As a break from the theoretical turn Evening All Afternoon has been taking of late, let me rhapsodize straightforwardly about the numerous things I love in the writing of Lydia Davis. In particular, I've just finished her 2004 The End of the Story, which treats of the end, beginning, and aftermath (in that order) of a love affair, and also of the process of transforming that love affair into a novel.
I was particularly intrigued to pick up Davis's novel, as her stories tend to the radically succinct—one or two paragraphs each, a page or less. Nor is her work overtly expressive, consisting of schematic yet detailed accounts of a character's actions, surroundings, habits, or mental processes. Like Proust, whose Swann's Way she translated, Davis pays attention to nuance and is intrigued by the often-perverse twistings and turnings of the human psyche. Unlike Proust, her paragraphs tend to fit on one page, and can usually be enjoyed on their own as single, jewel-like units. While some writers are most impressive at the level of the sentence or the chapter, Davis shines on the level of the paragraph—either single paragraphs or, often, a longer paragraph followed by a shorter paragraph, which shows the earlier paragraph in a new light. It reminds me of the way haikus often work, with the last line casting the first two in a new perspective. In this paragraph pair, for example, the narrator is describing a dream she had just after embarking on the relationship around which the book revolves:
Later that night I dreamed I had found a short piece of his writing on the hall floor. It had a title page and my name on it and my address at the university. Most of it was plainly written, but it contained a passage about Paris in which the writing became suddenly more lyrical, including a phrase about the "shudder of war." Then the style became plain again. The last sentence was briefer than the rest: "We are always surprising our bookkeepers." In the dream, I liked the piece and was relieved by that, although I did not like the last sentence. Once I was awake, I liked the last sentence too, even more than the rest.
I see now that since I hadn't yet read anything by him at the time of the dream, what I was doing was composing something by him that I would like. And although this was my dream and he did not write what I dreamed he wrote, the words I remember still seem to belong to him, not to me.
I find Davis's paragraphs so compelling because, while each one does suggest narrative motion, they are short enough that no real resolution is expected. They allow the reader simply to notice contradiction and live within it at the level of the thought or the moment, without requiring that contradiction to be resolved. Above, for example, the narrator observes the contrast between the lyrical passage and the plain writing that surrounds it; between the brevity of the final sentence and those that preceded it; between her opinions of the last sentence before and after waking. In the second paragraph we have the narrator's feeling that her dream-composition belongs to her ex-lover, which contrasts with her intellectual knowledge that it was created in her own mind. She doesn't seek to explain or interpret any of this in any explicit way, or decide that one impression is correct and the other incorrect. She simply lays out paradox in clean lines, and allows the reader to do with it what she will. I enjoy the aesthetics of art that simply dwells within contradiction, possibly because I find this so difficult to do in my own life.
Nor is it easy for Davis's narrator. Despite the detachment of the narrative style, and the fact that reading this book imparted to me a sense of calm, the narrator in her daily life appears anything but peaceful. She is anxious and high-strung, and her behavior both during and after the relationship is often less than admirable—although she seldom makes this explicit judgment herself, writing instead simply, "At that time I liked to drink. I always needed a drink if I was going to sit and talk to someone," or "Most of his friends were as young as he was, and [...] I did not regard people of that age as very interesting, even though I had been that age myself." Oddly, it's the understatement in Davis's prose that makes her depictions of depression and bad behavior particularly uncomfortable for me, as if, in calmly acknowledging these unattractive aspects of her own personality, the narrator is making room for me to do the same. The emotions felt at a given time are simply another piece of information to be recounted, no more freighted or difficult than anything else. Or, if they are more difficult, then this difficulty can in turn be acknowledged, and the narrator can live beside it.
But no matter how clearly I saw what I was doing, I would go on doing it, as though I simply allowed my shame to sit there alongside my need to do it, one separate from the other. I often chose to do the wrong thing and feel bad about it rather than do the right thing, if the wrong thing was what I wanted.
