Lydia Davis is the author of four short story collections, as well as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis and the novel The End of the Story. A MacArthur Fellow, she has been a finalist for many major book awards and this September will release her translation of Madame Bovary.
Much of Davis’s fiction, from the miniature one-line stories to the full-length tales, create an unsettling yet familiar world in which people engage in mental acrobatics. They try to figure other people out by studying behavior with a wry, inductive sense. Most often they try to find and fit themselves in a sad and humorous existential quandary of life.
The narrator in “New Year’s Resolution,” who is studying Zen again, resolves to see herself as nothing, but instead realizes that: “halfway through your life, you are smart enough to see that it all amounts to nothing, even success amounts to nothing. But how does a person learn to see herself as nothing when she has already had so much trouble learning to see herself as something in the first place? It’s so confusing. You spend the first half of your life learning that you are something after all, now you have to spend the second half learning to see yourself as nothing. You have been a negative nothing, now you want to be a positive nothing.”
In a recent correspondence we spoke about how she writes, Samuel Beckett, love, and insects.
The Rumpus: Would you describe your beginnings as a writer?
Lydia Davis: It was like the family trade—both my parents were short stories writers at various points, and writing was talked about constantly at home. I was also good at it in school, so I received lots of encouragement. So writing felt like my destiny from about age 12 on.
Rumpus: There are certain words that come up again and again in your work: “anger” and “disturbance,” and to some extent “upset” and “annoyance.” Many times the narrators and characters are walking around with loads of anger. From the story “Story”: “Finally I sit down and write in my notebook that when he calls me either he will then come to me, or he will not and I will be angry, and so I will have either him or my own anger, and this might be all right, since anger is always a great comfort…” I’ve found that in life anger is one of the most common yet hidden emotions. What is it about anger that makes you reference it so? How would you define it? Would you consider it central to your work?
Davis: I would hope that I wouldn’t have to say anger was central to my work—that sounds so sad. I suppose people are more likely to turn to writing when they’re filled with a negative emotion than with a positive one, so the stories might be disproportionately negative—angry, sad, upset, etc. There is simply less of a need to “frame” or “distance” a positive emotion. I read somewhere that anger is always a secondary emotion; i.e. the primary one might be fear, or frustration. I found that very interesting. Now, I look beyond the anger to see what the primary emotion might be.
Rumpus: Do you write from a particular mood? Does a mood present itself on your radar, impelling you to write? Or do you proceed from a neutral state?
Davis: I’m always sparked by something specific—a sentence or an idea or something I hear or see. So the mood depends completely on what that instigating thing is.
Rumpus: I want to ask a series of questions about your novel The End of the Story. The unnamed narrator reconstructs what happened during a failed affair a few years prior. As she analyzes scenes and emotions over and over again from different perspectives, the novel feels like Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape extended to novel length. The conflict she often faces is feeling one way at the time of an event, but later feeling very differently about the same incident. So where are the true feelings? Are there such things as true feelings or is “feeling” like writing, where there is constant revision and reexamination?
Davis: Interesting comparison with the Beckett—which I had read long before writing the novel, I suspect. But you never know where things are buried in the brain. I don’t know where her true feelings are, or whether there is any such thing as a “true feeling.” Truth is elusive, or non-existent. A feeling is what it is, and then it changes. Memory falsifies anyway. One’s memory of the past, including past feelings, is pretty unreliable.
Rumpus: There’s a claustrophobic feeling to this novel caused by the reader being plugged into the unnamed narrator’s mind, becoming subject to her sudden reversals and hairpin emotional turns. Here is an example from the book:
I seem to have written two accounts of one of these phone calls and the days surrounding it. I have just rediscovered the earlier one, and it seems less accurate and more sentimental. For instance, I say that after he told me he was seeing another woman, I was in pain because I still held him in a little corner of my heart. Now the idea of my heart having a corner bothers me, and other things about the sentence bother me, too. I also said I remembered how happy it made me to hear him laugh and see him smile, which was certainly not true. P. 136
What I find fascinating about this novel is that time, as displayed above, is out of sync and it seems the reader is inside another person’s brain—the brain portrayed as both rational and cool. Yet the viewpoint of the other main character, the man, is missing. This funny, rigorously thinking voice must be trusted. What made you write The End of the Story and in this particular way?
Davis: The thinking voice can be trusted temporarily, or provisionally. What about the reader’s relation to the thinking voice of Humbert Humbert, for instance—there’s another strange relationship? The reader, in order to go on, must be willing to inhabit the mind of this narrator, a claustrophobic situation. The novel started out as two: the story of the past relationship, and the story of trying to write the novel. Then I combined them: I felt that the story of the past needed the perspective of the “present.”
Rumpus: This paragraph from the novel has fascinated me:
He wrote things in a notebook, and I wrote things in a notebook. Some of what we wrote was about each other, of course, and now and then we read aloud from our notebooks. The things we had written were often things we would not say to each other, though we would read them aloud. But we were not willing to say anything about them after we had read them either. P.59
There is an absurdist notion working here—a vaudeville of human foibles. There is a great intimacy in sharing writing about each other with each other, but also a disconnectedness in that words can only be written and not voiced. You’ve said before that when reading your stories you were surprised that people laughed. I think of it as recognition of some past pain in them, and also in me, that provokes such laughter, because—cliché as it is—it’s seemingly easier to laugh than cry. What is your own sense of humor like? Is it similar to the one above or do you not regard the excerpt as funny? How do your stories play into these ideas?
