Monday, January 3, 2011

The Carver Bio

It's January 3, 2011, and yesterday I finished reading the Raymond Carver bio by Carol Sklenicka.

I think Stephen King nailed it in his New York Times review when he called the book "exhaustive and exhausting." It really wore me out. It really, at times, depressed the hell out of me. Often I wanted to take a break and stop reading, but I always kept going.

What kept me going was Carver's sheer determination to carve (sorry) a literary life for himself. (It also helped knowing that eventually he got sober after years of drinking and out-of-control alcoholism. He took his last drink at the Jambalaya bar in Arcata in 1977.)

For so many years he struggled -- trying to write, submitting stories to small magazines, working crap jobs, raising a family, declaring bankruptcy (twice), bouncing around from one teaching job to another, gaining, at long last, the literary reputation and career he dreamed about.

But what struck me the most was how his family struggled, too. His wife, Maryann, supported him for long stretches. Carver's writing was the focus of the family. And his kids also struggled. Yes, alcohol was involved (Maryann also drank), but it was painful to read about the sacrifices made, all in the name of "art."

Carver's essay "Fires" discusses how his children have been his greatest influence. But not in a positive way. He talks of his children as a "baleful" influence. He talks about the "ravenous and ferocious years of parenting." He talks about the burden of family life and caring for his children: "And I would always have them, and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction."

There's a heartbreaking scene in the bio when Carver's son, Vance, is talking to Tobias Wolff. Vance says: "My father is really good, isn't he?" And Wolff says: "Your dad is one of the greatest short story writers of all time."

Yet Carver's family, including Vance, was repeatedly hurt by his stories and poems.

And this, ultimately, is what got to me: the sacrifice between life and art. The sharing of vibrant, wonderful, necessary stories vs. the pain bestowed by those stories, both in their creation and their journey into the world.

There's much more to the book of course -- the whole Lish/Carver thing is fascinating -- but that's what I'm processing now. It's relevant because I'm also raising a family. And I worry that my writing impacts my family negatively. I worry about a lot of things these days. Potential New Year's resolution: not to worry so damn much.


At some point I want to read Maryann Carver's memoir, What It Used to Be Like. But for now, I'm Carver'd out.


Ethel Rohan said...

Interesting post, Andy, thanks. I worry too about just this. God, I worry. But we won't stop, will we? So we strive for balance? That's my New Year resolution.

Andrew Roe said...

Yes, balance, Ethel -- a good New Year's resolution. I still haven't figured out mine...

Günter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Günter said...

D'oh! Sorry.

The bio's been out for a while now, but I've been avoiding it--I know Carver spent a lot of time as a reprehensible drunk, I know he took advantage of his family and especially of Maryann. I don't want to have to think about that stuff every time I read the stories. Hell, I've only recently managed to read them again without thinking of Lish and that whole controversy. I love Carver's work and the world is always trying to screw it up in my mind. I'm sure I'll get to the Sklenicka book eventually, but I'm not in any hurry.

Andrew Roe said...

Gunter, I hear you. I had the very same reservations. I'm still not sure if I did the right thing by reading the bio. Well, too late to go back now...