From her mysterious “found” stories to new versions of Proust and Flaubert, the American writer and translator Lydia Davis is surprising and memorable. I find it hard to describe exactly what Lydia Davis’s writing is like. Some of her shorter pieces read like poems and, in fact, she has had work in both The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Poetry. When she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award a few years ago, they called her work “literary miniatures” and praised how they reveal “how all that one word says, and leaves unsaid, can hold a reader’s interest.”
In a BookForum review of her latest collection, Varieties of Disturbance, I found something closer to my own reaction. “For a writer who is, on the surface, so strenuously cerebral, she produces writing that is often exceedingly intimate, and it’s this discrepancy that proves rewarding in her work.” This “discrepancy” is exactly what emerges in our conversation.
Lydia Davis was born in 1947 in Northampton, Massachusetts, where her father was teaching English at Smith College. He later taught at Columbia and she attended Barnard College. In the 1970s, she lived for a time in France, where she collaborated on translations with her first husband, Paul Auster.
Davis has written six books of stories and a novel called, The End of the Story. I spoke to her last year onstage at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal.
Wachtel: You were raised in a literary household. Both your parents were writers; your father taught English literature at Columbia University. What was it like growing up in that environment?
Davis: It made you very self-conscious. Both my parents started as fiction writers. My mother continued to write short stories. My father gave it up eventually and became a professor of English and a critic. But we couldn’t really say anything after a while—I mean, after a certain age; I imagine at three I didn’t mind—but at a certain age we couldn’t speak without being aware of how we were saying something, how it was being phrased, as well as what we were saying. So if we made a sort of clumsy repetition, one of them might very well point that out, sort of lightly with a smile, but it was a very language-saturated household. And my father loved etymologies—a love that I inherited from him too—so he would often go to the dictionary and say, “I wonder where that word came from” and find some fascinating origin, which was truly entertaining to a child.
Wachtel: Did the idea of having your language corrected have a repressive effect on your talking?
Davis: It did, and that continued right up to the end, you know, that I would be very aware—less so with my mother, who was a little more garrulous and so was sort of waiting for a chance to start talking as soon as I was done, but my father would consider very carefully what I had said and that made me feel very insecure. I don’t know if this is a good example, but I remembered it just the other day. When he was in the nursing home—you know how you want to say the things that you don’t want to have forgotten to say . . . our family was not, as you can imagine, given to spontaneity—I said to him, “You’ve been a very good father.” I just wanted him to know that, and he said, “In what respects?” [laughter]
Wachtel: Did you also concern yourself with being potential material, because both your parents published stories in The New Yorker, for example?
Davis: No, and that’s nice. My father had stopped writing by then, and although my mother took a great deal from our domestic life, she didn’t take it very closely. I mean, she would take bits and pieces, interactions with a maid or with a teenager, but she didn’t take me exactly, so there was never that discomfort. I did it a bit with my sons but very sparingly also. Although, my younger son loves the one story that he is most clearly represented in, and he loves me to read it in public, so it’s a kind of attention in a way.
Wachtel: I read somewhere that you started reading Beckett when you were about thirteen. What did you like about his work?
Davis: Well, the house was full of books, so I was always taking a book off the shelf and looking at it. It’s not that my parents were great Beckett fans, because they really weren’t. They came from an earlier kind of writing, more traditional. They found Beckett a little lacking and difficult. I guess I had been immersed in all the good children’s books, the really wonderful ones—Jane Eyre, of course, was a book that would appeal to a teenaged girl, and Dos Passos—I’m thinking of the books that had impacts at various points. