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Interview with Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis takes a wry approach to her own biography. In 2011, she began assembling a false one, ‘Goodbye Louise, or Who I Am’, composed of the misnomers, inaccurate affiliations and bizarre descriptions attributed to her over the course of her career. Born in 1947 in Northampton, Massachusetts, her family background has fabulation built into it: both her parents, Hope Hale Davis and Robert Gorham Davis, were respected authors, who taught writing at a range of American institutions. As a student at Barnard College in the late 1960s, Davis took courses in writing and worked in the traditional short story form, some years later developing the oblique, haiku-like vignettes which would upend editors’ and readers’ expectations of the short-story genre and, over subsequent decades, win her prizes and acclaim, from the Chevalier and Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres to the Man Booker International Prize.

 

While Davis is best known for the telegraphic, crystalline stories that make up collections such as Can’t and Won’t (2014) and Varieties of Disturbance (2007), to label her an ascetic minimalist is to underserve the breadth of her work, which encompasses translations from French, Dutch, nineteenth-century British English, German and Norwegian; a novel (1995’s The End of the Story); and, more recently, two volumes of essays (the second of which is forthcoming in 2021). The first instalment is a seductive mix of generous writing-advice manifestos, patient odes to favourite authors (Lucia Berlin; Jane Bowles) and lucid excursions into visual arts criticism, while Essays Two zeroes in on Davis’s devotion to the discipline of learning and translating languages, and the academic scuffles that can postscript putting one’s own stamp on sanctified world classics (a typical fit of indignation over her translation of Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann as The Way by Swann’s comes to mind).

 

Davis lived for a period in the 1970s in France, and is deeply invested in the legacy of world and European letters; nonetheless, in 2019 she took the decision no longer to fly, wanting to acknowledge – to an individually consequential degree – the accelerating climate emergency. Amid technical suggestions for improving syntax and expression, in Essays One she paraphrases a bon mot of Stendhal’s – ‘Work on your character’ – as guidance for would-be authors; a sense of good writing as inseparable from fiercely delineated personal principles imprints all her work. In March 2020, it felt fitting that I had to cancel plans to meet Davis at her home in upstate New York. Reverting by necessity to email, over a tense, largely indoors autumn, the medium occasioned a reflection on how Davis alchemises the banal documents of bureaucratic life – thank-you letters, lists, complaint slips – and forages from them newly expansive narrative forms.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— At what age did you know that you wanted to become a writer? Have you been surprised by the trajectory of your career, the turns that it has taken?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— Oh, I knew quite early that I was headed toward being a writer, probably by age twelve. I remember it as an inevitability, more than an exciting new direction. I was actually more devoted to music at that point – classical, mainly. Playing the piano, taking theory classes, following performances with the score in front of me. As for translating, a few years ago I wouldn’t have guessed that that was on my radar as a teen, but then I opened an old diary and there it was: ‘Maybe I’ll be a translator someday’, or words to that effect.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your translation work started (I believe) in French and recently extended to Norwegian. I wonder how you first developed this sensitivity towards languages? And does being a translator yourself affect how you engage with the growing number of translators of your own writing?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— It actually started with German, in a classroom in Austria when I was seven, learning to get along with my studies in a language utterly strange to me, at first, and in the years after that, the interest never left me. Certainly, being a translator – most recently from Dutch, actually – makes me aware, when I read a work in translation, that not all the praise, or blame, for the writing should go to the author. Sometimes a translator makes the prose more difficult, but, on the other hand, sometimes he or she improves it.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your short story from 2000,‘Thyroid Diary’, was published as a single unit in November 2020. The title makes me think immediately of all the ‘Pandemic Journals’ that were being published online at the first peak of our current crisis. I wondered what you thought of this phenomenon, given that so many of your stories and essays re-work and play with the diary form?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— I think I was asked, early on, if I wanted to write about the pandemic. But it feels too close to home to write about yet. My email exchanges tend to be full of what amounts to ‘pandemic diary’ entries: my friends and I tell each other how we’re doing, how we cope with shopping and socialising, and so on. But in fact life has not changed for me as drastically as it has for some, since it is normal for me to stay home much of the time, work here, go out only now and then. I don’t tend to read the pandemic journals, even those shared (more informally) by my classmates from high school. The crisis is already so much with us, dominating the news, that I don’t want to be overwhelmed by it.

