Lydia Davis is a rare talent. A writer whose work is challenging, stimulating, innovative, and, taken at face value, short. Very short – some stories in her collections span no more than two lines. Literature, though, (thankfully) is not judged on word counts, and the depth achieved so compactly by Davis is, no doubt, envied by more than a few of her ‘weightier’ colleagues. She is the author of several collections of short stories including Break It Down, Almost No Memory, and the novel The End of the Story (which was described by The London Review of Books as “near perfect”). She has received various literary awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Lannan Literary Prize, and the prestigious Chevalier of the order of Arts and Letters from the French Government. She has also produced critically acclaimed translations of works by French authors Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, and most recently Marcel Proust (Swann’s Way)
Her latest collection of short stories, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, published by McSweeney’s Press, investigates concerns ranging from Christianity, failing health, and ethics, through to jury duty, boring friends, and marriage. Three Monkeys Online had the pleasure of posing some questions (via email) to Ms Davis.
Length is, at best, a crude way to categorise writing, but it seems to be an inevitable starting place to discuss your stories, so many of which are – contrary to convention – startlingly short. Reading the story Samuel Johnson is indignant, it struck me that, while contained in one sentence, it was wonderfully large – presenting characters (a narrator & Johnson), questions of perspective, and mystery. Reading the same story, a friend snorted, “that’s not a story, it’s a statement”. Can a statement be a short story? Does the act of defining whether a piece of writing is a short story, poem, essay or novel lie with the author or the reader?
It is always hard to know how to label a piece of writing that doesn’t obviously fall into one of the accepted genres. For a start, I’d differentiate between ‘short story’ and ‘story’ – though these labels don’t necessarily make sense, but simply are what one has grown accustomed to. I grew up with the ‘short story’ and practioners of it, and to me it still means the fully developed conventional narrative short story à la Chekhov or Flannery O’Connor, Maupassant or Alice Munro, complete with dialogue, characters, setting, and so on. Leave off the ‘short’ – strangely, since we’re talking about really short stories now – and for me the word ‘story’ by itself can include more eccentric forms. I suppose it’s a matter of keeping the word and redefining it. In other words, I did start out by writing conventional, narrative short stories, and then the form of the story began changing while I still had a story in mind as I wrote. As the form became more radically different, I considered other terms for what I was doing, but none of them fit. Texts? Doesn’t that sound dull? Prose poems? Too lyrical and lacking in dynamism. Those terms did not describe my intentions or the spirit of the work. So I went on calling them stories. I think the writer’s intention counts for something here, but I also think a reader can argue with a term. And perhaps the shortest pieces in the book, including Samuel Johnson is Indignant, feel like stories to some readers and not to others, and perhaps they would not feel like stories to anyone if they weren’t surrounded by longer pieces that obviously are stories in the more conventional sense, in a book described as a collection of stories. I want the shorter ones to be rather explosive in the sense that they grow larger in the reader’s mind, as you seem to imply that that one did in yours.
Alberto Mobilio, writing in the New York Times, made the following comments on your work: “Indeed, with her deadpan delivery and shaggy-dog profundities, Davis might be thought of as an erudite stand-up comedian, one who works philosophers’ conferences instead of nightclubs”. Like Beckett, much of your fiction stikes an uneasy note between humour and the tragic – one isn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Were you surprised by reactions like Mobilio’s, or is the comic touch purely intentional?
At my first public reading, I was surprised when people laughed. I was not intending to be humorous, I suppose. In fact, it’s hard to try to be funny. But I was adopting certain personae, writing from the viewpoint of characters who had difficulty functioning in the world, and often what they did and said was funny just because it reflected a funny reality. A recent example: I’ve been writing letters of complaint (as ‘stories’). So here is a very earnest letter of complaint written by a woman who is seriously disturbed by the graphic design of a package of frozen peas. There are good reasons for her to be seriously disturbed, having to do with organic foods and bad agricultural practices, etc., and she is very specific about her reasons, but her complaint and the form of it are, unbeknownst to her, humorous. Humor has been so central to my life and my own functioning for so long, now, that it’s hard to imagine that I didn’t know the stories were funny early on. Now I know, but again, I don’t write in order to be funny – and of course not all the stories are funny; the writing is simply a reflection of my own outlook on life, which includes a lot of humor as well as the appropriate dose of tragedy. (The mix of the two, I suppose, would come from the fact that they are mixed in life, all the time.)
Let’s go back to the title story of your latest collection, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, which is a one-sentence statement by Boswell – “Samuel Johnson is indignant that Scotland has so few trees”. By choosing to highlight the phrase apart, you have created a story. As you didn’t write the actual sentence, what was the thinking behind using it – how did you make it your own, so to speak?
