From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009
Lydia Davis is either revered or ignored. She has won many awards, yet her books rarely reach the uninitiated. She is more like a secret handshake, treasured among those in the know—writers, mostly. Rick Moody has called her “the best prose stylist in America”; Francine Prose has admitted to reading Davis “when I feel that I’m becoming too narrow, too rigid, too limited”. Introducing Davis at a reading some years ago, Dave Eggers suggested that many writers can’t help but try to copy her.
Yet a recent visit to the Strand bookstore in New York (“18 miles of books”, new and used) yielded nothing by Davis. A woman at the help desk explained: “Her work is rarely reissued, and the people who have her books tend to hold on to them.”
Davis should pick up more attention now, as Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishes “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis”. Though she is only 62 and still writing, this book has a career-culminating formality. Weighing in at nearly 800 pages and drawn from the stories in “Break It Down” (1986), “Almost No Memory” (1997), “Samuel Johnson is Indignant” (2001) and “Varieties of Disturbance” (2007), “The Collected Stories” is the kind of backbreaker that shoves an author into the canon.
Davis has made her name refining and redefining short stories. Her writing is chiselled and precise; her characters are often unnamed and very self-conscious. She has an almost clinical way of handling the knots and frayed edges of an over-active mind, which makes reading her a little cathartic. Consider the narrator in the title story of “Break It Down”. “He’s sitting there staring at a piece of paper,” it begins. “He’s trying to break it down.” The story is at first restrained, with a man calculating the cost of a holiday. But soon it is clear that he is trying to itemise a love affair, to make sense of something that is gone. The sentences grow longer, the memories more intense:
…I was afraid to say it but I had to say it because I wanted her to know, it was the last night, I had to tell her then or I’d never have another chance, I just said, Before you go to sleep, I have to tell you before you go to sleep that I love you, and immediately, right away after, she said, I love you too, and it sounded to me as if she didn’t mean it, a little flat, but then it usually sounds a little flat when someone says, I love you too, because they’re just saying it back even if they do mean it, and the problem is that I’ll never know if she meant it, or maybe someday she’ll tell me whether she meant it or not, but there’s no way to know now, and I’m sorry I did that, it was a trap I didn’t mean to put her in, I can see it was a trap, because if she hadn’t said anything at all I know that would have hurt too…
He continues to break it down, and the affair continues not to add up. Davis’s language captures the disorder with a deadpan tidiness that is almost comic.
Many of her stories are extremely short: a paragraph or a punchline, suspended within a milky page. Like walnuts, they are palm-sized and complex, yet complete. “Almost Over: Separate Bedrooms”, a story from “Samuel Johnson is Indignant”, goes like this, in full: “They have moved into separate bedrooms now. That night she dreams she is holding him in her arms. He dreams he is having dinner with Ben Jonson.”
It is a wisp of a story, but poignant and funny. Her sentences have an unpretentious clarity that vibrates with careful choices. From the same collection, “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want to not have a child, or not to have had a child.” Davis distils the ambivalence of motherhood in two clean lines, like a logic problem or a word puzzle. Such austerity is easy to underestimate but hard to replicate.
To go and see Davis is to enter the deliberative minefield of her stories. At first she is not sure whether she wants to be interviewed. Her publisher gives the go-ahead but then reneges (“Lydia needs a little more time to think it over”). Her editor tries to be reassuring (“Lydia is a very deliberative person…You might have guessed that”). After she agrees to see me, she ponders which train I should take—“each has its advantages and disadvantages,” she writes. The voice of her many narrators comes through: cerebral, conscientious, slightly awkward.
We finally meet in Hudson, upstate New York, not far from where she lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter. The station glows red in the midday sun, as if painted by Hopper. Davis picks me up and drives to a quaint tearoom nearby. “It shouldn’t be too noisy,” she says, sounding more apprehensive than confident.
In her work, she shies away from descriptive detail, but in person she is reassuringly unascetic. She has crystal blue eyes, dangly earrings and painted nails (albeit in a natural hue). She enjoys fruit smoothies and loves animals. Raised in New York City by two writers, she is clearly content with her quiet country life, far from the madding book parties. She and her husband live in an old brick schoolhouse, and Davis pulls a couple of pictures from her wallet. “Oh, these are the cows,” she laughs, offering a photo of two neighbouring cows in a field, silhouetted in dawn’s blue light.