Although it can sometimes be sobering, Davis's un-emotive delivery can also be dryly hilarious. I was particularly tickled by her portraits of her own compulsive or inconvenient habits of thought, which often had me chuckling and insisting on reading passages aloud to my partner David. The same technique I outlined above, of returning to things previously discussed in order to cast them in a new light, can be extremely funny as well as meditative and thought-provoking, and Davis uses it in all these applications to good effect. My favorite humorous example of this technique, involving the narrator's confusion in the face of her own elaborate filing system for different types of fictional material, is too long to share here, but trust me, it's worth a read. Instead I'll give you this passage on lying awake scheming, which strikes me as both funny and a great union of form and content. Just as the brain of the sleepless narrator becomes more and more fixated on her crusading busy-bodying, the paragraph itself focuses in on a particular, esoteric scheme:
Now and then I am too excited to sleep, because I have a plan to reform something: if not what we eat, which should be the diet of the hunter-gatherers, then what we have in our house, which should include as little plastic as possible and as much wood, clay, stone, cotton, and wool; or the habits of the people in our town, who should not cut down trees in their yards or burn leaves or rubbish; or the administration of our town, which should create more parks and lay down a sidewalk by the side of every road to encourage people to walk, etc. I wonder what I can do to help save local farms. Then I think we should keep a pig here to eat our table scraps, and that the Senior Citizens Center should keep a pig, too, because so much food is thrown out when the old people don't eat it, as I used to see when I went to pick up Vincent's father at lunchtime. The pig could be fattened on these scraps until the holiday season, and then provide the senior citizens with a holiday meal. A new baby pig could be bought in the spring and amuse the senior citizens with its antics.
For some reason, the isolated sentence "I wonder what I can do to help save local farms" is especially funny to me.
But as much as I enjoy the humor, my favorite thing about Davis might be her examination of the subjectivity involved in our experiences of reality and in the truths we believe we know. The narrator continually struggles with what to include in her story and how to tell it. The same incident appears differently in her memory each time she remembers it, depending on her mood at the time of remembering, information she has learned in the meantime, or other external factors. In one case, she remembers the same house as three completely different settings: the kitchen in which she played a word game; the back yard through which she entered a party with her lover; the front door and living room she visited after he left her. What is the reality? Are these "really" the same place, or three separate places? Likewise, Davis explores the mental tricks of perception which create a surprising percentage of the texture of one's reality.
In the same way, I will decide to include a certain thought in a certain place in the novel and then discover that several months before, I made a note to include the same thought in the same place and then did not do it. I have the curious feeling that my decision of several months ago was made by someone else. Now there has been a consensus and I am suddenly more confident: if she had the same plan, it must be a good one.
Of course there is not actually another person making editorial decisions for the narrator, but her lived reality includes a ghost or an impression of this other woman helping her write. In combination with her koan-like style, it's Davis's insights into the unexpected reverses of human consciousness and behavior that will keep me coming back to her work. And although I think she's probably more accomplished as a "micro-story" writer than a novelist, The End of the Story has no problem sustaining its novelistic momentum from beginning to end. I look forward to more of Davis's work, in any format at all.
Notes on Disgust
(for more information on the disgust project, see here.)
Davis's style tends toward the schematic and is unlikely to provoke any disgust in the reader. Still, there is this interesting passage, in which the narrator, just before her lover leaves her, encounters him unexpectedly at a party:
It was a feeling of absolute displeasure to see him there, as though he were a hostile element in that place, a thing that intruded where it didn't belong, so that as I watched him among the moving figures, over the shoulders of the other people in the crowded place, those same features of his that had held such a positive attraction for me not long before, and that would exert such a fascinating force again not long after, were just then repugnant to me, blunt and deadly, primitive and vicious, without intelligence, without humanity, the color of clay.
What struck me so forcibly about this passage is the narrator's extremely Douglasian description of her own revulsion. Seeing her lover at this party disgusts her because he seems "a thing that intruded where it didn't belong"—matter out of place, just as Douglas describes. The narrator's momentary revulsion even causes her to perceive her lover's feature as "primitive," and we notice the dehumanizing tendency that so often goes hand-in-hand with the disgust emotion. The lover's appearance in a place that the narrator doesn't expect to see him, when she is feeling alienated from him, gives him a repulsive and marginal appearance, almost seeming to melt back into an undifferentiated lump "the color of clay," yet in his distorted, sub-human form is still monstrous, "deadly" and "vicious."
True to form, there were also times when the narrator is disgusted at herself, in particular a passage in which she remembers with loathing the chips and playing cards she and her lover bought at the store in an attempt to disguise their growing boredom with each other. But it's this passage that really stood out as intriguing and oddly extreme.
The End of the Story was the August pick for The Wolves reading group; our apologies for being late to our own party yet again, but ambitious summer reading plans do not make for timely posts. Please consider joining us during the last weekend of September for Marguerite Yourcenar's The Memoirs of Hadrian!