An Interview with Lydia Davis

Appealing qualities of Samuel Beckett’s fiction:
The plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary
The intelligence
The challenge to the reader’s intelligence
The humor that undercuts what might have been a heavy message
The self-consciousness about language
by Sarah Manguso
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Lydia Davis

Appealing qualities of Samuel Beckett’s fiction:
The plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary
The intelligence
The challenge to the reader’s intelligence
The humor that undercuts what might have been a heavy message
The self-consciousness about language
by Sarah Manguso
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Lydia Davis

Sarah Manguso
18 Snaps

Lydia Davis was born in 1947 to a fiction writer and a book critic. In first grade she learned to read English. In second grade (in Austria) she learned to read German. Her books include a novel, The End of the Story (1995), four full-length story collections—Varieties of Disturbance (2007), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2002), Almost No Memory (1997), and Break It Down (1986)—and several small-press and limited-edition volumes.

Her writing defies generic classification. Some of her fiction could just as easily be called essay or poetry. Many of her stories are extremely short. Her narrators are often given a drastically narrow scope but an extremely sharp focus. Their observations might be described as dispassionate—sometimes humorously so—and for this reason the considerable emotional component of Davis’s stories is often subtextual.

Davis works as a translator of French literature and philosophy, and is well known for her translation of Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, which earned her wide critical acclaim. Her other translations include books by Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Jean Jouve, and Michel Leiris.

She has won many of the major American writing awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship for fiction, and was named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. She was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. On hiatus from teaching at SUNY Albany, Davis lives and works in upstate New York.

This interview was conducted via email.

—Sarah Manguso


THE BELIEVER: What are your working days like now that you’re on leave from teaching?

LYDIA DAVIS: My working days are divided between my own work and my current translation, which is a new version of Madame Bovary for Penguin.

BLVR: Besides the fact that you probably do more of it now, does your own work seem to have changed—qualitatively, that is—since the MacArthur Fellowship?

LD: It has changed, but then it is always changing. It seems to me that I’ve become increasingly interested in working with other people’s texts—say, combining a translation with my own commentary, or combining my commentary with two or more other texts—and also with working on more extended pieces. But then recently I’ve been writing very short things of my own invention. So I never quite know what is around the corner.

BLVR: You’ve said Beckett was a deep influence from the beginning of your career as a reader.

LD: I came to Beckett very early on and was startled by his pared-down style. As I practiced writing (in my early twenties), I actively studied his way of putting sentences together. I copied out favorite sentences of his. What I liked was the plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; the intelligence; the challenge to my intelligence; the humor that undercut what might have been a heavy message; and the self-consciousness about language.

BLVR: One of my graduate-school teachers carried around Beckett’s essay on Proust like a talisman. Are Proust and Beckett linked for you?

LD: I came to Proust relatively late; or rather, I did read two thirds of Swann’s Way in French about thirty years ago, but did not study him the way I studied Beckett. I think part of the pleasure I took recently in translating Proust was the pleasure of writing in a style that was not my own, and never would have been, but that was wonderful to try out.

BLVR: Does there seem to be some master plan linking Proust and Beckett to your own work?

LD: It seems to me that few writers have an overarching master plan or project—or at least, not one that begins when they are first beginning to write. I think that in any case I come to each stage of my writing by degrees. Perhaps a pattern can be detected after the fact, but as it proceeds, one’s development, though logical or inevitable in one sense, is in another sense chaotic.


BLVR: I agree with your distinction between short story and story—that the word story, minus the short, can include more eccentric forms. I read that you’d choose to call Russell Edson’s prose poems (which he originally called “fables”) “stories.”

LD: I was simply reacting against Edson’s designation of his pieces as “poems,” which I have seen on the covers of his collections (more often than “prose poems” or “fables”). I might call them “fables,” except that this term usually implies a moral or precept, and I think his pieces are wonderfully free of morals. They are stories, for me, because they are full of narrative. The weight of emphasis in them is on the narrative, I think, not on the language. When the emphasis shifts onto the language, then maybe they enter the realm of poem.

BLVR: Do you find “story” to be a potentially larger category than “poem”?

LD: Yes, I suppose I do find the category “story” to be more elastic. But of course part of the problem is that we have only a limited number of familiar categories and into one or another of these we try to fit the work of writers such as Edson, Kafka, Peter Altenberg, Robert Walser, Jim Heynen, Henri Michaux, Léon-Paul Fargue, Peter Cherches, Francis Ponge, Geoff Bouvier, Martha Ronk, Phyllis Koestenbaum, Diane Williams.…

BLVR: Flash fiction, sudden fiction, short shorts, very shorts, prose poems, proems—do you think the solution to sorting the chaos is to create more categories?