A difficult question! There are much longer pieces, as well, in which I have used writings by other people that I saw had great potential if they were rearranged and given a different context. One was Lord Royston’s Tour in a previous collection, Almost No Memory, for which I used extracts from letters which the early 19th century Classics scholar Lord Royston wrote home when he was traveling around the world. (His tour ended in shipwreck and drowning, so his tour was ultimately toward his own death.) Another was Extracts from a Life in a still earlier collection, Break It Down, which used extracts from a book by Shinichi Suzuki which one is required to read if one’s child is studying the Suzuki method. These writings had one value, the original one, in their original form, but another life if extracted and rearranged, as I say. Boswell’s intentions in writing that sentence were very different from mine. His context made the sentence less surprising, for example. In the form it takes in my book, the sentence is not entirely mine, but no longer entirely his, either, it seems to me. Or perhaps the story itself is mine, while the sentence is still his.
In a recent interview with Three Monkey
s Online, author Chuck Palahniuk said: “I subscribe to the theory of Derrida, that fiction is a sort of software that runs in the reader’s mind to produce an emotional result. This way, the story is a very calculated formula that must use every means possible to ‘land’ or occur to best effect. This includes complete control of the ‘pace’ or delivery of the material”. More than any other author I can think of, you leave large amounts of space open for interpretation to the reader. Stories like Jury Duty for example demand an imaginative effort on the part of the reader just to be read to the finish. How concerned are you about conveying a specific meaning/tone in your stories?
Funny – you mention Jury Duty and it so happens that I’m on jury duty again this week, after what must be six or seven years. I do not start a story with a specific meaning or tone in mind, and often the story is finished without my considering any specific meaning or tone. Only if I am having trouble with it do I have to stop and consider, What is going wrong here? Why does this seem a little ‘off’? Or perhaps I don’t consider the meaning until well after the story is finished, whereas the tone is something I might more consciously fiddle with in the last stages of writing the story, but again, that is usually if the tone seems to be off. In the case of Jury Duty, the experience itself surprised and fascinated me, so of course I wanted to write about it. What form to use? I don’t stop and ask myself that question – usually the form ‘pops up’ into my mind – it just naturally comes forward to fit the story. In this case the form was provided by David Foster Wallace’s Brief Lives of Hideous Men: a Q. and A. with the questions left blank. I had not liked his story – it was rather hideous – but the form was a good one for this, since jury selection involves so many questions, and there is also the suggestion, in the story, that the narrator is being uncomfortably ‘grilled’ by the questioner, at times. I also had some fun with it – the silent questioner clearly did not recognize the name Sojourner Truth – but there was also an implication of family problems never explained by the narrator. There I suppose I would be very conscious of just how much of that to let into the story – a little at the beginning and no more. I seem to work toward the demands of the story itself, not toward some effect for the benefit of the reader. I do not calculate much, if at all, in advance, but when a story is more or less finished I will keep reading it over, to see what effect each part has on me.
You’ve translated works by French authors such as Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, and most recently Proust – though you speak a number of languages. Is there something that attracts you specifically to French literature, or is it a question of being most at ease translating from French to English?
It started out as a purely pragmatic decision – I had had most of my training in French, and happened to go to France to live after college, and needed to earn a living. Besides that, I seemed to be very comfortable working with other languages, translating them or just trying to pick them up. So it was natural to translate French literature for a living (though not a very remunerative one!). The Proust translation a few years back was a sort of acme or apex of more than thirty years of translation, so now I’m more or less quitting French translation as a profession and dabbling for fun in other languages – I’ve done translations, so far, from Spanish and Swedish (and 18th-century English). I would say, to answer your question more directly, that I have been drawn to individual French authors, such as the ones you mention, and to the act of translation itself, rather than to French literature as a whole, which is so vast.
Has translation work, or the relationship forged with foreign languages and grammar, had much affect on your work? Both Joyce and Beckett broke the rules in terms of accepted narrative structure, punctuation and grammar, while living abroad. Obiously their innovations were not solely forged by the process of living through another language, but it no doubt played a part.
I suppose the fact of living day in day out with another language, another grammar, another sensibility, and also having to write English within the close constraints of another author’s choices have combined to make me hyper-conscious of what can be done with English prose, all the many ways of saying a thing and the effect of each of those many ways. And it’s true that I first departed from the traditional narrative short-story form while I was living in France. It may be that living surrounded by a foreign language is very healthy for your appreciation of your native language because it is not overused in your surroundings, it is fresher to your ear and eye. But it was an American author, Russell Edson, whose strange little stories (which he seems to call, as I wouldn’t, poems) showed me that it was possible to write in any form one pleased.
