Sunday, October 8, 2017

Inside Lydia Davis

I first learned about the writer Lydia Davis on the Facebook feed of the Paris Review. Perhaps she'd just won the Booker Prize and they were reprinting a critique of her work they'd published years ago. She sounded strange, and interesting.

This summer, at a sparsely attended noon book event in front of the football stadium downtown, I noticed on a flyer put out by the university that she would be speaking here in the fall.

A few weeks later I ran across an advance reading copy of Davis's collected stories at a library sale in downtown Duluth on sale for a dollar. Naturally, I bought it.

Hilary and I were on a mid-week vacation, and though the book is thick—740 pages—I found it very easy to dip into. Some of the "stories" are so short that they, and similar works by other writers, have been described as "flash fiction."  Here are three examples:

No one is calling me. I can't check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. It I go out, someone may call while I'm out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in.

Honoring the Subjunctive
It invariably precedes, even if it do not altogether supersede, the determination of what is absolutely desirable and just.

Information from the North Concerning the Ice
Each seal uses many blowholes, and every blowhole is used by many seals.

I do not think that a book filled with such creations would go very far. But I could well be wrong. (Now I'm starting to sound like her, deliberating, doubting my own judgment.) In any case, Davis's collections include pieces that are a paragraph, a page, and even ten pages. Here's another one:

We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the mid­dle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.

From even these brief examples, it should be clear that Davis often prefers repetition to succinctness, and that a melancholy cloud hangs over much of her work. Interior monologues are the norm. In the course of her ruminations we get to know the narrator, who is often someone very much like Lydia Davis, and we begin to enjoy her quibbles, false steps, doubts, anxieties, assertions, and perplexities. 

Yet there are also plenty of stories that have a little more meat on their bones. For example, in "Glenn Gould," she introduces us to a woman who enjoys playing the piano, listens to Glenn Gould often, and also watches the "Mary Tyler Moore" show religiously. Davis describes this woman's scattershot thoughts when she learns that Glenn Gould was also an avid fan of that show. In "Kafka Cooks Dinner" Davis sets herself the task of recreating the thoughts of that writer as he prepares to cook a meal for his girl friend. Here are the opening lines:

I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t. I tell myself each morning that it will be different this time, I will plan the meal today, days ahead of time, but no—as though I am indeed my own enemy, the hours pass and I thrust the thought away from me: dinner, no, I will not think of it. Oh, such sickness, this is truly the sickness unto death.    

Davis's style bears obvious similarities to the crotchety  and obsessive book-long monologues of Thomas Bernhard, though the tone is entirely different, and her penchant for brevity might seem to ally her work more closely to that of Samuel Beckett. One thing is clear: she takes no interest in conventional dialogue or story-line. As she remarked at the reading the other night, with characteristic deliberateness, "Sometimes these experiments are successful; at other times they're less successful."

It's always fun to return to campus and mingle with the crowd. I spent eight years at the U, I had a good time, and I learned quite a bit, though nothing really came of it. It's good to see kids continuing to learn, continuing to strive, continuing to pursue enthusiasms and create little social worlds with their friends.

Then there are the tweedy academics who have developed specialties, explored arcane regions of history and thought, and perhaps made a name for themselves within their chosen field. A fairly high percentage of the attendees were women of a certain age, often arriving in pairs or small groups.

It's a vibrant and attractive scene. One thing I never would have guessed is how many translators were in the crowd. This is because the promotions for Davis's talk never mentioned that it was part of the 2017 American Literary Translators Association conference. And checking that conference schedule, I see that there was no official connection. Yet Davis is well known for her translations of Flaubert and Proust, and her presentation was devoted to enumerating the 17 ways that translating books can be pleasurable.

We arrived early and took two seats in the seventh row. After listening for several minutes to a man in the row behind us describing the plot of The Elegance of the Hedgehog to his friends in great detail in a painfully unctuous voice, Hilary suggested we move back a few rows, ostensibly so we could see more of the crowd as the place filled up. And we did. 

The seats immediately behind us were soon occupied by three young female students who seemed to be deeply immersed in the world of undergraduate creative writing.

"Like, I was going to take intermediate poetry, you know, I never took intro but they would have let me, but intermediate turned out to be at night, and like, no way, that wasn't for me. So I went for non-fiction."

"Is Maud in that class?"

"OH, MY GOD. Like, she volunteers to lead the class, and then, like, walks in twenty minutes late and says to the teacher, 'Why don't you lead it?' which she already was doing. I don't know what her problem is."

Davis's began her talk by remarking that one great pleasure of being a writer is that you do it at home, by yourself. Giving a talk is something else again. She read her talk, listing the seventeen pleasures of translating and elaborating on them one after another. The main point was that when you're translating a book, you don't have to generate the material yourself. It already exists. So you go about solving particular problems, though you also begin to inhabit other worlds.

It was an interesting talk, though I think this article by her that appeared in the Paris Review on a similar subject is more interesting.

In any case, the chief pleasure of such events is the experience of seeing a famous author, perhaps one you admire greatly, in person: how she talks, walks, answers questions. Lydia Davis talks in the same deliberate way she writes. She questions herself and amends her remarks with a vaguely melancholy humor. As I listened, I was reminded of one of her very short stories, "A Position at the University."

I think I know what sort of person I am. But then I think, But this stranger will imagine me quite otherwise when he or she hears this or that to my credit, for instance that I have a position at the university: the fact that I have a posi­tion at the university will appear to mean that I must be the sort of person who has a position at the university. But then I have to admit, with surprise, that, after all, it is true that I have a position at the university. And if it is true, then perhaps I really am the sort of person you imagine when you hear that a person has a position at the university. But, on the other hand, I know I am not the sort of person I imagine when I hear that a person has a position at the university. Then I see what the problem is: when others describe me this way, they appear to describe me com­pletely, whereas in fact they do not describe me completely, and a complete description of me would include truths that seem quite incompatible with the fact that I have a position at the university.

To my mind, Davis does not seem really to be the sort of person who would have a position at the university. She exhibits that sort of deep honesty that a writer in her solitary room can cultivate, but which an academic at a committee meeting often cannot. Her work is original, largely due to Davis's devotion to her self, her problems, and the things she needs to work out personally—things that are often aesthetic problems rather than personal problems, and in either case, have far less to do with pedagogy than with art.

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