Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The Joy of Cutting

In 2007 the New Yorker published a Raymond Carver manuscript, complete with the changes his editor, Gordon Lish made to it before publication -


I was reminded of that document today when, after listening to Miriam Margolyes read Portrait of a Lady by Henry James on BBC 7, I went back to my copy of the book. I was curious, because the radio version struck me as clear and almost cinematic and yet my memory of the book had been that it had been dense and, although enjoyable, definitely something of a thicket of words. In the radio version the characters emerge with a sharp immediacy, their outlines drawn with precision and their interior lives only shown by their actions.
The usual criticism levelled at James is, to use a phrase that always makes me think of the scene in the film of Women in Love where Alan Bates and Oliver Reed roll about on the hearthrug (can't find a copy of that on YOUTube but here is a link to the fig eating scene from the same film: http:
which doesn't seem as overblown and ridiculous as I remembered it, perhaps partly because I see it now with the knowledge that Bates and Reed are dead, although there is no reason that should alter things [this sentence is getting a bit Jamesian itself]), that 'he wrote as though he was wrestling with a dead language'. In the radio version of Portrait of a Lady, however, there is no evidence of any struggle with syntax going on. The convoluted sentences have been replaced by concision. This was, I discovered once I looked through the printed version of the novel, because the whole thing had been severely abridged.
I've always thought I didn't like abridgments, so it surprised me that the shortened version of Portrait of a Lady I heard on the radio came across as better than the original novel. Lish's cuts had an equally positive effect on Carver's work, even though for the writer himself some were very hard to make.
This is not to say that either James or Carver are not great writers. The argument put forward following the publication of the Carver manuscripts that Lish should share equal credit with Carver for the work that goes under the name of Raymond Carver is completely wrong. After all, it was Carver who took an empty page and managed to produce something to put on it - from thin air. Lish was merely the person who helped give shape to the stuff Carver conjured up. Without Carver, Lish would have had nothing to work with. The same is true of James and whoever abridged the radio version.
What is interesting though is the idea that other well-known works might benefit from some trimming. All day I've been trying to decide which writers could do with a bit of editorial slash and burn. Many people, I suspect, would cite Dickens as their first candidate, but in fact I see him as the exception that proves the rule - his virtue is his sprawling, lush torrent of characters and events and words; he is not meant to be tight and clipped. Dostoevsky's prose could not be improved either - much as I hate his miserable vision, his descriptive powers are extraordinary and should not be tampered with. In Crime and Punishment, for instance, the dream Raskolnikov has of a horse being beaten to death is magnificently horrible and there is not a word of it that could be spared. And Proust too is out of the question - his prolixity is pretty much the point.
But what about George Eliot? Or Thomas Hardy? Patrick White certainly, as far as I'm concerned (including destruction of almost all The Tree of Man - or was it just doing it at school that made it seem so terrible?) Could Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South be compressed into a Penelope Fitzgerald kind of novel? Probably not, but it might be fun to try.


  1. I think your suggestion of cutting Dostoevsky is a good one. As well as C&P I think it would be interesting to read a leaner Brothers Karamazov too. They'd probably have a more modern feel and a very different atmosphere (not that I don't like them just the way they are).

  2. Yes, you're right- modern is exactly what the Portrait of a Lady adaptation seems. Possibly the original - long - Portrait of a Lady seemed terribly modern to its readers too, when it first appeared (but maybe more for its themes).