The Lydia Davis Symposium, Spring 2014
The Collected Stories by Lydia Davis, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2008.
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.
Davis has long been recognized as one of the best, and oddest, contemporary writers in English. The short stories that make up the bulk of her work are, like the title Break It Down itself, transparent descriptions of something mysterious. Estelle Tang has compared reading Davis to looking through a microscope with the magnification set too high: “it’s a marvellously clear view, but what are we seeing?” The analogy serves Davis well: her stories arrive like so many perfectly preserved plant cells, suspended in water and flattened on glass, taken from some unknown or unimaginable tree. In an interview, Davis described her stories as “isolated events in a context of mystery.” The interactions between context and detail, isolation and connection, are what she consistently handles with such originality.
In the title story of Break It Down, even these simple words surprise. They turn out to be not a command but a mantra, the reminder of a grieving man to himself as he tries to make sense of his grief. He is trying to calculate the cost per hour of his former relationship, or rather exactly how much he has lost by investing in love and losing. Six hundred dollars, he calculates, maybe, or a thousand, and you “come out with an old shirt.”
Davis frequently writes of equations that do not work out, equations that cannot be balanced because their terms are incommensurable. It is one of the structuring principles of her work, and, we could easily argue, of our experience as human beings. As the hero of “Break It Down” tries to figure out whether, in the end, he paid $100 an hour for his love affair or $3, he dwells more and more on his sensual memories, of architecture and the weather and his lover’s sleepy-eyed midnight face. So although a relationship can be broken down into a flight, a hotel, a ticket, a touch on the shoulder, “her blue eyes,” and “this sharp heavy pain,” six hundred or a thousand dollars can never come out to equal an old shirt because heartbreak is material for a different kind of reckoning than mathematical. Heartbreak is irreducible, the raw force immune to analysis.
The Collected Stories amount to over seven hundred pages, but few individual stories take up more than two or three, and many are even shorter. They cover an impressive range of subject matter: scattered among the numerous pieces that deal with relationships in contemporary settings, there are stories about seafaring, music, literary figures attempting to fulfill everyday duties (W.H. Auden falling asleep, Kafka cooking dinner), murder, grammar, and insects. Every story is an experiment, and most of them succeed. They benefit from being read consecutively and become more robust in one another’s company, revealing fundamental patterns that might have been obscured had we read any one story alone.
Davis’ most immediately striking quality is her meticulousness, which might easily veer into obsession. She would overwhelm us with her exactness were it not also for her brilliant sense of humor. Despite the brevity of these fictions, they have a way of building slowly toward either comedy or disaster (and quite often, comedic disaster). In one of her strangest but most memorable stories, Davis takes the point of view of a scientist, cataloguing the elements of an event even as her (or his) objectivity starts to break down, and a far more suggestive, subjective narrative moves in from the shadows.
The story is called “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders.” Presented as an anthropological study, it dissects, in great detail, twenty-seven letters written “by a class of fourth-graders to their classmate Stephen, when he was in the hospital recovering from a serious case of osteomyelitis.” The study is exhaustingly thorough: beginning with some general notes on the origin of the letter-writing assignment and the history of the school, it launches into discussions of the size and type of paper used for the letters, the salutations and closings, the general frequency of spelling mistakes, and “overall coherence.” The bulk of the study is devoted to an analysis of style, attempting to evaluate the children’s sense of place and time, capacity to empathize, and understanding of major events (such as Christmas). “Two of the children achieve moments of stylistic eloquence,” observes the narrator:
One, Susan A., creates a vivid concrete image that is enhanced by her use of alliteration and forceful rhythm: “some trees were bent and broken.” The other, Sally, opens with a powerful specific image—”Your seat is empty”—and then reinforces it with parallel structure: “Your stocking is not finished.”
