Home > 1980, 20th Century, American Literature, Highly Recommended, Short Stories > 20 Books of Summer #10: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

20 Books of Summer #10: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Cathedral by Raymond Carver (1983) French title: Les vitamines du bonheur. Translated by Simone Hilling.

I think that I first heard of Raymond Carver in interviews of Philippe Djian. He admires Carver a lot and I had in mind to read at least one of his books. It’s always difficult to write about a collection of short stories and Cathedral is not an exception to that rule. I’ll spare you the one by one account of each story.

Carver’s stories are like short videos of a moment in the lives of these men and women. We feel that they’ve lived before we peeked into their lives and that they’ll keep on living after we’ve dropped the curtain we had risen.

We catch them at awkward moments of their lives, like in the first story Feathers. A couple goes to the man’s colleague’s house for dinner. The couples have never met before and the guests are confronted with the ugliest baby they’ve ever seen and a strange peacock. Talk about an uncomfortable meal.

We meet people in hard times, a couple losing their child on his birthday, a man unable to leave his sofa after being laid off, a couple recently separated, an alcoholic just admitted in a rehab facility, a man whose wife has taken off, leaving him struggling with their two children. We catch them raw, at a pivotal time of their lives even if they don’t always know it. We see middle and working class people in their quotidian. They lose their job, they go fishing with their colleague or they try to crawl out of alcoholism.

The only story that stood out and seemed at odds with the others is The Compartment. An American man in on the train to Strasbourg, France to meet his estranged son. An event on the train will derail him from his journey. This one was different, probably because of the setting and the context.

Carver has a gift to pack a lot in a few pages and each story leaves vivid impressions on the reader. Some end abruptly and I thought “That’s it? What then?” and others sound more complete. The last one, Cathedral, eponymous of the collection’s name is about a man who attempts to describe a cathedral to a blind man. They end up drawing one. It’s what writers do. They observe life with their unique glasses and take us, blinds, through their vision. And they draw characters and write stories.

Highly recommended.

  1. August 5, 2020 at 11:22 am

    I read the collected stories many years ago, and don’t recall much of the detail, but do remember the startling quality of the stories as a whole. Although his stripped-down ‘dirty realism’ wasn’t entirely original (Hemingway was one who preceded him in some respects), he had a huge influence on writers after him. Not always in a good way. Good to be reminded of his talent.

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    • August 6, 2020 at 9:16 am

      I think that Djian tends to emulate his style and I liked the “stripped-down dirty realism” for short stories.

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  2. August 5, 2020 at 6:10 pm

    I’ve never read Carver and I’m not sure why, as I do like stripped back writing. I’ll have to give him a try, the last story in particular sounds really intriguing.

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    • August 6, 2020 at 9:16 am

      I think you’d like him. Looking forward to your review!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. August 5, 2020 at 6:33 pm

    This sounds great, Emma. It’s been ages since I last read anything by Carver, so your post is a timely reminder. His stories always seem to leave such vivid impressions, despite the stripped-back nature of the prose.

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    • August 6, 2020 at 9:17 am

      I like to read collections of short stories sometimes and this one was outstanding.
      Which other Carver would you recommend?

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      • August 6, 2020 at 3:19 pm

        What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is excellent.

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        • August 6, 2020 at 9:10 pm

          Good to know, I’ll look for it.

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  4. Vishy
    August 6, 2020 at 12:41 am

    Wonderful review, Emma! I have read only a few Raymond Carver stories in anthologies. Have never read a whole collection. All the stories you described sound wonderful. Especially Cathedral. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    • August 6, 2020 at 9:19 am

      It’s a great collection, Vishy. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. August 6, 2020 at 6:14 am

    Nice billet. The French title of the collection surprised me, but then again why not? It’s a good title.

    I’m more of a Tobias Wolff guy myself, but you have to see what Carver looks like. Three or four of these stories are extremely famous (among people who write American short stories).

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  6. August 6, 2020 at 9:21 am

    I think that it’s the French title of one of the short stories. In English, it’s Vitamins. I wonder why they needed to change it into Les vitamines du bohneur.

    I’ve never read Tobias Wolff. Which one would you recommend?

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  7. August 6, 2020 at 3:33 pm

    Whatever Gallmeister has, that is a good start. His memoirs are good, too, This Boy’s Life about his horrible step-father, and In Pharoah’s Army about his Vietnam service.

    I will warn you that What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (Parlez-moi d’amour) has another fishing story in it – inescapable!

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    • August 6, 2020 at 9:04 pm

      I’ve read In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, in its Gallmeister edition. I really enjoyed this collection.

      I think I’ll survive another fishing story. 🙂 After all, I’ve just finished Fisherman of Iceland…

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  8. August 21, 2020 at 7:10 pm

    Nice post, Emma. I read this collection years ago in New York and loved it. It was interesting to read more recently that it was actually Carver’s longtime editor who did a lot of the “stripping back”. It would be interesting to know what Carver’s drafts were like and to compare the before and after.

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    • August 22, 2020 at 7:04 am

      He’s an excellent writer and now that I’ve read him, I can see that he influenced Philippe Djian.

      I didn’t know that about his editor. Do you know of Carver approved of the changes?

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      • August 26, 2020 at 2:41 pm

        I don’t know too many of the details about Carver and his editor, but from what I remember reading, they worked well together for years, but eventually Carver got tired of the heavy editing and went solo, so to speak, after which his style became noticeably more expansive. But take it with a grain of salt – this is something I read about years ago and may be misremembering.

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        • August 30, 2020 at 7:48 pm

          Thanks for the info!

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