Davis knew she would write at a young age—she was good, and family life was built around writing, reading and teaching. But she found the prospect burdensome, even unappealing: “I actually liked music better.” Playing the piano was instantly gratifying, unlike the struggle of storytelling, and she could happily practise for hours. But she knew she was no virtuoso (“I can hear every little thing that’s wrong”). Lessons in music theory—about structure and themes, analysis and practice—ended up helping her writing.
She was 13 when her eyes were opened by Beckett’s “Malone Dies” to the use of language in books. “The book was pretty much the opposite of all the entrancing stories I was reading. Here was a story in which nothing happened, virtually, and yet at the same time the language was so clear.”
After college she spent years sweating over short stories that never seemed to feel right. That changed when she read Russell Edson, an American prose poet. “When you try to make a story of your life, it’s a little too neat,” she says. But if she had to be neat about it, Edson’s writing exposed her to expressive little narratives, quite unlike the more traditional yarns she was trying to spin. His work “seemed to say you can do whatever you want. You can try all these different things and they might not work out but that’s ok.”
Her own writing became more experimental, shorter and more abstract. “An idea will occur to me, one that I find amusing, and I will spin it out to its logical conclusion, like working out a little problem,” she says. Her family and friends were slow to accept what she was doing. “They wanted me to write a different kind of thing. More what they were used to, more what they liked,” she says with a laugh. “Other people had to like it first for them to like it.”
Some of her early stories seem like efforts to smooth out a rough patch of life. Her subjects struggle with anxious loneliness or piece themselves back together after a failed marriage. “Writing has the satisfaction of forming something that feels complete,” Davis says. “It is not necessarily therapeutic. To write about a personally troubling situation you have to get a certain distance from it, because you’re using it to make something.” She says she does not remember all of her stories and rarely has reason to revisit older work. “When I do read it, it is as a writer.”
Ever since the late 1970s (and initially alongside her first husband, the novelist Paul Auster), Davis has also worked as a translator of French literature and philosophy. Her most famous work is her most recent: a 2003 translation of “Swann’s Way”, the first volume of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. More restrained than C.K. Scott Moncrieff, it reveals Davis’s prejudices on the page. She considered each sentence a “little puzzle”, and strove to stay true to Proust’s sounds, rhythms and word choices. “What soars in this new version is the simplicity of language and fidelity to the cambers of Proust’s prose,” said Frank Wynne in the Irish Times, calling the translation “magnificent, precise”.
Davis was named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government, and received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant for showing “how language itself can entertain, how all that what one word says, and leaves unsaid, can hold a reader’s interest”. The award has enabled her to concentrate on her fiction for the first time in 30 years. Now on leave from her position as associate professor at the University of Albany, she still teaches special creative-writing seminars around the country.
“Translating makes me much more acutely aware of shades of meaning,” she explains. “You have a set problem and you can’t get around it by avoiding it. You have to pick just the right word.” So when the chance came to translate Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, she seized it. She is now slogging away, four or five hours a day, to finish the job by the end of the year.
“I keep learning new words,” she says, giddily. “I also like being immersed in another culture, and a different way of saying things. It’s refreshing to go into that other culture and then come back into my life.”
Davis’s exacting use of language comes through in conversation, and her pet peeves become plain: translators who don’t understand language or who embellish with their own material, writers who overwrite, and nearly any sign of imprecision. “Proust is not overwriting,” she says, despite those sentences that famously run on for pages. “He’s actually very concise, it’s just that his subject is so large, and each sentence has to contain so much.” But anyone who simply piles on phrases is showing off, “and I’ve decided that arrogance is the thing that I hate the most”. She doesn’t believe in synonyms and flinches if a word is misapplied. When I say that some stories are like “vignettes”, she gives a thorough explanation of why the word is unsuitable—too precious, too French, too static. “It’s just one of the words I don’t like,” she concludes with a little laugh.
The result is a charmingly strange body of work—one that mixes formal ingenuity with the motor-drone of a neurotic mind. Entering Davis’s world is a bit like making a long, solo road-trip: the head is the navigated landscape even as the scenery changes. Occasionally her stories feel a bit too familiar, a bit lacking in juice. But Davis’s gift is for nudging the banal into something unexpected, for crystalising our confused perception of our days. “Her stories will be read down the centuries,” Rick Moody has predicted. With the publication of “The Collected Stories”, he has a greater chance of being right.
"The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), out now
Emily Bobrow is online books and arts editor at The Economist and a contributing editor to Intelligent Life. Her last author profile for Intelligent Life was of Marilynne Robinson
Picture credit: Corbis