The Egyptian author, Alaa Al Aswany, despite having written the best-selling Arabic language novel The Yacoubian Building, continues to work as a dentist, albeit sparingly. His motives were initially financial, but it quickly became a choice as it facilitates his mode of writing, keeping him in contact with ‘real life’. You’ve balanced work, raising a family, and writing. Given the choice, would you have liked to have dedicated yourself entirely to writing – having a no-conditions patron, with childcare included? Do you think you would, thus far, have produced more lengthy fiction, as opposed to a large amount of short fiction?
Another interesting question. In fact, at present I am not working and my younger child is almost out of the house – and I’m writing longer things, much longer! Maybe too long. But it’s hard to tell what effect different influences have. I have always done some longer stories, such as Lord Royston, and then there is the novel, which I wrote when I had two children at home – and when I also had to use a Kaypro, a very early computer on which you could put no more than ten pages of text on a disk, so that I had to keep recopying from disk to disk (as if the novel itself weren’t confusing enough already). I did feel that when I had my first child my work became more focused because I had less time in which to daydream or agonize about what I might write. So that sort of constraint was good. But it’s also true that if you have works of very large scope in mind (Benjamin’s The Arcades Project), you simply can’t do them if your time is too fragmented. I think you can give full attention to two of the three you mention – work and writing, family and work, family and writing – but not all three at once.
For Joyce, his short stories collection Dubliners was a collection of “epiphanies”, with an epiphany being the sudden “revelation of the whatness of a thing”, when an artist could find a sudden spiritual manifestation either in “the vulgarity of speech or of a gesture or in a memorable ph
ase of the mind itself”. It seems to me to be a more than apt description of much of your work, where you focus in precisely on forms of speech, situations, or indeed a phase of the mind, producing a moment of revelation.
Yes, I suppose that would be a result of my way of working: very simply, if something that occurs to me or that I witness ‘strikes’ me (e.g. this person I know so well is actually completely different this morning from what he was last night), I write it down, and if there is more to say about it, a way to develop it (this person I know is actually four or five different people and I treat them differently) then I develop it, in the form that makes sense for it (one concise paragraph since that’s all I have to say about it). So it has been a matter of things outside me or in my mind striking me, not me going out to look for them. Some of these things that strike me inevitably involve language (in a hotel room: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly”) because language is so much a part of my life, and an odd little twist of language can convey so much in such a small space.
In a great interview with Bomb magazine, you talk about the mechanics of fixing a story that isn’t working, and your slight unease with this – “I added another layer, and that other dimension or perspective automatically made the stories richer and more interesting. But is that cheating or not? […] Either I should have had that intention from the very beginning, it should have been part and parcel of the whole conception; or the story should have been strong enough to stand on its own, anyway.” Are there stories that come easily, that require precious little crafting – and if so, do you hold these in higher esteem than those you may have had to graft at?
Yes, there are definitely stories that come out quickly all at once and need very little revising. (I always go over and over them, of course, to make sure a repetition is good and not excessive, punctuation just right, etc., but they come out 90 percent finished.) Then there are others that are flabby, something’s missing, the beginning is tight and good but then the story goes astray and peters out. Some of these are still in the drawer, though I won’t abandon them as long as there is something interesting or good about them. The stories that have to be patched and mended and reworked are not as comfortable to work on, of course. (One fairly short one, The House Behind was in one version very loquacious with a large cast of characters, because I had been reading Hawthorne before returning to work on it.) But some of them are fine in the end. Some of those difficult stories, the longer and earlier ones, felt like ‘learning stories’ – I probably got better at writing as I kept changing them. And yes, I was probably a little tired of them by the time I was done, as a reader would not be tired of them, not having had to struggle with them. There weren’t very many like that. Some of the very short ones in the latest book needed some fiddling even though they were sometimes only a title and a single sentence – but then the shorter they are, the more each word and its placement count. I don’t hold these in lower esteem, though, no – once I get the story just right I’m delighted by it.
Finally, you’ve mentioned in a number of interviews a long-term ambition to write a novel in the form of a French grammar. Can we be intrusive and ask how it’s going? What kind of challenges face you when approaching an ambitious project like this?
Thanks, it’s going well, though slowly, since I write other things at the same time. For instance, lately I seem to be trying out a sort of mock-sociology or -documentary form, something that may be 7/8ths non-fiction, in which the narrative is really hard to make out, such as an analysis of the get-well letters of a (real) class of 4th-graders (aged 9 and 10) or a study of the health and vitality of two (real) old ladies. The hard part, with a large project, is to keep it all to myself for so long – years, really!
Samuel Johnson Is Indignant by Lydia Davis is published by McSweeneys