“We Miss You” is one of the longer pieces in the book, and as it persists, its premise grows increasingly absurd. Yet Davis sustains it, never deviating from her supposedly scientific mission, while slowly adding characteristic touches of laughter and menace. As an example of the former: when one student writes that her cats have been sledding and skiing with her, the narrator comments, “This may be one of the few instances, among the letters, of objectively interesting information,” but grows bored again when the child adds that her cats also sleep with her. Toward the end of the story, however, as the narrator begins to emphasize the dangers in these children’s world—the possibility of disease and hospitals, thin ice over the river, an accident on a sled—the winter that had been present all along suddenly assumes a darker and more ominous nature. Where before we had read about their questionable grammar and cheery non-sequiturs with a simple amused bafflement, now we begin to genuinely worry about these children. Davis reminds us that their fears are fully warranted, and thereby encourages a fearful solidarity with the little letter-writers.
This movement from small to big—from isolated event to mystery, from event to emotional space—is a typical one in Davis’ work. Like all good storytellers, she works to control the scale of the reader’s experience: she makes the world shrink and expand. Usually expansion comes afterward, after everything has been broken down so far that the breaking down itself has started to break down, and something new and greater than expected can emerge.
Davis often starts with a limited space—a scientific study, for example, or a body. In “Examples of Confusion,” a quieter, more introspective story, the narrator (nameless as almost all of Davis’ narrators are) writes that she is reading “a sentence by a certain poet” as she eats a carrot. Then,
although I know I have read it, although I know my eyes have passed along it and I have heard the words in my ears, I am sure I haven’t really read it. I may mean understood it. But I may mean consumed it: I haven’t consumed it because I was already eating the carrot. The carrot was a line, too.
First, everything becomes smaller and more specific: “my eyes have passed along it” and “I have heard the words in my ears” are both components of something, and this something might be “reading.” But “reading” is possibly not accurate; perhaps it would be better to say “understanding” or—even better—“consuming.” Davis takes her time, slowly feeling the space around her for the shape of the right word. When she finds it, the world grows bigger again: “consuming” is the best choice because it can include not only the sentence but also the carrot. The body is a finite space; there is only so much that can fit into it, either a carrot or a line of poetry is enough to fill it. Language, however, is either an infinite space or a larger finite space, and so within it, there is room for a confusion between poetry and carrots. Loosed from their usual constraints, the things themselves evolve. Poetry becomes edible, a carrot legible.
Elsewhere, too, confusion equates to transformation. In the dizzying piece “To Reiterate,” the narrator quotes Michel Butor’s statement that “to travel is to write, because to travel is to read.” Therefore: “To write is to travel, to write is to read, to read is to write, and to read is to travel.” When George Steiner enters the conversation, introducing translation as the fourth term (“to translate is also to read, and to translate is to write”), the narrator—carefully and exactingly—lays out all of the equivalences implied therein, until the page is a seemingly unending infinite loop of reading, writing, translating, and traveling. The logic, however, is impeccable; the effect, perplexing and hilarious.
This loop, mischievous though not unsound, must be a familiar one to Davis. The same reader and writer who crafts these stories has also translated Proust, Flaubert, and Butor himself, where her methods are no less painstaking. There, too, Davis breaks it down: in essays and introductions, she has chronicled her obsession with commas in Flaubert, or with obscure but very precise whaling terms in Proust. As a translator, though, she knows that equivalences in the space of language are only illusions.
The danger of assuming otherwise propels one of her very early stories, called “French Lesson I: Le Meurtre.” In it, a didactic narrator gradually replaces English words with French ones in a description of farm life. Word by word, English is forced to retreat as its sentences fill up with French vocabulary. The language of instruction breaks down, but so does the idea of one-to-one equivalence: the narrator repeatedly warns the reader against assuming that farm and la ferme bear the same meaning. La maison does not mean house, the narrator cautions, but rather that combination of pictures and feelings conjured up by the concept of house in the French imagination: “Certainly the so-called meaning of a French word, as I tried to suggest earlier, is not its English equivalent but whatever it refers to in French life. These are modern or contemporary ideas about language, but they are generally accepted.”
With no more concern for debate than that, Davis continues on to the end of the lesson and a list of recommended additional vocabulary. To understand the end of the story, the reader must first enter the completely foreign space of these nouns, then shuffle back and forth between the words and their translations to wonder what equivalences do in fact exist, and whether the denouement is a comic or a tragic one. Do l’aile, la hachette, and le meurtre really mean wing, hatchet, and murder, and do these words really correspond to events?
