enough; this is the rule that every good writer should follow.

Kafka says there is a goal, but no path. The accent of the phrase falls on the first term, “goal,” and goes on to end on the last, sad note. Salvation exists, he would say to a friend, “but not for us.”

Carver, in his work, responds “on an upbeat,” like a jazz musician. The fact that a goal exists is more important than any momentary inability to find the path. This has nothing to do with optimism; it is not a pre-set position.

All of Carver’s work is pervaded by a powerful sense of the positivity of reality. Not optimistic, but realistic and positive; positive because realistic.

Here is a typical example. In the story “Menudo,” the narrator is a man in trouble: he has left his wife and is living with another woman, but has started a relationship with a third woman, whose husband, when he discovered their affair, threw her out of the house. Our anti-hero is in trouble and cannot sleep. Just to be doing something, he decides to clean up the yard. While he is raking, dawn breaks. His next-door neighbor comes out to go to work, saying goodbye to his wife.

“He sees me kneeling there with the rake and gets a serious look on his face. He wrinkles his brow. Even in his best moments, Mr Baxter is a nice, ordinary guy–someone you would hardly take to be special. At least in my opinion. For starters, he has a whole night of sleep behind him, and then he has just hugged his wife before going to work. But even before he leaves, he already knows he will come back home after a certain number of hours. It is true, in the higher order of things, his return home will be an event of minimal importance–however, it will still be an event.”

This is a consideration that few writers have made, perhaps none, in the entire twentieth century. The same is true of the poem “All Her Life,” when he writes, “Last night I dreamed we were attending/ a funeral at sea. In the beginning I was astonished./ Then full of regrets. But you/ touched my arm and said, ‘No, everything’s fine./ She was very old, and then, he loved her all her life.’”

The late Carver, the religious man close to death, multiplies these signals of life, like so many little notes, so many Post-it notes left for himself everywhere so that he will not forget. In the poem “What the Doctor Said,” he tells of when the doctor told him about his approaching death from a lung tumor. The doctor had read his books, and said to him, “You are religious,” because his books are full of people who kneel down and ask for help. “Not yet,” Carver replied, “but I intend to start at once.” No writer has ever understood the profundity of the words “at once” like Carver. All his work is a hymn to “at once,” to “now, here.”

In one of his last poems, he calls his life “gravy.” Even when he discovers he will die, he says, “I’m a lucky man.”

But this touching clarity, while it becomes explicit in his last days, in my opinion underlies even the most negative period, the harshest, most negative period of his work. It is implicit in the very way he understands the art of narrative, in the respect he shows characters, situations, objects. And words.

* The author is an Italian writer.