LD: Where a need is felt for another category, I think it will be created and accepted, although that may take time. There is some acceptance of the terms flash fiction, sudden fiction, etc. But I think people may still be expecting a kind of miniature short story when they begin reading a piece of flash fiction, rather than the less usual offering that it might be—meditation, logic game, extended wordplay, diatribe—for which there is no good general name. Robert Walser was described by one critic (rather diminishingly, I think) as a “feuilletonist.” He sometimes referred to his work simply as “short prose pieces.”

BLVR: Lazy critics declare some of your stories not to be stories because they don’t resemble the stories they’ve seen in some magazine or other. I’m always looking for a positive definition of a story. How do you know a story’s a story?

LD: It’s a hard thing to define, but to be simple about it, I would say a story has to have a bit of narrative, if only “she says,” and then enough of a creation of a different time and place to transport the reader. But, of course, it is not a narrative poem. It is flatter, rhythmically different from a poem, and less elliptical.

BLVR: How is it rhythmically different? And by “elliptical,” do you mean “economical” or “deliberately obscure”?

LD: If I consider only poems with line breaks, then there’s an obvious rhythmical difference—the suspension at the end of each line, as opposed to the pause at the end of the sentence. But beyond that, I see each word or phrase in a true poem as being explosive, in a sense—it should open out or blossom in the reader’s mind. Whereas each word or phrase in a piece of prose does not contain compressed or condensed material in the same way. By elliptical, I don’t mean merely economical or deliberately obscure. Certainly a good poem should be economical (though not any more economical than a good piece of prose—Proust said his prose was economical, and I agree), but it may also actually leave out material that the reader may supply either explicitly or subliminally. (I say “may” because each poem operates by such different rules.) I don’t believe a good poet is very often deliberately obscure. A poet writes in a way necessary to him or her; the reader may then find the poem difficult.

Christopher Middleton writes: “The rhythm of a poem is a structure of variable tempos which realize its sounds as the radicles of meaning.” (I’m quoting him at one remove, but the plural realize seems to me correct.) This is a mouthful, but interesting to think about.


BLVR: Is it better to use the word prosaic because it’s the literal translation of prosaique, or to use the word dull because it occupies the same context in contemporary English as prosaique did in Proust’s French? You chose the former, [C. K.] Scott-Moncrieff chose the latter.

LD: I can’t re-create now what led to my choice of prosaic—but as I was translating Swann’s Way I did of course check and double-check every tricky choice to make sure the translation came as close as I could make it to conveying in English in these times what Proust conveyed in French in those times. In your example, I think I liked the closeness in sound of prosaic to the French: it has the same three syllables and the pr opening. It is historically, and rhythmically, entirely different from dull—which is a wonderful word in itself, of course, and one I would be much more likely to use in my own writing than prosaic.

BLVR: In similar situations, would you always choose the cognate?

LD: Whenever I could, I would use the cognate, but often enough that was for reasons of sound, rhythm.

BLVR: In his biography of Beckett, James Knowlson says that Beckett chose to write in French because in French it was easier for him to write “without style.” You’ve said similar things about translating—that it’s an exercise in not imposing one’s own style on the writing. It sounds like the least postmodern position one can possibly take—that there’s some essential truth that style only cloaks.

LD: No, I wouldn’t say there’s some essential truth that is cloaked by style—if I’ve understood your question. I’d say that if I were to translate into my own style rather than preserving, insofar as I could, the style of the original, I would change the nature of the work in an essential way. I tried, once, for fun, translating Laurence Sterne into more contemporary English. It worked to some extent—some of the narrative content was preserved, some of the humor, quirkiness, etc.—but it was painful. Each time I abandoned some phrasing of his in favor of an “updated” version, an essential, delightful peculiarity of the work was lost.

BLVR: So you’re talking about the need, as a translator, to avoid covering the writer’s style with one’s own. Beckett, on the other hand, seems to suggest the possibility of writing without style. Do you think that’s possible? Maybe he was referring only to writing without the burden of his own familiar English-language style.

LD: I don’t believe, in the end, that there is any such thing as no style. Even a very neutral, plain style, one that doesn’t use colloquialisms, lyrical flourishes, heavy supplies of metaphor, etc., is a style, and it becomes a writer’s characteristic style just as much as a thicker, richer deployment of idiom and vocabulary. I would have to go look for Beckett’s own explanation, but I can imagine that he might have been resisting a Joycean sort of profusion that would have been natural to him in both speaking and writing English.


BLVR: You aren’t secretive about the basic content of your personal life—you work as a translator, teach at universities, married and remarried, had two sons, studied music, write books. You must have been asked this before, but what of the apparent resemblance of Davis characters to Davis the human being?

LD: I’ll look to the Austrian Peter Altenberg again—many of his little stories concern himself or a character nearly identical to himself, and yet what interests me above all are the pieces themselves in all their integrity, the complete and independent life they have. In the end, I am not deeply interested in where they came from, how they were created, whether the main character is or is not Altenberg. Or I should say, I am interested, but it doesn’t affect my reading of the pieces as small fictions. It is quite interesting to see how he selected fragments from his own life—and it is a matter of selection—to create such a strong and complete, funny, agonizing world. These short works have just as much integrity and interest as the Russell Edson pieces, which one would hope are not, most of them, autobiographical, except perhaps emotionally.

