If the direction of Davis’s writing tends toward, as she once observed in an interview, “philosophical investigation,” perhaps it is fitting that almost all of it falls into the category of the short story—a form which, in her hands, affirms its affinities with the pensée, the fragment, the meditation. For this reason, it is tempting to treat her only novel (and this in a career of over thirty years) as an anomaly. The fact that this is far from the case confirms not only the consistency of her thematic concerns but also the concentrated quality of her consciousness, which articulates long and short forms alike along comparable lines, always with the same steadfast focus.
When I was first asked to write something about Lydia Davis—anything at all, be as creative as you want—my instinct was to say no. The request didn’t come at a good time (though it did come from a good source), and I didn’t know anything at all about Lydia Davis, and still don’t, apart from what I’ve been able to glean of her from The End of the Story (1995),which I read a couple of months ago now. So I begged off initially. I was busy, I hadn’t read her, etc. The truth, though, was that I’d just finished writing a whole book about a writer I hadn’t read when I decided to write about him, so I knew it was possible to set out to read and write about writers we know nothing about. In fact, the moment when we are first introduced to writers, either organically in the case of my book, or artificially in the case of what I had already come to think of as my “Lydia Davis assignment,” is a common, and in fact unavoidable, literary experience. For all that, it is one that has tended be treated fleetingly in the history of writing about reading.
Among other things, Lydia Davis is a keen observer of her own mind. Terse sentences delineate some of the most intimate and urgent experiences of inner life, while characters seem to stand for isolated aspects of the self in duress as it tries to put into words the unintelligible stuff of human behavior and emotion. To assemble these voices into a portrait of the author, however, would be to miss the point of Davis’s obsessive logic. Less a collection of individual stories than a precisely crafted architecture, each story leads into the next like rooms in a dream where hidden stairways and secret chambers feel eerily familiar. Whereas Break It Down explores the shock dealt to the mind in the wake of lost love, Almost No Memory converges around our tenuous connection to our past.
Lydia Davis’ stories suspend time, even stop it—to read her work fast, to read “for the story,” though it’s there, is not reading the writing. A Davis story happens in and with its language and rhythms, shifts in tone, connotations—words strutting with attitude, like people. Meanings accrue, feelings and thoughts build. In the opposite of a strip tease, Davis layers narratives whose heart (“that bloody motor,” pace Grace Paley in “Conversation with My Father”) seeps through its lines. At the end of a Davis story, there are no shocking revelations or solutions to mysteries, though her work is mysterious, as people are to themselves and each other, unwittingly. Instead, with the end comes another end, one that rebuffs certainty, and, with it, surprise and more depth. Her stories are profoundly surprising
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis contains four books of prose published between 1986 and 2007. The title of the first book issues a command: Break It Down. It seems to be a perfect summary of Davis’ approach: as short as possible, as exact as possible, as free of whimsy and sentimentalism as possible. These are ordinary, clear words: break—it—down. And yet they arrive as if torn from the edge some larger text. How are we to interpret them? Break what down? Break it down how? A seemingly straightforward utterance suddenly proves inscrutable. The joy of reading Lydia Davis is born in this moment of tension, when the clear glass fogs up.
Imagine a literary genre much like a diary but composed for immediate consumption. A genre part commonplace book, part Blue Octavo Notebooks, part Twitter stream. Imagine something like a blog but written by public intellectuals and printed in major newspapers, or read out on national radio or television. Imagine a column in a newspaper that is too short to make a rigorous political argument, but that isn’t necessarily aiming to either. Imagine its strong social-democratic values, often only implied and somehow still rooted in the country’s liberation from the Nazi occupation in 1945. This kind of writing is observational, street sketching really, and even though it isn’t beholden to any significant journalistic accountability, it still affects through the instant recognizability of the moments it relates.