 

And to give a longer view: in the spring one year ago, in 2019, before the pandemic arrived, I had already decided not to fly any more, and to make other drastic changes in my life, to stop buying anything new for a while at least, for example, because of the coming crisis that will in fact be far more serious than this one – the havoc that will be caused by climate change. A number of our habits need altering or abandoning, I think, including excessive travel, excessive consumption, and so on: the idea that just because we can afford to, it is perfectly all right for us to buy a face cream manufactured halfway around the world and flown here. I read this morning an email from a friend paraphrasing something Arundhati Roy said or wrote to the effect that we can view the pandemic as a portal through which we can go either dragging the carcasses of our avarice and poisoned rivers along with us, or leaving all that behind and carrying very little.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Does the idea of ‘carrying very little’ apply to the writing of your very short stories, in the sense of wanting to invent out of reduced, smaller means? And how do impulses towards greater economy transfer over to the essay genre? Carrying less, to me, suggests lightness and a kind of unburdening, and I wonder whether you believe there can be richness in thrift.

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— There is certainly a desire in me to invent out of reduced, smaller means. It was during my work on the Proust translation, in which I was construing the French and writing in English very long, comprehensive, structurally complex sentences by Proust, that I set myself the challenge to write the very shortest pieces I could, yet ones that would still carry some weight of meaning, have some substance. There is something I find explosively powerful in the meaning contained in a single word, then in two words put together, and then in three, and so on. But then, on the other hand, I am also attracted to the very long, digressive, breathless form, the monologue that tries to embrace every permutation of an idea, such sentences and works as those by Thomas Bernhard or W. G. Sebald. This impulse results occasionally in stories like my ‘Letter to the Foundation’, whose narrator goes on at nearly tedious length. In fact, I allowed some actual tedium, because this narrator was clearly unsure of herself, groping for the right expression, correcting herself.

 

Also working against the impulse toward great economy, or at least great brevity, is a different driving force in me, which I’ve learned lately to call the ‘completist’ tendency in my character, both as a writer and in other areas of my life – acquiring every previous translation of Madame Bovary, or every edition of the children’s book Bob, Son of Battle. In a piece of writing, this completist impulse becomes a desire to include every detail, to leave nothing out, nothing unexplored. I think, on the whole, it is not a bad impulse. In a piece of fiction, it can work quite well. But one would have to be careful of going too far with it in a piece of non-fiction. I don’t think any of my essays suffer from fanatical completism. But there is one in that second collection, on my project, or adventure, of learning Norwegian on my own, from scratch, without a dictionary, simply by reading an admittedly repetitious book, that does cover a great deal of territory in quite some detail – how I learned words, what mistakes I made, how I began constructing a grammar, etc., with plenty of examples. This essay, which was about seventy pages when published in a magazine, I believe, was cut a bit for publication. Without an editor’s intervention, I probably would have included absolutely everything I learned.

 

Other essays in both collections are reasonable lengths. In them I enjoy being entertaining or amusing, enjoy ample use of short, quick sections. So all this is to say I do not deliberately attempt to be brief, or to work from a goal of brevity, but actually let the subject matter dictate the form, as I do with my stories. (And I should be careful to qualify the word ‘economical’, since even an essay or story that is lengthy and repetitious maybe economical if it is not saying more than it needs to. Proust made a great point of saying that his sentences were economical, long though they were.)

 