Davis has applied her sensitivity to nuance in her work as a translator, which has in turn influenced her own writing. In interviews, she has mentioned that while translating the long, lyrical sentences of Swann’s Way, her own stories grew ever shorter and more experimental, as if in rebellion. Davis likely benefitted from this movement. Most of the stories in 2007’s Varieties of Disturbance (the last volume included in The Collected Stories) must have been written during or shortly after the years of translating Proust, and there is hardly an imperfect story among them. The power of Davis’ style is in its simplicity, the weight of its solid Anglo-Saxon verbs, the absence of any adjectives but the most plain and necessary: “hot,” “dark,” “empty.” At its best, her prose knocks the wind out of us, even when it describes chaos, as in the remarkable story “Head, Heart.” That story, in its entirety, reads:
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.
But occasionally Proust exerts another influence in Davis’ work. In the wonderful story “The Walk,” the translator-narrator, who, like Davis herself, has just completed a translation of Swann’s Way, strolls through Oxford with an acquaintance, a critic who remains loyal to C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s version. She pokes gentle fun at this critic and his manners of speech, particularly his enthusiastic deployment of adverbs—“Certain things, according to him, were flagrantly obvious, or embarrassingly inaccurate, or patently ridiculous”—and even succeeds in making them sound ridiculous, out of place as they are amid her own stark prose. Nevertheless, there is a softness to “The Walk,” a willingness to dwell on the changing light or the movement of the weather that, while not quite Proustian, is far from her sometime pretense to objectivity.
The heroine of “The Walk,” this narrating writer, reader, translator, and traveller, Lydia Davis or her alter ego, is our constant companion through The Collected Stories. Many stories deal with isolated events from her life, whose context we can only glean from a few key recurring images: a husband, a baby (a boy), domestic loneliness, rice casseroles, books by Beckett. Nevertheless the mystery remains, the forces that hold this life and its words together obscured by the too-high magnification of the microscope. Though each story works beautifully, the reader can never be sure where it fits in the grand scheme (if there is a grand scheme), nor whether this particular story comes close to the heart of things or not.
Davis herself, it seems, lives the mystery with us, and as always, tries to analyze it. The protagonist of “The Center of the Story” is compelled to write about a hurricane, or perhaps religion, or perhaps a man who thought he was dying but was not really dying. Her story has no center, and she wants to figure out where the center should be and/or what should go inside it. “Perhaps if she takes out things that are not interesting, or do not belong in the story for other reasons,” she thinks, “this will give it more of a center, since as soon as there is less in a story, more of it must be in the center.” Again, though, her mathematical reasoning runs up against a wall: none of the terms in this equation is subordinate to any other. Everything is irreducible: the hurricane is necessary, though it never arrives, and the dying man is necessary, though he never dies, and the Bible is necessary, though the writer is not a believer. Moreover, none of the terms in the equation are equivalent to each other, so that we cannot say that the hurricane is a symbol for the man or vice versa, and we cannot replace the Bible with the hurricane. What, then, if anything, is in the center?
Surprising and correct as ever, Davis answers: “there is a center but the center is empty, either because she has not yet found what belongs there or because it is meant to be empty: there, but empty . . .” The empty center is, then, not within any story at all, but the point around which all stories orbit. As she strips her texts of more and more, she brings them closer to the center, so that when there is nothing in a story, everything will be in the center. The center will be made of nothing, but a positive nothing. The desire to be a positive nothings is not unique in Davis’ work; one character even makes it her New Year’s resolution. It is difficult work: “I’m pretty close to nothing all morning,” she reports, “but by late afternoon what is in me that is something starts throwing its weight around.” For Lydia Davis, the weight of being here away from the center proves, as always, both frustrating and fascinating. But since her writing itself is part of that late-afternoon something, we readers treasure it, and carry its weight gladly.
Madeleine LaRue is Social Media Manager of Music & Literature. Her criticism has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, and Asymptote. She lives in Berlin.
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