LYDIA DAVIS: Storytelling, a Strange Impulse

LYDIA DAVIS does not do interviews anymore, as she told me in an interview. She does not like to give a lot about herself away, and, as evidenced by her agreeing to meet at a café near New York University (where she teaches writing), she embodies many contradictions.

After publishing, to great acclaim, a new translation of Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann in 2003, she believed she had reached the high point in the career of a translator and would never translate another book. A few years later she produced what many consider to be the definitive English edition of Madame Bovary (2010). She said she doesn’t write fiction anymore, and that she hasn’t in a while because that’s not what she would call the kind of writing she does. She prefers “storytelling.”

“It’s extraordinary,” says one woman. “It is extraordinary,” says the other.

“Some stories are fictional,” she said, “and even factual stories have a mix of fiction in them, by accident sometimes.” Her narrators are often unmistakably stand-ins for Lydia Davis. A female translator of French into English, living with her second husband in the country, is a recurring figure. The work urges even the most strident student of post-structuralism to give into biographical fallacy and find the real Davis within it, the exact way that most Anglophone readers are taught not to read fiction. She goes on calling herself a fiction writer out of necessity. lydia_04The first thing to say about Davis’s stories is that they are very short. She compares them to buildings that don’t have any weak points, nothing that could start to crumble. They are, like skyscrapers, imposing in a physical sense, though less for the building itself and more for the expanse of sky left surrounding it. Merely flip through the 700+ pages of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009), a book that comprises exactly 200 short works, the longest of which is still less than 30 pages, and you will find nearly as much blank space as text. Some stories – some of the best, in fact – are only one or two lines. Take, for example, “Away from Home,” quoted here in its entirety:

“It has been so long since she used a metaphor!”

Some of these capsule narratives resemble something more like excerpts from the most bizarre entries on a police blotter. Here is “Idea for a Short Documentary Film:”

“Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging.”

These are comical, but they are far from simple practical jokes. For instance, “Head, Heart:”

“Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart. Head tells heart how it is, again: You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday. Heart feels better, then. But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart. Heart is so new to this. I want them back, says heart. Head is all heart has. Help, head. Help heart.”

Between 1971 and 1974, Davis was married to the writer Paul Auster. I had barely gotten out the last syllable of his name before she said, “Oh yeah, I don’t go there.”

There is nothing in “Head, Heart” that explains the exact source of pain, and the person experiencing it is reduced to nothing but two separate metonyms, but in less than 100 words, Davis gets to the heart – so to speak – of a kind of dull suffering, which most writers produce tomes on while still only circling around the issue. Convention tells us that fiction should be about people that feel a certain way and how they came to feel that way. Fiction should be about these people doing things that are representative of the way they feel. Even the most experimental fiction communicates a sense of history, of where we are or something linear. Beckett’s Molloy is in his mother’s room because it is he who lives there now. Despite his lexical tricks, Finnegan is indeed at his wake. Davis’s stories are largely condensed into just the feelings. Above all they are about language. They focus on the moment in which they are composed (“Companion”: “We are sitting here together, my digestion and I. I am reading a book and it is working away at the lunch I ate a little while ago.”) or on the actual composition (“Nietszche:” “Oh, poor dad. I’m sorry I made fun of you. Now I’m spelling Nietszche wrong, too.”). There are traces of Beckett in her work, of Joyce and Proust as well, but really, Davis does not resemble any other fiction writer that came before her.

Davis was born in 1947 in Northampton, Massachusetts, the daughter of a novelist and a book critic. She studied music – first piano, then violin – which was her first love. To hear her talk about becoming a writer, the matter seems, again, to have been simply out of necessity.

“I was probably always headed to being a writer, even though that wasn’t my first love,” she said. “I guess I must have always wanted to write in some part of me or I wouldn’t have done it.”

She studied at Barnard, where she was mostly writing poems, then lived for two years in France, in Paris and later in the countryside. She didn’t do much talking because she was worried about her speech being incorrect. In her preface to Madame Bovary, she illuminates her approach to translation: “There is a sentence,” she writes, “near the beginning of the novel that perhaps cries out to be ‘improved’ by being given a fully parallel structure […] the imbalance has been left as it is in French.” She said she “wouldn’t want to impose” on the text, choosing instead to stay “very very closely” to the French.

It is not enough for Davis to simply fictionalize herself, as she does in “The Letter;” she then goes on to write a separate work of fiction about why she did so.

She worked fairly quietly as a translator for a number of years, producing English editions of work by French writers Michel Leiris and Maurice Blanchot, but her breakthrough, as both translator and fiction writer, came with her translation of Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann. While she was working on that book, she was also writing the stories that comprise the 2001 collection, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant. The stories became very short, a relief from the length of Proust. The title story is not even a full sentence: “that Scotland has so few trees.”

“It was a challenge to myself.” she said. “How short can you make it and still have it have some substance? It was only after decades that I could see that only a line or two would be good too. In the past, I don’t think I would have written the very shortest stories, since I was young and ambitious.”

Between 1971 and 1974, Davis was married to the writer Paul Auster. I had barely gotten out the last syllable of his name before she said, “Oh yeah, I don’t go there.” I wanted to know if she felt they had a mutual influence on each other’s work and she replied, “It’s imponderable anyway. I prefer not to talk about it.” There is not a great deal that is known about their relationship (in fact, old profiles of Auster in the New York Times do not even mention Davis by name, simply referring to her as his “former wife”), but there are remnants of their marriage floating in the ether – an archival interview, for instance, in the New York Review of Books with Jean-Paul Sartre from 1975 that bares the strangely humble byline, “Translated by Paul Auster and Lydia Davis.”