To answer the very last part of your question, yes, there can be freedom and expansiveness in thrift, because in saying so little, one allows the reader the freedom to enlarge upon what one has said. I have heard regularly from readers that that is exactly what happens with my shortest stories: the brief suggestion or statement expands in the reader’s mind through memory, and association – it blossoms out.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— To go back to the environmental crisis, have the changes you’ve made to your lifestyle found parallel expression in your writing? Is art a useful channel for activism, do you think? In your story ‘What I Feel’, from Almost No Memory (1997), you write, ‘It is curious how you can believe an idea is absolutely true and correct and yet not believe it deeply enough to act on it.’ Has the failure to act soon enough in regards to climate change been down to a lack of deep conviction, or denial?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— To start with the latter part of your question, I think it’s very hard for people to believe in this crisis when they see everything looking normal around them. (Things still look fairly normal where I live – not, of course, in parts of California, or the Gulf Coast, etc.) Then, by the time things look truly frightening, it’s too late. There is also the problem of the influence of the group that you’re part of. If everyone around you denies climate change, it’s easier to do the same. I’ve only recently woken up to the power of the community’s beliefs on the individual. I had faith that an individual could make good decisions. I still believe that’s true, but it’s much harder if your family and friends are not making good decisions. It’s hard to make truly independent decisions, to think things out for yourself. As for whether art is a useful channel for environmental activism, I think it must be combined with very visible, imaginative public actions. For example, through street theatre, or something like the silent marches of the mothers and grandmothers in Argentina during the Dirty War. We don’t do enough of that. But there is a place for writing and visual art, too, of course. And whether or not it is useful, people still want to create it, to express their own feelings if for no other reason.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Would you say that obsession is a driving force within your work? I’m thinking specifically about your novel The End of the Story, which is often described as an obsessive reconstruction of a love affair in the narrator’s recent past (though the obsessiveness applies, it seems, not only to the object of desire but to the act of composition, too). How did you come to write that book? Was it something you envisaged from the outset as a novel?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— I want to say first that obsession can also be described as a very intense and close focus on an object, and that this close focus can be very productive. Then I would say that obsession is more of a driving force in some of my pieces than others. Maybe more in the longer pieces than the very short, which either could happen or did not have to happen – I snatch them out of the air the way certain fish snatch flying bugs… But The End of the Story certainly is obsessive and also completist – I did want to record every possible permutation of feeling and event in that story. I consciously felt that there was nothing that could not be made interesting if it was explored thoroughly enough. To answer your question, I did not see it as a novel at first, but simply as a story. I was not particularly interested in writing a novel per se. But almost from the beginning, I could see that it was quite a long story, and then I realised that it could not be told without taking up the full length of a novel. The strange thing, though, was that I was restless and discontented with simply telling the love story. I felt that it lacked interest, or that I lacked interest in it. And so at the same time, I began a second novel, a ‘secret’ novel, or unofficial novel, which I called Novel II. This was the story of trying to write Novel I. I was far more interested in that story than in the love story. At last it dawned on me that I could combine them, merge them, into one novel, go back and forth between the love story – or the story of love betrayed or love lost – and the story of trying to tell that story, and I would be fully engaged. Then, of course, it became complicated, because of the problem of proportions and pacing.
I had to be aware of how long I was staying in the love story, and when to change pace and go over into the story about writing the novel. Tricky, very tricky. I did make a diagram, finally, with the two stories as lines extending for different lengths in different colours, so I could see the proportions concretely and adjust them. And then there was the problem of making good, reasonable, natural transitions from one to the other…

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— In The End of the Story you write ‘I did not see myself particularly as a woman. I did not feel that I had any particular gender. But in a restaurant one day, where I sat with my foot in its sandal up on the edge of a chair, a stranger came over to talk to me and went back to his seat and then later, on his way out, passed me and leaned down to touch my bare toes. In my surprise, I was forced out of one way of being and into another.’ You then go on to write, ‘When I returned to the first way of being, I was not quite the same.’ I was struck by the verb ‘forced’, and I wonder if writing, and writing fiction specifically, can be a means of avoiding the violence of fixed identity categories?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— I do think that writing fiction, specifically, allows one – like an actor – to slip in and out of different roles or personae. One of its great advantages and joys should be its utter freedom. Especially early on in my writing, I would sometimes write in the voice of a male narrator. Sometimes male, sometimes female, but usually female. Yet that female was not exactly myself – rather, an aspect or caricature of myself. Now, looking forward, one of the stories I have in mind to write, and have begun, will be told in the first person by a cat, or, more complicatedly, by a woman writing as the cat transmits its thoughts to her, as the cat trusts her to articulate his ideas the way he would, if he could. It is hard to get the tone just right. How would an intelligent cat speak?

