Monday, June 07, 2004

Gordon Burn in the Guardian makes a great point: in The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer is Raymond Carver. The book, written well before anyone had ever heard of Carver, reads like a Carver story.

I don't think I had heard of Raymond Carver 25 years ago when I read The Executioner's Song for the first time. (The Stories of Raymond Carver, his first collection, wasn't published in Britain until 1985). And no writer could be further distanced temperamentally, or in tone and style, from Mailer. "Yes, well, I guess they would like Raymond Carver in England", Mailer commented dismissively when I interviewed him some years ago. Carver's reputation as a minimalist (a term he hated) presented an alternative to the lusty, maximal ambitions which Mailer had always maintained were necessary to tame "The Great Bitch", as he describes the American novel in Cannibals and Christians.

And yet, rereading it now, it's Carver that The Executioner's Song irresistibly suggests, at the sentence level. Carver's ear for ordinary, defeated, working-class speech was unerrring; his immersion in the "applauseless" lives of his factory workers and cosmetics salesladies and motel managers, total. "Nothing vague or blurred, no smoked-glass prose", was Carver's prescription. And in his commitment to common language, the language of normal discourse, he was following an American tradition established by Robert Frost and, before Frost, by William Carlos Williams, the poet of inarticulate America - a poet who distrusted articulacy. "The speech of Polish mothers" was where Williams insisted he got his English from. His famous "flatness" came from the urban "work-yard" of New Jersey. But it was a strain in American writing that had always been antithetical to Mailer.

No comments: