Lydia Davis’s Essays: a masterful, lucid collection

What appears the most simple, the work of Lydia Davis tells us, is the most profound.

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“Revising One Sentence” is the title of one of the essays in Lydia Davis’s masterful, lucid collection. No single piece could capture the essence of this extraordinary writer, but a new reader might wish to start here. This is the sentence in question, in its final version: “She walks around the house balancing on the balls of her feet, sometimes whistling and singing, sometimes talking to herself, sometimes stopping dead in a fencing position.” Nothing to see here, you might think. But think again.

The essay, a compact eight pages, distils Davis’s practice as she considers the choices she makes. We learn of the notebook she keeps beside her “official” work, a place for her thoughts about herself and the world to be set down freely. Everything she writes begins in this notebook, a habit that makes her “not afraid”, because there is no pressure, at the outset, to turn her work into a story. (How honest is that “not afraid”! So much truer than “bold” or “brave”.) Then she reveals, step by step, the way in which even the most casual observation can be held up to the light, altered, improved. What appears the most simple, the work of Lydia Davis tells us, is the most profound.

Davis, a star in her native US, remains less well known on these shores than she should be. She is the author of six story collections and one novel; she is the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “genius grant”) and in 2013 was awarded the Man Booker International Prize. She is also a translator of plain-spoken elegance: of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Proust’s Swann’s Way. Her stories can be very short indeed, yet it is an error to call them “flash fiction”, handy as that term is in our age of diminished attention spans. A story such as “The Outing” is a single sentence, and not much more (it would seem) than a list. Yet contained within it is a ticking bomb of narrative energy as well as a questioning of narrative itself.

These essays illuminate Davis’s patterns and choices, though her gaze is not only turned upon her own technique. There are pieces on John Ashbery, Thomas Pynchon and the poet Rae Armantrout; Davis’s introduction to her translation of Flaubert is reprinted here and will make you wish to return to the novel immediately. There are essays on visual artists such as Joseph Cornell (the piece itself a kind of collage) and Joan Mitchell; there is a fascinating investigation of a series of early 20th-century tourist photographs taken in the Netherlands. If that subject doesn’t strike you as immediately engrossing, I repeat: think again.

Throughout this volume, the reader is grateful for Davis’s precision and attention. Any writer or creative practitioner will find the two groups of essays entitled “The Practice of Writing” invaluable. In a discussion of “Found Material, Syntax, Brevity, and the Beauty of Awkward Prose” she covers an enormous amount of ground, considering the sources of some of her work, her own dreams, and the work of other writers – Thomas Bernhard and the French critic Félix Fénéon, in particular. The latter’s work, published in English long after his death as Novels in Three Lines – fragmentary, police-blotter style notices – I did not know at all.

One is never sorry for an introduction made by Lydia Davis: I now have on my desk Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Tufte, writes Davis, “takes the mystery out of eloquence” with her close analysis of written structure. One might say of Davis that she does the same – but the wonder of mystery remains, nonetheless.

Like all of Davis’s work, these rich essays address how we build up a coherent picture of the world. “Meeting Abraham Lincoln” is, on its surface, a recollection of encounters between Davis’s ancestral family and the 16th president. She compares different versions of these handed-down tales and then, at the midpoint of the piece, quietly undercuts them all, and indeed the reliability of any story. In Davis’s work, the firm ground of intellectual endeavour lies in the constant interrogation of that endeavour. Read these essays: see everything around you in a clear, fresh light. 

Essays
Lydia Davis
Hamish Hamilton, 528pp, £20

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 20 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over