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Alfred Ollivant’s 1898 story Bob, Son of Battle, written largely in Cumbrian dialect which you translated into modern-day English in 2014, has been described as ‘the greatest dog story ever written’. Could you talk about the role of animals across your work? Your 2011 chapbook The Cows, for example, a thirty-page novella in which an unnamed narrator tenderly observes the daily motions and digressions of three cows through a household window?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— Animals, clearly, are important to me – they are these unknowable other creatures, creatures that have some resemblances to us but that we don’t fully understand, though we try in misguided ways to control them and exploit them, laugh at them, portray them in degrading or cute ways. And when I say animals, I mean also insects, arachnids, and so on. I have respect for them all, I consider them different but not of a lower order than humans. They are highly competent at what they do. As you might guess, I don’t kill them, I don’t eat them. I blow the ants out of the way when they cross the counter. The Cows chapbook came about because I lived across the road from three cows in a field who were pets, more or less, of the men who owned them and cared for them. They lived there for quite a while, then eventually were sold or given to a farm some distance away to join a herd. When they lived across the field, I found myself looking out of the window at them quite regularly, and I began to write down observations about them. The observations accumulated over time – over two or three years – until I had so many that I decided to put them together in a sequence and combine them with photos that I had taken of them, and photos taken by my brother and my son. In all this, I never regarded them as cute, or particularly amusing – I simply took great pleasure in the way they looked, there in the field, at different times of the year, all the different ways they looked that were all interesting, and what they did. I miss them. I think we humans are very fortunate to have the gift of being surrounded by animals of all kinds, with the chance to study them and admire them. I only wish we treated them better.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your answer suggests a concern over how to advance an ethics of care without resorting, at the same time, to sentimentality. I wonder how you go about avoiding sentimentalism with regards to your authorial persona, the ‘I’ that features in your works, and the handling of sometimes autobiographical material? And I’d also like to ask whether your restlessness in ‘simply telling the love story’, in your novel, had any gendered dimension to it. Was being more interested in the telling of the story, rather than the details of its plot (a pattern I see working too in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, or Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion), a conscious means of evolving beyond the romance genre, and the wider culture’s tendency to belittle women who write about love betrayed, or love lost?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— Well, before answering these questions, I should explain that I don’t take a conscious, deliberate, articulated ideological or artistic position in advance of writing something, whether a story about an animal or my novel about love lost. I certainly have strong ideological and artistic positions and I do develop them constantly (especially now) and articulate them, either privately in my own head or out loud in company with another person. But then, as I develop these positions, they are internalised, quite deeply internalised, I think. When I am moved to write something – either a relatively short and immediate story about an ant, say, or the novel, which required more planning and re-thinking – the voice, the tone, the attitude of the narrator and the form are mostly instinctive or spontaneous, rather than designed to produce this or that effect. Whatever attitude shows up, toward an animal or insect, toward woman, toward man, it comes from deeper inside me, from those internalised positions, rather than being consciously designed for a certain goal or purpose.

 

You may be right that my restlessness with ‘simply telling the love story’ was an impatience with being confined within a certain genre, though the solution – the two story lines, the novel within a novel – was not consciously any reaction to culture’s tendency to belittle women who write about love betrayed. That did not consciously worry me, though maybe unconsciously it did, who knows? It was more a matter of the boredom of being confined within the plot of the romance; I was much more interested in how one tells a story, how one constructs a novel. So that’s what I found more exciting to write about. After all, I had never attempted a novel before – this was my first adventure into that much larger territory, and I certainly did not find it easy. Maybe, too – this is just occurring to me – the larger story, the frame story, of the woman writing the novel provided more opportunity than the love story to stray into some humorous moments, since I did find her/ my organisational methods rather amusing. And another appealing aspect of the frame story for me – and this is something that is also just occurring to me now – is its diary-like nature. The frame story continuously records the progress of the novel, and in this resembles a diary. Since I’ve always kept a diary, journal, notebook, and especially found it useful for recording my difficulties with a piece of writing, in between noting down overheard conversation or interesting etymologies or family problems, this form has just come naturally.

