LYDIA DAVIS

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A member of the second of the two book clubs to which I belong, who both teaches a writing course at Rutgers and writes herself, wrinkled her nose when I mentioned Lydia Davis as someone we might want to read next. She had at least heard of Davis. The other club members — all well educated women — knew Davis only in the context of her translations from the French.  (We spent last September and October on her English translation of Swann’s Way.)

I didn’t argue the point.  Granted my book club is no litmus test, I was already fairly sure Lydia Davis is not for everyone. However — and although I’m only part way through her chunky The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, (Picador 2009) — I’ve already discovered she is definitely for me.

That’s because she invites the reader into active partnership with her. Which I love, at this point in my reading life.  I love that what she offers in her beautifully off-the-wall and frequently painful pieces — some less than a sentence in length — is both minimal and all I need to know.  I love that I must always stop to think about what’s on the page because she never tells me what to think.  Although for the most part plotless, her pieces are pregnant with story I must supply.  Although seemingly shorn of emotion, the precision of her stripped-down language can reflect subterranean emotion that is overpowering. Or it may raise profound questions to ponder.

In other words, reading Lydia Davis is participatory.  It is work.  Highly pleasurable work, for readers who want actively to engage with a writer. Probably not such fun if you’re looking for beach or bathroom or bedtime reading — light diversion, suspenseful story, hot romance.  Not that there’s anything wrong with such entertainments if they’re good at what they do.  it’s just that a Lydia Davis piece isn’t like that. Nor is she in the tradition of the great nineteenth and early twentieth century novelists and short story writers, who also demand your participation, but in a more familiar way.

Here’s what some other people have said about her work.

“Lydia Davis is one of the few undebatably singular prose stylists alive today.  She has invented a genre entirely unto itself – a form combining the precision and economy of poetry, the wry storytelling of short fiction, and a clear-eyed and surgical inquiry into the nature of existence itself.  I push her books on everyone I know.”  – Dave Eggers, author of What Is the What and Zeitoun

“Be prepared for moments of beauty that are sharp and merciless….We are in a period of literary history when accuracy, clarity and faithfulness seem transgressive.  But that – shorter, faster, more changeable – is only culture.  Davis…answers to a higher god.”  — Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

“Her writing defies generic classification. Some of her fiction could just as easily be called essay or poetry.  Many of her stories are extremely short. Her narrators are often given a drastically narrow scope but an extremely sharp focus. Their observations might be described as dispassionate — sometimes humorously so — and for this reason the considerable emotional component of Davis’s stories is often subtextual.” — Sarah Mancuso, The Believer, Jan. 2008.

“One can read a large portion of Davis’s work, and a grand cumulative achievement comes into view – a body of work probably unique in American writing, in its combination of lucidity, aphoristic brevity, formal originality, sly comedy, metaphorical bleakness, philosophical pressure, and human wisdom.  I suspect that The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis will in time be seen as one of great, strange American literary contributions, distinct and crookedly personal.”  — James Wood, The New Yorker

But judge for yourself.  Here’s a Davis piece that’s not even a complete sentence. (It’s the shortest one in the entire 733-page paperback edition of the Collected Stories.)

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SUDDENLY AFRAID

because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa wam own owamn wom

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That’s all there is on the otherwise blank page.

It fills me with terror.

How do you feel about this next piece?  It’s “only” a sentence, without a period (but one which could have been said of me in my late twenties and led to cataclysmic changes in my own life).

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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 not to have a child, or not to have had a child

***********************

What story lies behind this unusual observation?  What story will it lead to? Who is “she”? How old is “she”? Is “she” married? Is “she” already pregnant?  If so, does the father want a child? If not, what must “she” do about her realization? Are double negatives really the same as positives?  Do they lead to the same results?  The answers to all those questions are up to you.

Now consider this one — and the language in which it is written. And then consider how you feel about what it says and how you feel about what the language in which it is written says:

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HOW IT IS DONE

There is a description in a child’s science book of the act of love that makes it all quite clear and helps when one begins to forget. It starts with affection between a man and a woman. The blood goes to their genitals as they kiss and caress each other, this swelling creates a desire in these parts to be touched further, the man’s penis becomes larger and quite stiff and the woman’s vagina moist and slippery.  The penis can now be pushed into the woman’s vagina and the parts move “comfortably and pleasantly” together until the man and woman reach orgasm, “not necessarily at the same time.”  The article ends, however, with a cautionary emendation of the opening statement about affection: nowadays many people make love, it says, who do not love each other, or even have an affection for each other, and whether or not this is a good thing we do not yet know.

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I also like the following piece very much, probably because I don’t think it is only about fellowships, although it is that, too.  I might even cynically suggest that it could be seen as a commentary on much else that many, or most, of us will ever experience.

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THE FELLOWSHIP

I.

It is not that you are not qualified to receive the fellowship, it is that each year your application is not good enough.  When at last your application is perfect, then you will receive the fellowship.

II.

 It is not that you are not qualified to receive the fellowship, it is that your patience must be tested first.  Each year, you are patient, but not patient enough. When you have truly learned what it is to be patient, so much so that you forget all about the fellowship, then you will receive the fellowship.

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Finally, just one more.  Because it breaks my heart.

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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.

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There are longer pieces in the book.  Some look like proper stories (although they aren’t).  But if these five fail to do it for you, the others probably won’t either.

Don’t say I didn’t try.

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4 thoughts on “LYDIA DAVIS

  1. annie

    I have to agree that this is not light summer reading. It really is thought – provoking. I have never read this author and I thank you for the introduction to her. One of my sisters would really eat this up. She absolutely loves this kind of interactive reading. I’ll have to share…..

    Like

    • That’s what’s great about the internet. One can find out many new things of which one might never have heard. Not everything is for everyone. Why should it be? But I’m glad you think your sister might enjoy a dip into Davis. Thank you for the comment. It’s encouraging. 🙂

      Like

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