Saturday, 24 March 2012

Just How It Is

John Steinbeck - The Long Valley

I haven’t come across any direct link between John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver – apart from the obvious: American writers in the ‘realist’ tradition; and Carver clearly will have read and assimilated and so on. But I haven’t found any critical commentary that has pursued links, or writing from Carver that references Steinbeck in any detail.

I have been looking for this overt link because as I am reading Steinbeck’s wonderful short story collection The Long Valley I am constantly thinking of Carver, but only at a specific point. Steinbeck’s detailed descriptions, especially of the natural world either as an entity or in its relationship with any particular protagonist, are second to none. He must have had the most observant eye and retentive memory. Carver’s world doesn’t use or rely on this level of description. It is simply different, and where there is the need for detail it is more about people and how they act.  Both writers, of course, excel in the use of realistic dialogue. But that's not the critical point of comparison.

Where I have been making the key juxtaposition is at the endings of Steinbeck’s stories. In so many ways, for example in The Chrysanthemums, The White Quail, The Snake and Breakfast [I haven’t finished the book yet], Steinbeck adds explaining and/or alluding lines at the very end where Carver would have left the story ‘hanging’ more. He would have left the moment of clarity or confusion or, especially in his case, nothingness, to speak for itself.

Take Breakfast for example: a superb snatch of a moment. The final paragraph, spoken by the first person narrator, explains where no explanation is really necessary, 

That’s all. I know, of course, some of the reasons why it was pleasant. But there was some element of great beauty there that makes the rush of warmth when I think of it.

The last line of the preceding and penultimate paragraph is And I walked away down the country road. That’s where Carver would have ended it. The story about a shared, random breakfast in the early morning is a quintessential vignette: a moment and mood conveyed with palpable simplicity. As readers, we have sensed the ‘great beauty’ and ‘warmth’ as it happened, and in that respect there is no need to be reminded. The other stories I have mentioned have similar additions. Perhaps it is to do with the time and a reader’s expectation of explication. I don’t know.

This will sound like preference, but it isn’t. Both writers are brilliant; and literary heroes. It’s just something distinct that struck me today as I was reading.


  1. An interesting comparison. I may try the Steinbeck short stories just after I have read Carver's 'Beginners' which I bought last week, strangely enough. I am interested in reading the "uncut" version as I know he was originally heavily edited. Which version of Carver do you prefer, by the way?

  2. The 'originals' because they are the first I read and treasure. I got 'Beginners' when it came out but am uncertain about reading and altering my first impressions.