 

I should add that Duras’s The Lover was one of my models for the novel. And I looked at War as much as I looked at The Lover. It was the form that interested me, the apparent intention to ‘tell the truth’, to tell things as they happened, and the groping after the truth, after the details of the truth. I can’t remember if I had read Ernaux at that point. Certainly she was not a model. I admired very much her books – one each – about her mother and her father; I was very taken by the straightforward way she presented their lives, and the details of the lives they lived in France at that time. Another model for my novel was Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, though I didn’t know at the time that it had a great deal of autobiographical material in it, about her break-up with Robert Lowell.

 

Lastly, to circle back to the beginning of your first question, how I avoid sentimentalism when I write with the ‘I’ persona in a story. I think it is that I am not writing wholly from my actual ‘I’ when I adopt that persona. It shares aspects of me, but as soon as I begin to write with the intention of writing a constructed story rather than a personal letter, for instance, I move back from that persona, I separate her from myself, she becomes something quite other than me. I regard her objectively.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— While Sleepless Nights strikes me as more consciously oblique and ornamental on the level of its prose, I see a similar intensity to The End of the Story, which balances its humour with an almost plaintive, keening composition: an approach to writing fiction almost like music. Could you speak about rhythm, sound and cadence in your work?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— What I remember about Sleepless Nights is the fragmentary nature of the form, and that’s what I admired and what seems to me true to life. We think in fragments, we remember in fragments, our thoughts are rarely coherent for very long, rarely sequential for very long, often interrupted, either by another thought or by an outside intervention. I should add that one more influence and model for The End of the Story was, very much so, one of the novels of Thomas Bernhard. I can’t remember which one, now – it could have been Concrete. In this case, it was his ranting, his completely obsessive focus on one thing, that interested me. Formally, his novels are the opposite of fragmented, so what drew me to them was not the form but the helplessly obsessed mind of the narrator.

 

As for your question about rhythm, cadence, sound – as previously mentioned, I had many years of training as a musician, in piano, violin, and choral music. So I have a long history of listening closely and intensely to intonation, rhythm, tone, and so on. A music teacher makes you try to produce a certain sound and doesn’t generally let you give up until you at least get closer to what he or she is asking you for. So you learn to keep trying until you begin to get it, and your ear is trained, especially if this goes on for years. When I’m writing, I hear every word and I hear the rhythms of the sentences, of the phrasing. I don’t read my own work aloud to myself, because that would in fact interfere with what I’m hearing in my head. I’m acutely aware of the sound of what I’m writing, not that it always has to be graceful or lyrical – sometimes it’s more interesting when it jars a bit.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Another link between Ernaux, Duras and Hardwick is a desire to make use of various kinds of correspondence in writing, or to play with the genre of the letter, and forms of direct address. Is the epistolary genre a productive template for you?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— Before I answer, I want to add one more book to our list of those by Ernaux, Duras and Hardwick, though I didn’t read it back when I was working on my novel, in the 1990s, because it was published only a couple of years ago. It is a novel (very autobiographical) by Linn Ullmann called Unquiet. In this book, too, the narrator searches for the truth, for the remembered truth, through fragments of scenes, dialogue, scraps of images. In this case, the truth, the remembered past, has to do with the family the narrator was born into – Ullmann herself is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann – as well as the family she created. This novel impressed me very much for the brilliant detail and care of the writing, as it mirrors the way we actually think and remember, with an approach similar to those of the other books you and I have been talking about.

 

I do use the second person singular in some stories, though that is more a generalised ‘you’, similar to the French on, ‘one’, rather than a personal ‘you’ actually directed to someone specific. I also use the epistolary form in several stories, in fact one whole category of story, which is the letter of complaint. I have four or five of them, some included in the story collection Can’t and Won’t and some that will go into the next collection. Those started out as actual letters to, usually, companies selling something like frozen peas or peppermints, one to a funeral parlour. But the letters struck me as so absurd – full of righteous indignation – that I reworked them a little as stories. (Though I did send actual letters, too – still full of righteous indignation.)

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your story ‘Letter to the Foundation’, which you mentioned above, contains some excruciating observations on prize culture, the academy, teaching and institutional ambivalence. How does a writer negotiate that infrastructure across a career?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— ‘Letter to the Foundation’ is not a letter of complaint but a long, meandering letter, full of hesitation and self-doubt, to an award-granting entity. It, too, started as an actual letter – the obligatory letter often required of an awardee/grantee who must explain how she has spent her grant, what work she has been doing to justify it. I found the issues involved – money itself, how one spends it, time, mortality, merit, and, as you say, the teaching profession – so interesting that I allowed the letter to expand as it liked and become a work of fiction rather than a letter I could have sent.

 

In that story, I suppose there is some resemblance to Bernhard’s monologues, but in fact my narrator is much less sure of herself than Bernhard’s characters, who are so highly opinionated. A book by him that I find absolutely delightful, since you mention prize culture, is called, in fact, My Prizes. It cuts through all the false humility that may be involved in receiving an award, and blasts the committees and municipalities that are honouring him. Not that I would take that lack of gratitude as a model, but it’s funny and refreshing. He was often accompanied, when he went to accept a prize, by his patient, gentle aunt, whose presence sounds a note of grace in the midst of his ferocious scorn.

 

In answer to the last part of your question, about the writer and the academic infrastructure, I’ll just say that a writer has to find a way to earn a living. For me, for many years, that was by teaching and translating, but I found teaching difficult because I am not particularly comfortable getting up in front of a class of students. Many writers are introverts, or at least prefer solitude. I’m not sure I fit exactly into that group, but the combination of stage fright in the classroom and problems with organising the class period and the course itself made it difficult for me. (On the positive side, I should say, I liked interacting with the students themselves and also enjoyed rather spontaneously devising unusual writing assignments.) I’m not sorry to be retired.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The Linn Ullmann novel is a text that draws attention to itself as an artificial object. In your essay on fragmentary text forms in Roland Barthes and Stéphane Mallarmé, amongst others, you make a comparison between Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and his Bouvard and Pécuchet to distinguish between two kinds of reading. Immersed in Madame Bovary, you say that ‘I lose sight of the text as artifice, the text becomes invisible, and I also lose sight of myself.’ Then, applicable to Bouvard and Pécuchet but also to other works, you say, ‘The other way I read is the way I read when I read a work in which the text remains visible and present to me, an object of interest by its language and/or form; and in these cases I remain present to myself as well (i.e. conscious of my own thoughts).’ In these times of lurid distraction, I wonder which mode is currently more possible, or indeed more present for you?

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— I can see what you mean in your first statement – that because of the very fact that Linn Ullmann’s book seems so naturally autobiographical, we ask of it that question, of what a novel is. And of course a novel is an artificial object, a planned and made object. We have the same question, too, about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Dag Solstad’s long Telemark novel about his ancestors. All three books call themselves novels and we have to ask why – arriving, probably, at three different answers. I must say, also, that in all three books I became deeply immersed, though in different ways, of course. (I’ve just realised – without having planned this – that these three authors are all Norwegian…)

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— This is also a way to ask you what you have been reading for pleasure during these tense months.

A

LYDIA DAVIS

— I always enjoy talking about what I’m reading and what other people are reading. Today, in fact, I’ve just returned from a local bookstore (where I live, that means about half an hour’s drive away) that sells both new and second-hand books. I’ve returned with a pile of seven or eight books, most of which I had previously ordered over the phone, since the shop offers book searches. I certainly have been stocking up on books that are page-turners, the sort that belong to one category you described, but I always have the other sort in progress, too, the sort for which one has to remain alert, present, and thoughtful. In the first category, of page-turners, one of them just finished and one in progress, are two novels by Willa Cather, who moved from her birthplace, Virginia, to a ranch in Nebraska when she was still a child and sets some (or all?) of her fiction in that part of the US. These two are not her famous novels – My Ántonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop, which I read some time ago. They are The Professor’s House and One of Ours. Another recent page-turner – meaning I looked forward to picking it up and became completely absorbed in it – was Sigrid Nunez’s recent novel What Are You Going Through. In my stack of books purchased today is one by Edith Wharton which I already had here at home, it turns out – The Custom of the Country – and two by the Irish writer of the 1930s through 80s, Molly Keane, whose work I’ve never read. I ordered these on the basis of an article in the TLS. I should add, though, about those I’m calling page-turners, that they are all written well or even superbly, which is always part of the pleasure. I should also add that the physical production of the book also makes a difference to me. The Cather books I mentioned first are both solid Knopf hardcovers of the 1920s, with good stout paper and dark print.