Divorce, as a theme, haunts a great deal of Davis’s early work. Her first major collection, Break It Down, was published in 1986, and includes reprints of the stories from a small press collection, The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories, from 1976. In that collection is a story called “The Letter,” in which a former lover sends the narrator – who works as a translator, naturally – a poem by Proust. When they parted one year before, he offers that maybe he’ll see her again in 10 years. Maybe five, she responds. In the poem, the narrator focuses on the French word retrouvions, the verb “to meet again.”

“If there can be no doubt about retrouvions, and there seems to be no doubt, then she can believe that he is still thinking […] that it will be possible ten years from now, or five years, or, since a year has already passed, nine years or four years from now.”

There are traces of Beckett in her work, of Joyce and Proust as well, but really, Davis does not resemble any other fiction writer that came before her.

In her first and only novel, The End of the Story (2004), Davis – or Davis’s narrator – focuses on this same encounter of the former lover sending her a French poem after not speaking for a year.

“After a few weeks had passed, I found a way to answer it, telling him what I thought when I received what he sent, what I thought it was and how I discovered it was not that, how I read it and what I thought it was and how I discovered it was not that, how I read it and what I thought he might mean by sending me a poem about absence, death and rejoining. I wrote all this in the form of a story because that seemed as impersonal as his poem.”

Re-fictionalizing this scene, however, in a second work of fiction, makes it incredibly personal. It shines a light on the author thinking through the story and creates a strange conflation of autobiography and fiction: the narrator is explaining how she wrote Davis’s story, which makes Davis herself, in the moment of composition, a presence in the background of the work, even if only the fictional Davis makes an appearance in the work itself. The End of the Story (2004) contains, essentially, two books – one about the breakup and the other about trying to write a novel about it. They started out as separate works, Davis called the story about writing the story “Novel Number Two,” but she eventually joined them together. That she focuses on an actual Lydia Davis short story as part of her subject matter makes for a unique kind of paratext. It is not enough for Davis to simply fictionalize herself, as she does in “The Letter;” she then goes on to write a separate work of fiction about why she did so.

Still, it is impossible to say whether this lover is some approximation of Auster, even if he is described as not having a telephone because he is unable to pay the bill and Auster wrote a memoir of his youth called Hand to Mouth (2003) that is almost entirely about being broke. Perhaps he is entirely made up. And yet the focus on the scene of writing, of the narrator-as-Davis at the writing desk and working on the specific story the reader holds in his hands, makes such normally superficial questioning irresistible.

At a certain point, she realized she could be as much a source of material as anything else. The very short stories are balanced by character portraits that are blatantly autobiographical. She began to abandon notions that fiction ought to be fiction and stories should be “made up.” She had been taught, as most writers have, that one’s own experience should be used, but fictionalized heavily and that writing a story that was all biography would be cheating or too easy or, worse, considered memoir, a genre readers approach with entirely different – lowered – expectations. “Later,” she said, “it didn’t seem like cheating.”

One of the most overt uses of Davis’s own life comes from “The Walk,” a later story from her last collection Varieties of Disturbance (2007). The piece is narrated by a nameless woman, a French translator, who goes to Oxford to speak on a panel about translating Proust. Davis even quotes her own translation of Du côté de chez Swann. All the other members of the panel leave quickly except for one, a nameless critic – with an accent the people of Oxford “would not be able to place” – who gave Davis’s translation a negative review. He believed “she kept too close to the original text. He preferred the studied cadences of an earlier version and had said so in person and in print.” However:

“[…] it was still light out, since the summer solstice was only a few days away. As the sky would be light for several more hours and they had been shut up in the conference room all day, suffering some tedium at various points and some tension at others, much of it caused by him, and as they were, to some extent, anyway, enjoying each other’s company, they agreed a walk would be pleasant.”

It takes only a minimal amount of research to discover this negative review, one of the few in existence of Davis’s Proust translation, is by André Aciman, who is a scholar of Proust from Egypt, and that it was published in the New York Review of Books. Moreover, that Davis wrote to the Review with a persuasive list of translation flaws in the so-called “studied cadences of an earlier version,” the popular Scott Moncrieff edition, essentially proving why her own translation comes “closest to the source,” and after this exchange in print, Aciman and Davis were part of a panel at Oxford called “Proust and Translation.”

In the end, what does this tell us? This autobiographical questioning brings us back, in fact, to the first work in the Collected Stories, called simply “Story.” A lover (who knows who?) tells the narrator (“I,” though who can tell if it is Davis?) that he will not be coming over. To occupy herself, the narrator “[goes] on to write, in the third person and the past tense that clearly she always needed to have a love even if it was a complicated love.” This is a deliberate swipe at Davis’s self-awareness, her closeness to that “I” in the story; the first person switching to the third past tense, the tense of “The Letter,” is a kind of mockery of any distance the writer could place between herself and her fiction by simply switching pronouns. “Story” concludes:

“Maybe the truth does not matter but I want to know it if only so that I can come to some conclusions about such questions as […] how capable he is of deceiving me in the act and after the act in telling.”

We know nothing except that all stories are some mixture of truth and fiction. It is worth noting that Davis mentioned there was one story in particular when she realized a work could be both short story and autobiography. When I asked her which story she was referring to, she said, “It would be too revealing to say.” After a pause she added, “So I won’t.”

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