We seem to be reaching a consensus that there is something distinctly new about what Lydia Davis does. After awarding her the 2013 International Booker Prize over a slate of titans like Marilynne Robinson, Russia’s Vladimir Sorokin, and India’s Intizar Husain, the author and critic Tim Parks said that Davis deserved the award because he and his co-jurists “felt that we were reading something we hadn’t read before in any shape or form—that it really was sparkling and new and fresh, a new form for the short story, and that carried the day in the end.” Even discounting the hyped-up language of major literary awards, the claim is staggering: he essentially says that Davis is head and shoulders above nine of the greatest living writers in the world.
I also tend to personify things outside myself. My son pokes fun at me for that, though he also finds it contagious. I’ve done this since I was quite young—I remember walking in the woods by myself and feeling that the trees were conscious beings. I probably still feel that they are. This way of thinking may have been a result of the deep impression that certain children’s books made on me, for instance The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. Nowadays, I may even personify an inanimate object. But one result of this tendency is that in the case of a sentient creature, like an ant or even the dreaded mosquito, I can’t help feeling respect and compassion for it.
It is the planet we live on, more than any human consciousness or ambition, that anchors the two slim novels of J. M. Ledgard—Giraffe, which was acclaimed upon its 2006 publication, and Submergence, which despite its greater stature has been slower in finding an Anglophone audience since its British publication in 2011. Ledgard, who was born on the chilly Shetland Islands, has spent much of his working life writing for The Economist and has been stationed thousands of miles away as a foreign correspondent in western America, central Europe, central Asia, and eastern Africa. It comes as no surprise, then, that Giraffe and Submergence owe their prose to the direct (and at times detail-dense) style of magazine reportage, nor that they’re set in various corners of the world—Kenya, France, the Czech Republic, Somalia. These books are every bit as cosmopolitan as their author.
This year sees the release in English of W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country: a full prose work published originally in German in 1998, between The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz— in other words, at the height of Sebald’s literary career. The book is a series of essays on five writers (Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, and Robert Walser) and one painter (Jan Peter Tripp), the product of what he describes, in the foreword, as an “unwavering affection for Hebel, Keller and Walser,” which in turn “gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late.” A haunting phrase, given his death only three years after the book’s publication—but one that also accurately sums up the admiration and homage that runs through the book, a writer engaging with his forebears and tracing his own literary genealogy through the past two centuries.
It is a pleasure to be able to open this exchange with you. When we first began to write one another, I had only published two short excerpts from Josef Winkler’s books, a section of Natura Morta and a few pages of Domra, and these were the first pieces of his that had appeared in English in fifteen years. Not long afterward, we were both asked to contribute pieces to the volume of literatur/a devoted to Winkler’s work, and now, When the Time Comes has been published and Natura Morta is coming not far behind. You have been a companion throughout, and your impeccable translations are of course an inspiration and a model.
For a time, I was a regular presence in the slender Q-sections of my local bookstores. It was the first sentence of Ann Quin’s novel Berg that brought me there: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father . . .” I don’t remember where or why I read it, but I remember the ensuing search well. It lasted months. The bindings of those few Qs privileged enough to recur with any regularity—de Quincy, Queneau, Quindlen, Quinn—became familiar figures, an alliterative clique of book-backs attending to the baffling absence of any Ann Quin. I was patient, that alluring first sentence circling in my head till I knew every word, while I struggled to comprehend how a book with such a first sentence, such a seemingly iconic opening, could be so hard to find in New York City.
I was asked to translate “August” by Christa Wolf, a story completed by the prominent East German author just six months before her death in 2011. Her writing is beautiful. The story is short and the commission paid well. It would look extremely good on my CV. But how could I, someone whose reading and translation work focuses on a much younger generation of German-language writers, possibly live up to the task? And how, especially, would I translate a piece when I couldn’t ask any questions of its writer?
I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don’t keep coherent, or sometimes any, records of this. For a little while these dull detours offer some comfort, a place to return to if I become stranded elsewhere, but invariably I find unpursued pages on the floor and I am almost always confirmed in my suspicion that they were unpromising and pointless.