Davis: I do see the humor in the quoted passage. My own sense of humor is similar to the sense of humor that produces the humor in some of the stories, but, again, not exactly the same. I’d say there is an overlap. I can find humor in things that I wouldn’t put into a story. Laughter is definitely close to tears—they are both forms of release. I can remember at least twice laughing at something and then beginning to cry over the same thing.
Rumpus: I read your novel as I went through a breakup of my own and I began to feel fortunate at the relatively easy manner in which I dealt with it. But then as I read on, especially toward the end, I began to feel that something was wrong with me, that I should act more obsessively if I wanted to claim to having truly been in love—that as a romantic I should be writing more pleading letters and asking friends to set up surveillance on my once beloved. I had the feeling from your novel that I missed something in my own undoing; that if I’d only gone as deep as this narrator, then I would perhaps have come to more deep-seated realizations. In short, I took on the personality of the narrator to an extent. Is this the aim of literature, to build recognitions and encourage people to reexamine their own actions?
Davis: What you say about your reaction to the novel and the breakup is fascinating, because it adds more layers of complexity to the situation. You could write a short story that contained the novel with its story-within-a-story. As for your question: I don’t think literature has an aim. It happens by accident, clearly, since it is made up of all the accidental compositions of individual writers. What a reader takes away from a book is another matter, and of course entirely personal. It is a response to something that happened by accident, that was born of a certain emotional necessity on the part of the writer. But inhabiting another mind, and all that goes with that, is certainly part of the experience.
Rumpus: Do you think love exists? If it does, why is it so changeable?
Davis: I’d say of course love exists—we have only to consider our child, or our dog, to know that. It’s changeable just because everything is changeable, because we’re alive. In fact, I think it is a very deep instinct in us to welcome change. That’s why sometimes good things are ruined—because some organization thinks it’s important to put its mark on something. A thriving neighborhood is torn down to make way for some urban thing that’s less successful.
Rumpus: You are a professor, and there are many female professor figures in your work. Is it second nature for you to choose to write about these characters? Do you enjoy playing with autobiographical elements, or are the creations more divorced from reality than one would think?
Davis: At a certain point, I realized I could shape events from my own life into narratives, using a protagonist rather like me but not exactly me. I do enjoy using that sort of “found” material—including material from other lives—rather than inventing it. I have certainly mixed in material from friends’ lives and changed things around in whatever way I please; so, although there is plenty of autobiographical material in many of the stories, there is also plenty of material from other sources.
Rumpus: Encounters with insects make up a few of your stories, such as “The Caterpillar” and “Cockroaches in Autumn.” It seems you might have spent some time contemplating them. What draws you to insects?
Davis: Oh, I look at everything around me, and living things are of course more interesting than static or abstract things—or I should say that that depends on one’s mood. In certain moods I’d rather watch what the ants are doing than read a page of Hegel; but in other moods I’d rather read the page of Hegel. That’s just an example—I don’t often read Hegel. Animals, including insects, are mysterious because they do many of the same things we do but are a foreign species with whom communication is not very successful. We long to talk to them—sitting outdoors, we’d like to make a bargain for the evening with the mosquitoes—but we can’t. Some people solve that problem by squashing them, but it’s more interesting and friendly to study them.
Rumpus: I want to talk about “The Old Dictionary.” It begins as a very easy-going, lighthearted piece. A professor type muses about her fragile old dictionary but a quarter of the way through the piece she says, “What struck me today was that even though my son should be more important to me than my old dictionary, I can’t say that each time I deal with my son, my primary concern is not to harm him.” I can imagine the reader’s smile, like my own, quickly turning into a frown. There is something so violent and appalling here; but it’s what we do as human beings. Do the mind’s divagations create more harm than good?
Davis: I don’t think it’s the mind’s divagations that create the harm. In this story, I’m simply detailing as honestly as possible a certain woman’s behavior—laying it out for examination. I was told that in one class where this story was taught, the students—I think they were in high school—became very indignant over this woman’s behavior, momentarily forgetting that it was “fiction” and voicing their outrage. But of course that’s good—if a story leads to a productive discussion of how one should treat the things and people in one’s life.
Rumpus: Many of your stories are very aware of grammar, but most especially “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders.” Why this particular interest? Is this story based on an actual set of letters? Was reveling in the innocence of the children’s writing the impetus for creating the story? Have you had experiences teaching children?
Davis: I can’t help being fascinated by grammar, since it is through the manipulation of grammar that a writer creates meaning, and through the finest manipulation of grammar creates the subtlest nuances of meaning. (Look at Beckett.) That story was based on an actual set of letters that completely charmed me by their innocence, yes, and their manipulation of grammar to express their thoughts. I was moved by the letters, and my response was to create a rather cool sociologist type who would study the letters in minute detail. Maybe she was trying to get closer to the children—in her own way.
