A young lady, a girl of perhaps twenty, is sitting in a chair and reading a book. Or she has just been diligently reading, and now she is reflecting on what she has read. This often happens, that someone who is reading must pause, because all sorts of ideas having to do with the book keenly engage him. The reader is dreaming; perhaps she is comparing the subject matter of the book to her own experiences hitherto; she is thinking about the hero of the book, while she fancies herself almost its heroine.
Read the rest of Robert Walser’s microessay “Portrait of a Lady” (trans. by Lydia Davis) at The Offing. The painting–Portrait of a Lady—is by Karl Walser, Robert’s older brother.
More and more you seem to use found materials in your stories.
Back in the early eighties, I realized that you could write a story that was really just a narration of something that had happened to you, and change it slightly, without having really to fictionalize it. In a way, that’s found material. I think it’s hard to draw the line and say that something isn’t found material. Because if a friend of mine tells me a story or a dream, I guess that’s found material. If I get an e-mail that lends itself to a good story, that’s found material. But then if I notice the cornmeal making little condensations, is that found material? It’s my own, I’m not using text, but I am using a situation that exists. I’m not making it up. I find what happens in reality very interesting and I don’t find a great need to make up things, but I do like retelling stories that are told to me.
The last time I was here you mentioned that you jot things down on scraps of paper. What happens to those scraps?
They pile up in my study. And then I use them. Sometimes when I’m just sort of tidying up, I go through them and type them onto the computer and then either do something with them right away or else I just leave them there for later. When I travel, I carry around a notebook with me. I use notebooks a lot because my brain tends to live in the moment. I’m always afraid of forgetting something.
From the Spring 2015 issue of Paris Review. Lydia Davis’s full interview is now online. She discusses her fiction and translation, recalls taking Grace Paley’s writing class when she was 19, and trying to run away from school after reading Walden.
This is the part of the not-review where I include a picture I took of the book to accompany the not-review:
This is the part of the not-review where I briefly restage Lydia Davis’s publishing history to provide some context for readers new to her work.
This is the part of the not-review where I submit that anyone already familiar with Lydia Davis’s short fiction is likely to already hold an opinion on it that won’t (but could) be changed by Can’t and Won’t.
This is the part of the not-review where I dither pointlessly over whether or not the stories in Can’t and Won’t are actually stories or something other than stories.
This is the part of the not-review where I state that I don’t care if the stories in Can’t and Won’t are actually stories or something other than stories.
This is the part of the not-review where I explain that I have found a certain precise aesthetic pleasure in most of Can’t and Won’t that radiates from the savory contradictory poles of identification and alienation.
This is the part of the not-review where I cite an example of identification with Davis’s narrator-persona-speaker:
This is the part of the not-review where I claim that I used scans of the text to preserve the look and feel of Lydia Davis’s prose on the page.
This is the part of the not-review where I say that some of my favorite moments in Can’t and Won’t are Davis’s expressions of frustrated boredom with literature (or do I mean publishing?), like in the longer piece “Not Interested.”
This is the part of the not-review where I point out that Davis’s speaker-narrator-persona expresses frustration with the act of writing itself:
This is the part of the not-review where I dither pointlessly over distinctions between Davis the author and Davis the persona-speaker-narrator.
This is the part of the not-review where I point out that (previous dithering and frustration-with-writing aside) writing itself is a major concern of Can’t and Won’t:
This is the part of the not-review where I say that many of the stories in Can’t and Won’t are labeled dream, and I often found myself not really caring for these dreams (although I like the one above), but maybe I didn’t really care for the dreams because of their being tagged as dreams. (This is the part of the not-review where I point out that our eyes glaze over when anyone tells us their literal dreams).
This is the part of the not-review where I transition from stories tagged dream to stories tagged story from Flaubert, like this one:
This is the part of the not-review where I say how much I liked the stories from Flaubert stories in Can’t and Won’t.
This is the part of the not-review where I mention Davis’s translation work, but don’t admit that I didn’t make it past the first thirty pages of her Madame Bovary.
This is the part of the not-review where I needlessly reference my review of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis and point out that that collection is not so collected now.
This is the part of the not-review where I pointlessly dither over post-modernism, post-postmodernism, and Davis’s place in contemporary fiction. (This is the part of the not-review where I needlessly cram in the names of other authors, like Kafka and Walser and Bernhard and Markson and Adler and Miller &c.).
This is the part of the not-review where I claim that nothing I’ve written matters because Davis makes me laugh (this is also the part of the not-review where I use the adverb “ultimately,” a favorite crutch):
This is the part of the not-review where I point out that Can’t and Won’t is not for everybody, but I very much enjoyed it.
This is the part of the not-review where I mention that the publisher is FS&G/Picador, and that the book is available in the usual formats.
A rather appealing specimen of early Pynchon is the last story in his collection Slow Learner. The story, “The Secret Integration”—first published in the Saturday Evening Post more than forty years ago (three years after V. appeared)—involves a gang of young practical jokers and a rich childhood setting of an old town with a new development, a sprawling estate with a derelict mansion, and a downtown, complete with seedy hotel. In one deftly described scene, the boys coast on their bikes down a long hill in the early evening toward the hotel, “leaving behind two pages of arithmetic homework and a chapter of science” and, on the TV, “a lousy movie, some romantic comedy.” Because all the televisions in town receive only one channel, the boys, as they fly by, are able to follow the movie’s progress from house to house, through doors and windows “still open for the dark’s first coolness.”
In his introduction to Slow Learner, Pynchon, who somewhat preempts our reactions to the story, remarks that he likes it more than he dislikes it. In fact it is so likable that one envies the boys their comfortable society and the fields, streams, and town of their games. Their collaboration and apportioning of assignments is charming (to develop an arsenal for sabotaging the railroad; to enlist malcontent first-graders to destroy the boys’ latrine; to infiltrate PTA meetings); the elaborateness of their schemes, and the number that succeed, is impressive; and the animation of the central character, Grover the boy genius—with his enormous vocabulary, fund of information, and flights of hilarity—is particularly savory. The pranks the boys plan are potentially devastating to the community, yet, as Pynchon says in a lovely bit of writing, the boys would never actually take “any clear or irreversible step,” because “everybody on the school board, and the railroad, and the PTA and paper mill had to be somebody’s mother or father, whether really or as a member of a category; and there was a point at which the reflex to their covering warmth, protection, effectiveness against bad dreams, bruised heads and simple loneliness took over and made worthwhile anger with them impossible.”
There is a lyrical humanity in this story, an almost unapologetic gentleness, inviting and inclusive, that contrasts with the weightier, complex pessimism and bravura of Pynchon’s later works, in which perhaps it is more difficult for the characters to go home and be comforted at the end of the day.
“The Dreadful Mucamas”
They are very rigid, stubborn women from Bolivia. They resist and sabotage whenever possible.
They came with the apartment. They were bargains because of Adela’s low IQ. She is a scatterbrain.
In the beginning, I said to them: I’m very happy that you can stay, and I am sure that we will get along very well.
This is an example of the problems we are having. It is a typical incident that has just taken place. I needed to cut a piece of thread and could not find my six-inch scissors. I accosted Adela and told her I could not find my scissors. She protested that she had not seen them. I went with her to the kitchen and asked Luisa if she would cut my thread. She asked me why I did not simply bite it off. I said I could not thread my needle if I bit it off. I asked her please to get some scissors and cut it off – now. She told Adela to look for the scissors of la Señora Brodie, and I followed her to the study to see where they were kept. She removed them from a box. At the same time I saw a long, untidy piece of twine attached to the box and asked her why she did not trim off the frayed end while she had the scissors. She shouted that it was impossible. The twine might be needed to tie up the box some time. I admit that I laughed. Then I took the scissors from her and cut it off myself. Adela shrieked. Her mother appeared behind her. I laughed again and now they both shrieked. Then they were quiet. Continue reading “Read “The Dreadful Mucamas” by Lydia Davis”
Almost finished with this bad boy, or as “finished” as one can be with Davis’s stuff, which I tend to linger on, return to. Full review forthcoming.
All of this is basically reading around/between/over Gravity’s Rainbow:
Rereading Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas again. (I reviewed it here on this blog over five goddamn years ago). I want to read 2666 (yet) again, so this is…I don’t know…a staving off against that urge?
Yuri Herrera’s excellent novella Signs Preceding the End of the World also makes me want to read 2666. You should read this book (Signs, but also 2666). I will write a Full Goddamn Review—but excellent. Get it from And Other Stories.
Reading GR interspersed with short (often very short) stories from the collection Africa 39—two hits, a miss, and a shrug so far. More thoughts to come.
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis. Like a palate cleanser. Wait. Not the right term. I mean, like, a sorbet—tasteful, tasty, snappy, bright. There are some longer pieces at the end, I see, that I will not get to for awhile. More to come—but let’s get real, you either like what Davis does or you don’t and your indifference, like all indifference, is uninteresting, but not boring or damning, let alone an indictment of your beautiful character. Chill.
David Winters’s collection Infinite Fictions. Damn him! Not really. This book is great—the book I wish that I had written.
I have tried and failed to write about Jason Schwartz’s first book A German Picturesque four goddamn times now.
I don’t think I will even try to write about Gravity’s Rainbow. (Unless I do try).
Salon has posted a new interview with Lydia Davis. From the interview:
I can’t write incorrectly. I find it very difficult to just relax and have spelling mistakes and grammar mistakes and punctuation – I cannot do that. But I can’t do that even if I write a shopping list, so that’s not surprising. I can’t be casual, so it’s more correct. Sometimes I have fun writing it nicely – doing parallel constructions or, you know – but of course it’s more relaxed than a formal story, but it’s still a piece of writing that has an effect whether it’s a really good friend or a business email so I’m still quite conscious. It’s amazing how you can write something quickly and when I reread it – I always reread my emails – I make mistakes and I’m confusing and you’d think after all this time I could write a quick email that would be absolutely perfect, but I can’t.
The July issue of Asymptote, a journal devoted to literary translation, is chock-full of goodies, including a long interview with David Mitchell, a shorty from László Krasznahorkai translation, and an essay by Fady Joudah with the marvelous title “Dear God, Your Message Was Received in Error.” Here’s the beginning of that essay:
In Borges’ story, “Averroës’ Search,” Averroës interrupts his long day of contemplating the problem that confronts him in Aristotle’s Poetics (how to translate ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ into Arabic) and joins friends for dinner. The Andalusian philosopher seems to be listening (against hope or “without conviction” as Borges put it) for a solution to his problem in something that any of his guests might say. Maybe the answer is “near at hand” or, as in Lydia Davis’ “The Walk,” right “across the street.”
As the conversation meanders through various subjects about writing, God, and art, one of Averroës’ guests brings up the account of the seven sleepers:
“Let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it—the story of the seven sleepers of Ephesus, say.* We see them retire into the cavern, we see them pray and sleep, we see them sleep with their eyes open, we see them grow while they are asleep, we see them awaken after three hundred nine years, we see them hand the merchant an ancient coin, we see them awaken with the dog.”
Borges’ mention of the seven sleepers comforts me, perhaps because I know the story from the Koran. Or perhaps because it serves as yet another cornerstone of what translation work can perform: transforming telling into seeing. Telling a story through seeing is also a gesture at what Averroës could not grasp when he encountered Aristotle’s ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’: theatre.
Lots of great stuff–check it out.