In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011) contains these useful lines: “What has happened in the past fifteen years has forced writers to conceive of language in ways unthinkable just a short time ago. With an unprecedented onslaught of the sheer quantity of language . . . , the writer faces the challenge of exactly how best to respond.” In volume one of his trilogy, Schneiderman edged near to muteness, but in [SIC] he has positioned himself, the work, and us in a new spot. His latest book is filled with words. None of them are his.
Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” To my mind there are three essential English-language poet-critics of the second half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first: William H. Gass, Hugh Kenner, and Guy Davenport, all born within five years of each other during the roaring ’20s. In addition to their other writings, the bounty of their work about key modernist writers, including Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound, constitute some of their most sacred writings. Gass’s essays on Stein are renowned, and Kenner’s The Pound Era, plus six books or significant parts of books on Joyce, are required reading. Kenner and Davenport knew each other well and dedicated books to one another, with Davenport twice contributing drawings to Kenner’s books. Davenport wrote along the same lines, tracing the modernists back to the ancients in his work (he wrote study guides to The Iliad and The Odyssey), including an in-depth explication of Pound’s first thirty cantos.
There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. There are many ways of being new. Indeed, an important part of “being new” has always been the different ways that ushers of new forms have conceived of their offerings as “new.” It may seem that the twentieth century saw an unparalleled explosion of artistic –isms, but it is hard to tell what has actually increased, the number of new forms or our appetite for cataloging them.
After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books nevertheless shares many of the characteristics and preoccupations of The Kindly Ones. War, ethics, unrequited love, the at times unbearable burden of corporeality: these are Littell’s themes, and he brings to them a poise—at once cool and oneiric—that places him squarely in the tradition of Camus and Blanchot, but is at the same time fully—to coin a term—“Littellian.”
Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Middleton’s work as “stately,” a quality more often associated with Milton than any contemporary poet.
The Mehlis Report, which follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon’s capital, where his memories of the city’s past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation’s civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when people and places seem to disappear; he writes about being perched on the edge of calamity; he writes about what is no longer noticed because it is passed by so often; he writes about how time—geologic and historic—imposes itself on a city; and he writes about how bewildering it is to make sense of a world saturated by news. This is not an exhaustive list of what seem to be his preoccupations. Suffice it to say that anyone interested in the possibilities of the novel to engage the overlapping realities and discourses of contemporary life will find The Mehlis Report an astonishing read, since in tracking one man’s relationship to Beirut, Jaber tracks all of us as we try to orient ourselves in a violent and transitory world whose beauty has power over us.
The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating texts in relation to the visual, spatial, and technological possibilities of her medium—composing in response to the confines of her writing world rather than despite it.
A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from his childhood in Poland during World War II to his current life as an aging caretaker of cabins by a lake. During it all, the narrator responds to questions from the listener, but we never hear this strange man’s voice, only the responses. Each question becomes a starting point for another story.
Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks from mine, I was making the rounds collecting books for a literary fundraiser with a colleague. Unlike everyone else just dumping books on us, she had very carefully selected a few items of value that she thought might sell. Mavis hunched over, alone, already in her early-80s, made tea for us, and somehow we got on to the subject of the nightmare moments of book signings. Mavis started, “I was signing books, and a woman came with a worn copy of her own. She said, ‘After seeing your picture on the book, I can’t tell you how disappointed I am.’”
The Judge is a famously elusive literary figure, but if there’s one aspect of his character that seems to unite his critics it’s the common claim that he’s a blood-lusting psychopath. Traversing a desiccated post-war borderland, Judge Holden scalps Indians for cash and cracks the heads of infants as if they were melons. He concocts an explosive daub from his own urine and with it sets ablaze a charging horde of Delawares, taking cool pleasure in the murderous bent of his ingenuity. He rapes. Beheads. Incinerates. Disembowels. He does it all as if these actions were perfectly reasonable responses to the ebb and flow of a daily reality gone just a tad off plumb.
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