17 June, 2012

Reading Carver, Lethem and Némirovsky


I don’t think I have a stalker but just in case, I might aswell keep them up to date on my literary tastes.


‘Beginners’ is the unedited, full and original text of Carver’s famed ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Taken from the American writer’s own handwritten manuscripts, the text is a fuller and more lengthy version of the original work, and as with everything else Carver does, it’s bloody good.

Carver wrote in a blunt and minimalist style, which is evident in his early works, less so in his final collections. But ‘Beginners’ is a lengthier tome than the edited version, and regardless of his editor’s revisions, one is reading the stories as Carver first intended them – giving a fascinating insight into his work, and into the art of a good edit.


The best stories in the collection, as with much of Carver’s work, focus on the downtrodden or what we currently group with the awful phrase ‘the ninety-nine percent’. ‘Beginners’, ‘Pie’ and ‘A Small, Good Thing’ at once depict bleak tales of despair and difficulty, but with a charming and ironic optimism. They’re not always enjoyable or obviously uplifting stories, but they’re good. They’re like Keret without the whimsicality, or Yates without the harrowing sadness – Carver has a unique voice that can be picked from amongst his rivals with ease.

So give Carver a go – his short stories are excellent, and the poem ‘Gravy’ is around online; it is basically a fifteen-line poetic snapshot of what Carver is about. I also highly recommend ‘Fires’, a collection of essays, poems and short stories, that gives an overview into the style and themes of a clever, witty and important writer.


Jonathan Lethem, famed American novelist, was pretty much unknown to me, and then I got offered some free books and ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ looked interesting, and if you’re going to get free books you may aswell take hefty hardbacks (value for money etc).

ANYWAY the book is a collection of previously-published and new writings on such a wide and disparate range of topics, it’s surprising that they can all legally be published together. But they can, because what links culture, 9/11, literature, Brooklyn, book tours, comics and Bob Dylan is Lethem’s zest for good writing, and his insight, which he deftly and seemingly effortlessly transfers to print.

It’s all very nice. Lethem writes in a relaxed and conversational style, and with a sometimes quite abstract tone, clearly about topics he loves and knows. Highlights of the book are the bookshop stories, 9/11 section and ‘Wall Art’ chapter – the book constitutes a sort of autobiography, essay collection and overall world outlook all in one, and it’s fascinating. Read it.

So I was making my way through some classics I didn’t know much about and I read ‘Suite Francaise’ by Irène Némirovsky. It is a collection of the only two completed novels in a projected five-part series. A piece about a collection of characters in France during the Occupation, the planned work was sadly cut short when Némirovsky, a French writer of Ukranian-Jewish origin was taken to Auschwitz.


Written during the very time it depicts, the book is a true and raw (to be fair, it does feel unfinished but it’s possibly all the better for that) depiction of a dark time in French history. It’s strangely apolitical, in that it depicts the lives of a wide array of characters at this time, but without much clear or manipulated subtext in the words themselves. Adding to this, the book wasn’t even published till 2004, as the manuscript fell into the hands of Némirovsky’s daughter after being stuffed in a suitcase during the panic of the time – it’s a wonder the text exists at all.

But at its heart, regardless of its conception and incredible backstory, it is a tale of the individual and the collective, a tale of what to do when life gets a bit shit, and a marvellous testament to story-telling and survival. Its writer may have been taken from us too soon, but this incredible piece of work will live on.

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