Simply true

Call If You Need Me: the uncollected fiction and prose

Raymond Carver <em>Harvill, 312pp, £15</em>

Ernest Hemingway, in his introduction to Men at War, wrote that a "writer's job is to tell the truth. His standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his invention, out of his experience, should produce a truer account than anything factual can be." This latest collection, which brings together five previously unavailable stories with all of the author's uncollected fiction and non-fiction prose, confirms that Hemingway's diktat was imprinted on Raymond Carver's heart.

Although there is considerable overlap between this new volume and the uncollected writings published in 1991 as No Heroics, Please, taken together, they provide a richly textured sense of the author's personality and his acutely unsentimental world-view.

The new pieces in this book were written in the years immediately preceding Carver's death, at 50, from lung cancer. In each, his clean, unadorned prose draws us into the intimate lives of ordinary men and women. Three are about marital breakdown. In "Kindling", a recovering alcoholic, separated from his wife in his middle years, takes a room with a blue-collar husband and his wife in a small town. Myers, the new lodger, is in pieces, and Carver conveys his inner torment with metonymic beauty: as he takes the room, his new landlady "went over and turned down the covers on the bed, and this simple gesture almost caused Myers to weep". In "What Would You Like to See", another middle-aged couple agree to separate, which requires them to leave the house they have been renting. Like Pinter or Chekhov, familiar pleasantries are swollen with unarticulated meanings and, in the quietly dramatic rendering of their last hours together, the pair's surging feelings of attraction and repulsion overflow, threatening to engulf the reader.

A number of things in this book demonstrate the extent to which Carver, in T S Eliot's phrase, is "much possessed by death". In his final essay, "Friendship", it sneaks up on the reader from nowhere. One moment he is gently exuberant, describing how much fun he and his fellow writers Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff had during a reunion in London in 1988. (The description is accompanied by a picture of the three men, arms linked, beaming at their audience from a stage.) Then: "Chances are that two of the three friends in this picture will have to gaze upon the remains - the remains - of the third friend, when that time comes. The thought is grievous and terrifying. But the only alternative to burying your friends is that they will have to bury you." Although it is Carver himself who will be dead before the year is out (which he must have known when he wrote this), he retains in this essay his commitment to truth and aversion to fatalism and slush.

In Call If You Need Me, Carver's generosity and fidelity to his characters shine from every page. His stories proclaim the possibility of redemption, his characters grappling, as he puts it, with "love, death, dreams, ambition, growing up, coming to terms with your own and other people's limitations".

The American literary tradition that fuses idealism and pragmatism, with its belief in moral progress, friendship, self-reliance, truth to oneself and the redemptive power of nature, can be rediscovered again and again, yet shorn of sentiment, in Carver's work. Not for him shiny surfaces and gaudy descriptions: his flawed creations are embedded in their surroundings, and they experience physical trauma when disconnected from them.

If you have never read Carver, but have seen Short Cuts (Robert Altman's shattering on-screen realisation of nine of Carver's best stories), or just wondered what the fuss is about, this book is as good a place to begin as any. In his style, Carver may have affinities with Hemingway, but his portrayal of relationships between men and women is deeper and more nuanced than anything the old bullfighter ever committed to print.

This article first appeared in the 04 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Cheated of their vodka and cake

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide