Lydia Daviss essays about writing and meaning are like her micro-stories: witty, playful and pared to the bare essentials
This is quite a long book in praise of brevity. Lydia Davis, who has emerged relatively late in life to take a seat at the top table of American letters, is the peerless exponent of what has come to be known as flash fiction. She writes short stories or texts of unsettling wit and invention or sudden piercing melancholy that rarely last more than a page or three and often consist of only a few sentences adrift in white space.
For many years, because of her experiments with form, Davis was considered a literary anomaly the micro-story writer who also translated Proust but that changed when a fat volume of her collected stories was published in 2009 and her serial instances of brilliant minimalism could be viewed as the stem cells of a larger body of work. Since then she has enjoyed a wide readership and acclaim, including winning the international Man Booker prize in 2013, when, happily, the chair of the judges was Christopher Ricks, a critic excitedly alive to writing at the scale of syllable and caesura.
These essays, written over several decades, illuminate Daviss own processes while attending to the work of writers and artists she admires. She is in some ways the most honestly solipsistic of writers her narrators are rarely set in the context of society or even company; their voices, conscious of written language, emerge with minimal framing. Here, for example is her story A Double Negative in its entirety:
At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.
And here is They Take Turns Using a Word They Like:
Its extraordinary, says one woman.
It is extraordinary, says the other.
Her essays about experimenting with genre experiment with genre. The tone of this volume is set by four lectures given at New York University on Forms and Influences. They establish a loose-limbed memoir of Daviss evolution as a writer. She was fated to her vocation both her parents had published short stories in the New Yorker but within those confines she determined to find her own way. Samuel Beckett was her first disrupter. She was drawn to Becketts slow torturing of grammar, the way his comedy loosened the logic and rhythm of sentences until words became unmoored. And then to Kafka. And then to a range of eccentric stylists and poets who included a writer called Sparrow, who wrote Translations from the New Yorker, whittling away at the more garrulous and portentous of the contributions to the magazine, like this version of a John Updike sonnet:
The problem with dying
is you cant be funny anymore,
This led Davis to the question that her work implies: If you write it so differently, are you, in fact, saying the same thing? Or how much can you lose before you lose everything?
The essays that follow are, in essence, 30 ways of looking at that question. There are inspired responses to other obsessive de-clutterers, from the artist Joseph Cornell and his boxes of ticky-tacky to the compiler of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray, and his web of definition. There is a rangy meditation on the idea of fragments, which includes a memorable section on the poet Mallarms use of the ellipsis, his broken-off poems and the reasons he would never use the note etc. There are lists of recommendations for good writing habits, with digressions on digression, and a focus on etymology, for knowing the metaphorical origins of words: because of its roots in lapis (stone) a wall may be dilapidated, or a building, but not a pair of trousers.
The voice of these essays never forgets its own limitations, or the inherent comedy of passing critical judgment. Sometimes Davis reminds you of the tone of Geoff Dyers criticism, with acknowledgments that her mind is forever wandering from the task at hand. As I Was Reading documents her passage through a 679-page history of France; she gets stuck first on a momentary confusion between millenary and millinery and instead of focusing on historical epochs is lost in thinking about the specifics of hats (I knew that Danbury, Connecticut had been a centre of hatmaking. I remembered this because I had a cousin Louise who lived in Danbury).
The shift from the abstract to the local and concrete is typical. It finds its most persuasive expression in a wonderful essay about a version of the gospels produced by a group called the Jesus Seminar, which includes a fifth gospel created in a scrapbook by Thomas Jefferson, who cut and pasted the few verses of scripture in which he had most faith. This paring down of the New Testament to a search for the authentic words of Jesus reveals the sage of Nazareth to be a man after Daviss own heart, whose public discourse was remembered to have consisted primarily of aphorisms [and] parables, a messiah of few well-weighted words, unlike his verbose propagandists. Thomas Jefferson, whose declaration of independence made him the prime mover of clarity in American prose, called this process paring off the amphibologisms; Davis, in her fiction and in her criticism, proves a vivid disciple.
Essays by Lydia Davis is published by Hamish Hamilton (20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over 15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99