And yet it is important to return to the idea of selection—and of tone, and of intention. A character in one of my stories may resemble me in certain ways, through a selection of biographical facts or psychological characteristics, but she is something different, a creation.

BLVR: Do you believe artistic creation to be a process of selection?

LD: Of course it is much more than that. What I mean is that when you take from “real life,” you select and thereby misrepresent, in a way—you distort your material, or, in fact, fictionalize it.

BLVR: Ben Marcus said this about your stories: “It’s the empirical method of science, rather than an intuitive style of storytelling, that drives [Davis’s] best stories.” I like thinking of writers as mechanical engines, not just great big bags of emotions.

LD: How about an intuitive style of empirical storytelling? Both models (bags of emotions and mechanical engines) leave out the guiding intelligence. One wonderful thing about that guiding intelligence is that it can absorb and assimilate scientific principles and bring them to bear on human psychology and emotion. I was just thinking about science per se today, because a friend was explaining to me the difference between convection and conduction, and then went on to talk about thermal radiation. (This started with a bottle of champagne cooling in a sink full of water.) There is something very pleasing about the principles of science and the rules of math, because they are so inevitable and so harmonious—in the abstract, anyway. A poet I like a lot, Rae Armantrout, has a deep interest in certain of the sciences. Scientific principles and facts are inevitably an integral part of her poetry because they are an integral part of her thinking.

BLVR: Wow. There goes my tidy little dialectic. So, if I’m getting it right, you’re saying it’s a governing intelligence, in the end, that makes art happen—assuming that active processing (of information and of feelings) is always happening in the background of that intelligence.

LD: Governing intelligence, yes, but at the origin of the work there has to be strong feeling, if it’s going to be any good. Of course, that strong feeling can be a delight in language.

BLVR: What do you like about Armantrout?

LD: Oh, her humor, her intelligence, her precise imagery, her lyricism, her care with language—the surprises that occur in each poem. I wrote a short essay about her work called “Why Stop with a Barnacle?”—the title is a line of hers, the kind I like so much.


BLVR: Ben Marcus also said of your stories: “There’s a nearly autistic failure to acknowledge the emotional heart of the matter, and a curious lack of interest in narrative scenes between characters.”

LD: I am simply not interested, at this point, in creating narrative scenes between characters. Maybe I’m shying away from a certain artificiality that I perceive to be present in many such scenes as written. Although, as soon as I say that, I think of other possible reactions to that perception of artificiality: how a writer like Jane Bowles, for instance, lets a certain acknowledged artificiality be an effective part of those narrative scenes between characters.

BLVR: What’s artificial about those scenes? How are they more artificial than the rest of a story?

LD: We all have an ongoing narrative inside our heads, the narrative that is spoken aloud if a friend asks a question. That narrative feels deeply natural to me. We also hang on to scraps of dialogue. Our memories don’t usually serve us up whole scenes complete with dialogue. So I suppose I’m saying that I like to work from what a character is likely to remember, from a more interior place.

BLVR: This might be a long shot, but I have to ask—have you ever thought of your narrators as specifically autistic (or to have any other neurological diagnosis)?

LD: No, I haven’t! That really never occurred to me. The characters do focus on one thing at a time, maybe, or the narrators do—as we tend to do in life. As the writer, I may choose to ignore the emotional heart of the matter, and focus on details, and trust that the heart of the matter will be conveyed nevertheless. For instance, in “We Miss You,” a story from the most recent book, the almost maniacally single-minded narrator (presumably a sociologist) focuses unwaveringly on a detailed analysis of the children’s letters without betraying any emotional reactions of her own. And yet there are hints that she is fighting to maintain her own neutrality and her “scientific” detachment. Emotion is central to the story, as it is to most of the stories.

BLVR: Your narrators often sound as if they want to make sense of the world, but sometimes they sound to me as if, even after all their efforts, they’re praying for a little bit of leftover mystery.

LD: My narrators, I suppose, don’t at all mind living surrounded by mystery—in fact, they like that. But at the same time, there are particular situations that they want to understand completely. Their desire has the same urgency we feel when we become caught up imaginatively in any drama, whether fictional or real life, and want to know how it “comes out.” I often pose questions to myself and want the answers. The questions may be psychological or emotional. Or they may involve botany or, in this case, for instance, physiology: how does my body know that I am holding two pieces of paper between my thumb and forefinger, rather than one? I am very curious about strangers I observe—as in a bus line. I am very attached to finding out answers. But as I said, these are isolated events in a context of mystery with which I, and my characters, are quite comfortable.

BLVR: Isolated events in a context of mystery—that sounds like a workable model for your fiction, not to mention the universe.

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