 

I read several books at the same time, sometimes reserving one for the morning, another for bedtime, for instance. And there are some books I turn to again only after several months, for another few pages (one of those is the Catalan writer Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook). So, one book still in progress in your other category, that for which I need to remain fully thoughtful, is J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, which I’ve owned for a long time but not felt ready to read before. Now it is my morning book. It is a fantastic exercise in writing, I’m finding. The challenge, for the writer: to write a ca.200-page book in which you describe, over and over, one particular landscape in East Anglia, with its water and woods, lane, sea, and sky, and little else besides flocks of different species of birds and the actions of a pair of falcons? Baker is very skilled at doing just that, and since almost nothing happens in the book that is not a version of something that has happened just pages before, I pay particular attention to the descriptive powers of his writing. Another book, still in progress, for which I remain fully present is Eliot Weinberger’s Angels & Saints, a compendium of choice facts and stories about these two kinds of human/almost human beings, accompanied by lushly coloured ninth-century grid poems.

 

I belong, presently, to a particularly rigorous book club, and a recent book I read for it was Ad Infinitum: a Biography of Latin. That was so packed with information and covered such a large territory, both geographically and in time, that I could read very few pages at one sitting. But since it was my choice, I couldn’t complain. And the very last was the beautiful All That Beauty – mostly long-lined prose poems that work complexly by association and contain a quantity of densely overlapping and often oblique references – by Fred Moten.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— That’s a wonderful list. And it’s interesting to land on ideas of beauty, via Moten. It reminds me of a line from Saidiya Hartman’s book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: ‘Beauty is not a luxury; rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical art of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given.’ Do you hold on to beauty as a value worth cultivating, either in writing or in the subsistence of day-to-day living?
A

LYDIA DAVIS

— The news is so all-absorbing and yet so frightening and unnerving at the same time, one alternates between reading it obsessively and trying to stay well away from it. The ‘device’ becomes a thing of danger. That is part of the reason why I’ve been buying nineteenth- and early twentieth- century fiction in second-hand, comfortably old editions – to get away from the present. I’ve just learned, or re-learned, that AbeBooks is owned by Amazon, which I always avoid. So I buy the books through Biblio, which is, so far, independent. The brown packages arrive and arrive. Happy to see them. Preparing for more enclosure.

 

About beauty – I’ve been passing through different states of mind since the beginning of the pandemic, and I don’t understand much about them. For instance, I ask myself, Am I actually afraid, or panicked, when I don’t seem to be and think I’m not? What about that rapid heartbeat? But not all the states of mind are negative. I did go through one rather nice period, near the beginning, back in the spring, in which I had an intense appreciation of the most everyday things, as though I were going to lose them soon – as perhaps I thought I was. I would delight in things I ordinarily did not think much of, like the glitter on a greetings card, or things I liked but didn’t usually pay such close attention to, like the grain of a wooden banister or the colours in the oil floating on a puddle of water. Time slowed down. It might have been like the experience of certain drugs, though I’m imagining this, since I’ve hardly done drugs at all. Or the way a young child watches things with fascination, like water coming to a boil. Or maybe the way you would look at the world if you learned you didn’t have long to live. This state of mind did not last, but it gave me a glimpse of how I might see beauty in very small, very ordinary things, which was, really, a revelation. I felt I could return to that state of mind, if I wished. I’m sure, with our habits altered by the pandemic, we are all experiencing very different ways of being in the world. Some of our changed ways of being may be permanent, and even good.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

LYDIA DAVIS is the author of one novel and eight story collections. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and was named an Officier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government for her fiction and her translations of modern writers including Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris and Marcel Proust.

ALICE BLACKHURST is a writer, critic and academic and was previously a Junior Research Fellow in French and Visual Culture at King’s College, Cambridge. Her work has been published in n+1, British Vogue, Texte zur Kunst and Another Gaze. An academic monograph, Luxury, Sensation and the Moving Image, was published in Spring 2021.

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