Saturday, June 13, 2009

From Death to Morning - Thomas Wolfe
In “The Story of a Novel” Wolfe describes the struggle he had in writing Of Time and the River, and in doing so he inadvertently reveals the pitfalls that come from too fecund an imagination, an obsessive-compulsive need to embrace everything in words, a desire to impart profound truths about life, a romantic belief in the artist as a tormented soul. Missing are restraint, discipline, a sense of structure – anything that imposes limits. The editor who tried to bring some order to Wolfe’s gargantuan outpouring of words was Maxwell Perkins; what an ordeal that poor man went through. Of the stories that make up the rest of the book, most fail due to those flaws inherent in the author’s nature. Two of them, though not outright bad, have too much description; the words don’t capture the essence of the moment, nor do they serve any purpose to the plot (what plot?); things become repetitive, as if Wolfe were insisting, “Understand, damn it!” In two others emotionality runs amok, and the results are unreadable. Yet Wolfe had talent when it was reined in. The structure of “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” imposed limits. The man talking to the reader isn’t a poet; he’s a down-to-earth guy who had an encounter that he found compelling, mysterious. Wolfe lets him tell his story in his voice; it’s presented directly, simply, in a narrative that flows naturally. In "Chickamauga” an old man relates his harrowing experience in a Civil War battle. Here too the need to take on the voice of the person, and no more, put limits on Wolfe’s extravagance. These stories show how good he could be, which is very good.

Furious Seasons - Raymond Carver
What’s memorable in a piece of writing? That question came up in regard to this collection. Four times I realized, after a few pages, that I had read the stories before. I had only a dim sense of what they were about. I didn’t reread them, but I wondered where the fault lay. What do we remember, and why? There are novels I cherish, ones I read long ago, but as for specific content – what happens to whom – I’m hazy. Once they were meaningful, so the authors had done their job. “Long ago” – time is naturally a factor. A short story has to make a lasting impression with far fewer words than a novel. Maybe only those that are both great and unique establish a secure place in one’s memory; they move in to stay. Those four Carver stories I mentioned didn’t. Two short-shorts I read for the first time don’t deserve to stay; they’re just plain bad, and two others were mediocre. The impressionistic title story was confusing and murky. And then I came to “Pastoral.” It’s about a man on a lonely fishing trip, and it evokes the end of something (Carver was good when dealing with loss). This one deserves to be remembered.


jimmy scoville said...

I have only read the essay about editing & agree entirely with your sentences. YOU had advised me to NOT read further. Silly as I am, I did take in a couple paragraphs in one of the story (the title escapes me) & felt i was dealing with a beginning writer in a writing course at community college. The whole way he developed the character was awful. I surrendered quickly & paid it no further mind. When you're right, you're right AND you were certainly right in this volume.

Phillip Routh said...

As I note in my review, "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" and "Chickamauga" are excellent.