Rumpus: Your titles always delight me. There are the mundane yet very explicit titles: “What I Feel,” “How He is Often Right,” “A Few Things Wrong with Me.” There are the puns: “Meat, My Husband,” “Passing Wind.” And there are the set-ups to punch-lines in the micro-fictions: “Samuel Johnson is Indignant,” “Certain Knowledge from Herodotus,” “Collaboration with a Fly.” Are titles something you fuss over or are they relatively easy?
Davis: Most titles come very easily—sometimes they’re obvious, like “The Walk,” which is about a walk. In other cases they start with something obvious like “Helen and Vi” for a story about two women named “Helen and Vi,” but then get more complicated. This title went on to include a subtitle suggested by the sounds of the names and subject of the story: “A Study in Health and Vitality.” Finding a title for my one novel, The End of the Story was very difficult—I must have had about 200 possible choices before I decided on that one.
Rumpus: You’re also an acclaimed translator. Would you describe how you approach translation? What have you found to be the greatest challenges? Do you think your recent translations—Swann’s Way by Proust and the forthcoming Madame Bovary by Flaubert—have affected the way you approach your own writing? Any further thoughts about being in the company of these writers for so long?
Davis: I approach translation in a rather straightforward way: I don’t read the text ahead of time because I want each paragraph to be unfamiliar so that the prose of my translation will be fresh. Then I follow the original very closely, which makes the work both simpler and more difficult—I don’t try to recast a sentence, but I also have the challenge of writing well in English while staying close to the original. I have no idea how translating has affected my own writing over the years, except that I certainly have found material while translating that has led to the creation of works of my own—such as my forthcoming “Stories from Flaubert.” One of the most enjoyable things about translating is having an extended experience of writing in a style that I would never write in otherwise.
Rumpus: “Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho” and “The Walk” are placed back-to-back in Varieties of Disturbance and, in each, past works of literature are excerpted and made to work on the characters. In the former, the woman reads Beckett’s Worstward Ho while riding in a public van as the sun sometimes obstructs her ability to read. The van driver make stops and passengers try but fail to find a working bathroom at these stops. Beckett’s sentences are excerpted as the woman reads them and sometimes repeated in the footnotes. The woman concludes that, “Although she has liked many of the words that came in between, its last words, ‘Said nohow on,’ say as little to her as its first, ‘On. Say on. Be said on.”’ p.71
In ‘The Walk,” a translator and a critic take a walk after attending a conference on translation in a foreign town. Two translations of a section from Proust’s Swann’s Way are excerpted, one attributed to the woman translator in the story and one to the preferred translation of her male colleague, who gets very frustrated at the prospect of getting lost on the walk. The Proust excerpt in some ways mirrors the action around the walk, especially the parallel between the woman guiding them back to where they started and the father in the passage doing the same for his family. In each instance, the wife and the critic express wonder at how they had come to find themselves back where they started. The woman thinks the critic will recognize the similarities, but he does not. The translator gives herself over to the mysteries of the foreign city, while the critic often expresses indignation at their situation.
In each case the passages threaten to overwhelm the narrative, so much so that the former adopts a Beckettian tone and the latter revels in the longer paragraphs and deep descriptions of Proust. These pieces seem like examples of the power of literature to crystallize moments of our lives and imbue them with a resonance that can be at turns mysterious, disturbing and seemingly affectless. What inspired these works? How do you view their intertextuality?
Davis: Yes, they may be examples of that, as you say. I am stimulated or inspired by things I encounter, whether a little insect or a passage of Proust. And these things find their way into my stories. I could say that witnessing the insect is a primary experience, whereas experiencing a passage of Proust is the experience of a text that is already mediating a primary experience—the author’s—so that for me it is at once primary and secondary. It is certainly more complex: there is the pleasure of what Proust describes, and the pleasure of the language in which he describes it.
Rumpus: Beckett has often come up here and in many other interviews. Were you ever under the spell of Beckett? Did certain works mean more to you at different times of your life?
Davis: I wouldn’t say I was “under his spell,” since that implies an uncritical acceptance. Rather, I was studying his style very closely and analytically in order to learn from it. And most of this study occurred when I was in my early and mid-twenties. I began with his earliest prose, the short stories and the novels, and then went on to the shorter and stranger texts.
Rumpus: Are there stories you feel closer to than others? Stories you never tire of reading out loud?
Davis: Yes, and yes—and they are not the same stories, necessarily. Some that I take great pleasure in would be deadly to read aloud—they should be read on the page. The very shortest ones are fun to read aloud, partly because they all work differently.
Rumpus: A few writer friends have expressed how they would prefer to have a mentor rather than go through a creative writing program. How important is a mentor for a writer trying to find their way? Did you have one?
Davis: I would be wary of both the writing workshop and the mentor. Each is useful in small doses, but each can have too great an influence—dangerous. I would suggest working mainly on one’s own, with, as I said, occasional doses of mentorship and/or writing group situations. A friend with the same sensibility who gives useful feedback is also good—or several for different kinds of work.
Author photograph © David Ignaszewski.