Tim O'Brien once said of Raymond Carver, 'He uses the English language like a whittler's knife, carving stark and unadorned prose-objects, paring away everything but the very core of human emotion.'
Beginners is Carver's most famous collection of short stories - What We Talk About When We Talk About Love - before this whittling process had begun. It is the unedited version of the masterpiece which would be cut by almost fifty per cent by Carver's editor and mentor, Gordon Lish, before its original publication in 1981 and which would go on to become one of the most influential pieces of modern literature.
Carver's preoccupation with the marrow of things is just as present in these longer stories. A young girl, dancing with her lover amidst the debris of an older man's life, has her first forewarning of the dangers of adulthood, and is filled with an 'unbearable happiness'. A man and woman lock themselves in a motel room and slowly, painfully, acknowledge the end of a relationship, while somewhere else in the lonely Midwest a man is photographed over and over again as he attempts to locate himself in a world that seems utterly without focus. But as we move through the manifold little tragedies at the heart of the ordinary - so much at the core of Carver's work - new layers, new nuances, new meanings reveal themselves.
Where the Lish / Carver collaboration cut this collection to the 'linguistic bone', these fleshier stories say what was previously unsaid, filling in the narrative silences that have both inspired and mystified readers for so long. Beginners is a fascinating insight into the aesthetic of a literary great and, in the questions it raises, may just spark off one of the great cultural debates of our times.