Following this fall's mini-brouhaha about Raymond Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, publishing early versions of Carver's stories very different from the versions that went through Gordon Lish's merciless editing machine, The New Yorker has published "Beginners," the short story that turned into the classic "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." The differences are stark; Lish's published version is 4,800 words, or about half as long as Carver's, for example.
What's good about this new (old) version? For those of us who find Carver's minimalist despair wearying, his version of the story is much gentler than Lish's scathing edit. Sure, our two couples famously talking through the cocktail hour about What Love Is are just as forlorn and lost as ever. But the centerpiece of the story — the tale the cardiologist tells about an old married couple he helps care for after their horrible car accident — is unexpectedly sweet in Carver's version. In Lish's edit, the doctor belittles the old man, calling him an "old fart" and stopping the tale to laugh at him for daring to need his wife so much that he falls into a depression when he's unable to see her face. In Carver's version, the story goes on to describe with some warmth the old man's stories to the doctor about his life with his wife, and explores the man's joy when he's finally well enough to visit her in her hospital room. A nurse previously known as "a tough lot" starts weeping at the sight, and the doctor himself seems profoundly affected by it. It's a touching passage that lends the story as a whole a much more bittersweet flavor, even as we can clearly see what about it felt baggy and sentimental to Lish.
What's bad about this new (old) version? Well, we can't say we're particularly heartbroken that Lish edited out this deathless section:
Herb stopped talking. “Here,” he said, “let’s drink this gin. Let’s drink it up. Then we’re going to dinner, right? Terri and I know a place. It’s a new place. That’s where we’ll go, this new place we know about. We’ll go when we finish this gin.”
“It’s called the Library,” Terri said. “You haven’t eaten there yet, have you?” she said, and Laura and I shook our heads. “It’s some place. They say it’s part of a new chain, but it’s not like a chain, if you know what I mean. They actually have bookshelves in there with real books on them. You can browse around after dinner and take a book out and bring it back the next time you come to eat. You won’t believe the food. And Herb’s reading ‘Ivanhoe’! He took it out when we were there last week. He just signed a card. Like in a real library.”
“I like ‘Ivanhoe,’ ” Herb said. “ ‘Ivanhoe’ ’s great. If I had it to do over again, I’d study literature. Right now I’m having an identity crisis. Right, Terri?” Herb said. He laughed. He twirled the ice in his glass. “I’ve been having an identity crisis for years. Terri knows. Terri can tell you."
"What We Talk About When We Talk About Restaurants" isn't quite as catchy, we guess.