We have heard a story, indeed, of a painter in France who, when he wanted to paint a sea-beach, carried realism from his ends to his means, and plastered real sand upon his canvas (writes Robert Louis Stevenson. He continues:) Thus his scene was less a depiction of a thing and rather was the thing in itself, not transmuted into any artistic convention; or at least was an extension of the thing, made up of the very stuff of real life. (Stevenson breaks off writing at this point, smiles to himself, runs his fingers through his beard.)

 

One suspects – writes John Gardner, almost a hundred years later – that Stevenson may simply have made him up, this unnamed French painter. Stevenson’s purpose – Gardner continues – was to point out that literature exists on a continuum between poles, which he called ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’; and in order to give an illustration from the visual arts, he compared the French painter’s beachscapes with the effect of early- and middle-period Turner, whose landscapes were like vivid scenes seen through a window. Stevenson himself, of course, like most nineteenth century authors, occupied the subjective end of the spectrum, what we would now call ordinary, “realistic” fiction, where the writer’s intent is that the reader fall through the printed page into the scene represented – and, at this sudden point in Gardner’s essay, you can sense the seductive power this idea holds for him, his longing to be able to fall in precisely this way, to move freely through a language that is weightless, pure, utterly transparent.

 

Not so for Raymond Carver. For him, words have weight, solidity. Building a sentence is like building a wall with stones, Carver says, paraphrasing Flaubert. The stones have to be the right shape, he continues, the right size and heft to be wedged into place tight against other stones – he is fond, certainly, of metaphors to do with outdoors. Fishing, famously, is his favourite hobby. That, and drinking – something which John Gardner, his writing teacher at Chico State and a similarly prolific drinker, warns him about. Carver listens, nods his head, takes account. He hangs on Gardner’s every utterance, at this stage in his career – before, really, he even has a career. Later, in ‘Fires’, he will describe Gardner’s influence on his writing: “Telling me over and over how important it was to have the right words saying what I wanted them to say. Nothing vague or blurred, no smoked-glass prose”. But one day, following Gardner’s lead, he reads Robert Louis Stevenson’s preface to the complete works of Victor Hugo: no mention, despite what Gardner has claimed, of middle or late period Turner; no theories of objective versus subjective art. The unnamed French painter throwing sand onto his canvas is there, yes. But that is the only point that Gardner seems to have got right. And though it is not really all that important, though it is only a small, niggling thing, it is disappointment that lingers. Not that Carver ever mentions it to his former mentor, instead letting him go on making the same arguments about Stevenson and Turner and subjectivity in various interviews and lectures, letting him make a fool of himself. Eventually, Carver thinks, he’ll get round to telling him – right up to the day Gardner is killed horribly in a motorcycle accident. And so the thought always remains, jabbing at Carver like a splinter: was Gardner simply mistaken, perhaps misremembering what Stevenson actually wrote, or mixing up various different essays; or did he just make it all up?

 

As for myself, I don’t particularly care either way. Or so I tell myself, sitting at my desk in my small, functional apartment in New York. All these hermeneutic concerns seem a world away – all this business of literary accuracy, of reputations waxing and waning, of writers writing about writers. It’s just a distraction. It’s decadent, in fact, when you consider what else is going on in the world today.

I push my chair back, swivel around to the window, put my feet up to rest on the lip of the frame. I like that my desk is by the window. I like leaning back and looking out, across the huddled rooftops, and taking a moment to think things over. Through the single glazing, the sounds of the city rise up to me – all the usual morning sounds. Some unusual ones too. Bagpipes. But mainly traffic, rush-hour crowds, the buzz and chatter of voices. I imagine it all taking place, far below me – a typical slice of New York life. The sound of yellow taxicabs – beeping, revving, yelling. You know what I mean, you’ve seen it all before – a scene straight from a movie. The yellow sound of taxicabs – bright and piercing in the cold morning. You don’t need me to describe it all.

There’s nothing left to say. I suppose I could put in an abrupt ending, some unexpected, oddly poignant event – like the legions of Carver copyists out there. A sudden crash, perhaps, out in the street. But in fact there’s no need to make anything up. It’s all right in front of me.

There must be a building site nearby, some construction work a few blocks away, though I can’t see any cranes on the skyline, but how else do you explain it – because, there: carried by the wind, in little muddy heaps on the windowsill, and rain-etched swirls on the glass: sand.

I continue.

 

This post is based on the above sound work made by Seb Patane for A Moment of Eternal Noise from field recordings made in the Summer of 2011 in New York. Responding to the sound work Marc Hundley created the photograph and Gabriel Coxhead the text.

Advertisements