Bottles of infused vodka were upturned last night at Russian Samovar for the return of the FSG Reading Series. With Lydia Davis and David Means slated to read, the bar on the second floor was papered with poets, writers and confederates of the publishing industry. Everyone was jammed at the front swilling vodka or scrambling for seats that were going fast. The crowd was told to spread out so the weight was “more evenly distributed” to prevent a “second floor catastrophe.” I sipped pear-infused vodka from my seat by the stairs.
I had never been to Russian Samovar, which has long been a watering hole for literary lushes and their devotees. Looking around at the low-lit lamps and silver samovars lined along tables and high ledges, I wondered which writers had plied their muses with endless ponies of colorless liquor and how far they had gotten. And how often. No one seemed particularly pie-eyed, though it was early and focus still had to be trained for an hour on our two readers. An introduction was given by a man who said former FSG editor and Paris Review editor Lorin Stein could not be there to give the introduction because he was “busy blogging.” (He was referring to The Paris Review’s new blog The Paris Review Daily). The man laughed.
Several years ago, around the time Lydia Davis won a MacArthur Fellowship, I had taken a workshop with her in Albany. She was still a Writer-in-Residence at the University at Albany. Twice a week I drove four hours from New York City to the campus with its Soviet-bloc style buildings and standard-issue gray sky. I don’t remember many specific details from the workshop except that the English Department felt old the way few programs feel old, with long glass tables of black-and-white pictures of women in long dresses. The room we took workshop in was carpeted and fitted with heavy wood tables that were gathered in the center to form a square around which we sat. It was the kind of room that you imagined a workshop being held in a hundred years ago.
About fifteen writers were in the class. All were from the area. There were two male science fiction writers who sat next to each other—one with a long pony-tail, one woman who had a method of writing where she wrote while falling asleep with the aim, I think, of accessing subconscious material from her partial sleep-state. There was a man in a wheel chair, and there was Shane Jones, the writer to whom I was closest in age and who I reconnected with years later on the internet (his book, Light Boxes, was just reprinted by Penguin). Both of her parents, Lydia Davis told us, had been published in The New Yorker. I can’t remember what their professions were, but the point Lydia Davis was trying to make, I think, was that her parents had an appreciation for literature and supported her. Because neither of my parents had been published in the New Yorker, I felt the sudden and acute sensation that can be described, in short, as the-cards-stacked-against-me. Still, I drove four hours there and four hours back twice weekly.
Lydia Davis was warm and soft-spoken. She often brought books to class of authors who had inspired her like Samuel Beckett and Russell Edson. She talked about how she would write out Beckett’s sentences and study their structure, their peculiar syntax. She urged us to focus like that on the sentences of writers we admired. She asked us each to bring in a copy of a story we liked and each day, one of us would present his or her story and read from it. On my day, I brought in the story “Michigan Death Trip,” from David Means’s collection The Secret Goldfish. The story is a series of vignettes about ways people die in the Midwest. The class discussed guy wires and snowmobile beheadings, kids on speed hitting each other with fluorescent lights, gun-shot adjustments, kids on codeine and wine, kids combining Valium with other substances, stoned kids, stoned kids dying in vans falling into iced lakes and regular car accidents. I think it was the man with the pony tail who said these deaths were nothing unusual and explained from knowledge the extreme boredom that exists in the Midwest from November to March. About “Highway,” Shane Jones said he liked the line “an abundance of fruit and blood and sparks spread out across the dark road.” We all agreed that was a good line.
Walking back to our respective cars that night in the enormous outdoor university parking lot, Shane Jones said the man in the wheelchair really did not like his story, seemed to vehemently hate the story. He thanked me for defending his story in class.* We talked about the spaceships and martians of another other story that was workshopped that day.
At the next visit Lydia Davis brought in David Means’s story “The Secret Goldfish” and called attention to the way the narrative is given in part from the point of view of Fish, a misunderstood goldfish. She talked about Franz Kafka, the cockroach of Metamorphosis, the story as told from the point of view of the cockroach and about Franz Kafka’s low self-esteem.
Last night, David Means read first, from “The Blade“—a story from his great new collection The Spot. Lydia Davis, however, did not read from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Rather, she read a selection of unpublished writing—”all short things and all new things.” The first stories were based on dreams and waking experiences (that are dream-like), of hers and of her friends. She read one called “The Sentence and the Young Man” about a sentence in a trash can and a guy who walks by and sees it. Next was a two-part piece, “At the Bank,” and “At the Bank II.”
After the dream stories, Lydia Davis read stories that were based on letters that Gustave Flaubert wrote to his lover Louise Colet. She called the pieces “collaborations” but said it was mostly Gustave Flaubert’s material and that she “took liberties” with it. Of those, I liked most “Visit to the Dentist” about a man who passes a guillotine the day after an execution has occurred and sees fresh blood. She also read pieces that were mostly one sentence long, the writing of which, she stated, may have been a reaction to reading Marcel Proust’s long sentences. She wrote the stories while translating Swann’s Way.
She also read from a compilation of writing she calls “Alternative Biographies,” or the ways she’s been “described by mistake.” While each heading had following it a very long list, here are a few excerpts: My Name included “Clydia,” “Lydia B. Davies” and “Heather”; What I Am included “Postal patron,” “A party of one” and “Half of George’s one o’clock”; What I Have Written included “Samuel Davis is Indignant” and “Samuel Johnson is Indigent”; and Events I’ve Been Invited to included “A small party for insiders.”
After the reading many people went downstairs. Some left and others kept drinking. Sitting at a small table was Sara Marcus, whose book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution is in galleys. I looked at a menu to see if I felt hungry and Sara Marcus tried to remember the name of a food that started with a “k” and sounded something like kishkas but was not kishkas. Marco Roth of n+1 talked to someone by the bar. And Lorin Stein showed up in jacket and slacks. When I walked out it was still light. A long line of people had formed beside the floor-to-ceiling windows of a club in front of which two bouncers looked out from behind red ropes.
* Shane still talks about how the man in the wheelchair hated his story.
Picture: Photograph from ACTIVATE, a German Magazine.