:: Article

Essays One

By Andrew Hungate.

Lydia Davis, Essays One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)

Lydia Davis’s short writings are typically described in the plural. Fragments, aphorisms, observations, and small poems come together to give a new appreciation for the quotidian: bits of conversation overheard in public, animals seen in the fields, dishes left in the sink. A one-sentence story on its own may elicit a careful pause or a smart laugh, but there is a grander effect in the full stream of the collection. And yet, at a certain point, a reader may reasonably wonder about the overarching project. Strung together, what does Davis’s prose mean?

Including review essays and writing lectures from the past three decades, Lydia Davis’s first non-fiction collection, Essays One, offers some elusive answers to this question. It does not explicitly delve into the meaning of Davis’s work, but it does provide an intriguing glimpse behind her obscure and tightly controlled craft, suggesting to the dedicated reader a few ways to interpret the particular kind of short prose that is Davis’s signature achievement.

The collection opens with a lecture, the first of a five-part master class at NYU that Davis taught in 2012-2013. Davis takes us through her influences, both known (Beckett, Kafka, and Babel) and less known (Russell Edson and Bob Perelman), while providing brief and pointedly didactic histories of her own work. Placing side by side four versions of a sentence, or two drafts of a story, Davis reveals how she works her magic. “I have tightened up the clause . . . always be on the lookout for qualifying words . . . I hope you noticed the parallel structure in that last sentence.” Other essays, like “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits,” do exactly as they are titled.

The reader of this collection must deal with a certain level of condescension. Consider this line from Davis’s master class: “Younger writers these days often have trouble constructing long, complex sentences. . . . I see this in otherwise good writers — including good published writers.” Perhaps it is true that in literature’s graceless retreat from postmodernism over the past twenty years, writers have been using shorter and clearer sentences, and perhaps it is also true that someone who is accustomed to writing short sentences could not write long sentences as easily, but for an author who is herself known for writing short sentences — in an essay collection devoted to the short sentence, the short form, and the short critique — to blast the syntactical capabilities of her younger contemporaries, comes off, at the very least, as rather dismissive. (Has Lydia Davis not encountered the long, disarming wit of David Rakoff’s sentences? Has she managed to stay out of academic discourse all these years?)

When reading essays such as these, the question arises: under what circumstances do the minutiae of a writer’s practice become significant? What compels the writer to explain her craft in such detail, and what kind of reader is so eager to know? Such things are excused in a pedagogical setting, of course, but Davis’s didactic style pervades many of her critical essays as well. She is an astute close reader, especially of poetry, and the critical essays in this collection do treat their subject material with a wonderfully microscopic level of explication, but the general feeling is that Lydia Davis is teaching us how to read. Despite a personal relationship with many of her subjects, including Lucia Berlin, Joan Mitchell, and Rae Armantrout, Davis keeps to the work and the work alone; even an essay on the paintings of her husband Alan Cote makes no mention of the fact that the author and painter are acquainted. To the extent that this runs counter to the tendency of contemporary essayists to delve constantly and shamelessly into the personal, it is refreshing, but the analysis is left feeling rather bare.

The earlier essays, those written in the late 90s, have a different tone. In these essays, Davis is learning rather than teaching, and writing in a meditative rather than explicatory style. One of the best in the collection is on the writer Edward Dahlberg, who was not widely read at the time of Davis’s 1997 essay and is probably even less read now. Davis does not champion Dahlberg as an underappreciated writer — indeed, she herself had not read him before writing the essay — but instead looks at why he may have fallen out of the canon of his peers (Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams) and, more generally, what makes a writer deserving of lasting success. I myself have picked up Dahlberg a few times and always put him down rather quickly; this essay did not make me want to go back to him. It does take seriously, however, that reaction of quick distaste and the oncoming feeling of “this will not be worth it,” and ties it to a larger question that Davis explores throughout her work, which is how an author’s character comes through in his or her writing.

For Davis’s writing, it is the problem of found art. Like an everyday object placed in a new setting, where it becomes an object of philosophical or aesthetic contemplation, many of Davis’s stories take real-life bits of text and place them in a literary frame. In this way, the world takes on significance. A thoughtful essay about memory describes a visitor to Mozart’s house who goes to the wrong house but for whom it does not matter, because he believes he is in the right house, and he feels everything as if he were in the right house. Davis emphasizes a primacy of knowledge, feeling, and memory in the face of what is real.

What does this mean for Davis’s readers? For example: in one of her lectures, we learn that the following story was taken verbatim from a note left by Davis’s mother, back from when their family was living with help in Buenos Aires:

“The Problem of the Vacuum Cleaner”
A priest is about to come visit us — or maybe it is two priests.
But the maid has left the vacuum cleaner in the hall, directly in front of the front door.
I have asked her twice to take it away, but she will not.
I certainly will not.
One of the priests, I know, is the Rector of Patagonia.

Reading this purely as a short story, we might say: the problem of the vacuum cleaner is the problem of the self. Will the narrator stoop beneath her position and move the vacuum cleaner in respect for the priests, or will she remain certain of herself and leave evidence of a house divided? One of the priests is coming from Patagonia, the southernmost part of the world. A vacuum cleaner is a small thing in comparison — a small worldly thing. But if the narrator moves the vacuum cleaner, she may feel that the house is no longer hers, that it instead belongs to both her and the maid. The problem seems not to be if there are one or two priests coming, but rather if there are one or two hosts.

A reader who knows the background of this story may instead see a flash of realism. She may reflect on the character of Davis’s mother, rather than on the formal qualities of the story. The problem of the vacuum cleaner becomes more personal, less abstract: the problem of an intransigent mother and a reluctant maid.

In an extended essay on Hölderin, Barthes, and Blanchot, Davis writes: “To work deliberately in the form of the fragment can be seen as stopping or appearing to stop a work closer, in the process, to what Blanchot would call the origin of writing . . .” But whereas Blanchot may conceivably speak in general terms of this origin, Davis seems more interested in specific origins. “Here are some notes I took at the Cluny Museum in Paris, about construction methods in ancient Rome,” she writes. On another story, she informs us: “I needed to say the wind was blowing; otherwise the reader might hesitate or take time figuring out why the grass and flowers were moving.” In some technical and pedantic way, this does bring us closer to the origin of Davis’s writing, but where do we go from there?

One story does gain a more interesting backdrop. In one of her master classes, Davis reveals that she intended the story “Can’t and Won’t” to be a “dream piece,” that is, a piece either inspired by her own dreams or supposed to read like a dream. The full story, which also provides the title to Davis’s most recent fiction collection, reads:

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

“Can’t and Won’t” is a defiant and self-reflexive work — a writer’s manifesto, of sorts. When reading the story as a dream, however, we might wonder if Davis does not feel some real anxiety about producing such short works. She does not say as much in any of these lectures, but she does reinforce, over and over again, how much she works on her writing. A certain anxiety may persist in this endless attention to craft, in the description of minute edits applied to sentences that are as banal as the small corrections one might make to an email.

A very short story cannot help but associate with other short forms — poems, dictums, parables, and dreams — that are typically ripe with meaning. Encountering such a story on its own, then, means determining its importance, especially when it is a lone sentence engraved in a setting of outsized significance. Does the task change if you are told that the story originated as an email or a dictionary definition? What happens when you have read a dozen very short stories, and then you come across a longer one, full of characters and grief? This may be the lesson of reading Lydia Davis: the origin of writing is infinitesimally mundane, until the moment it is not.



Andrew Hungate is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Words Without Borders, ZYZZYVA, Literary Imagination, and elsewhere.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 11th, 2019.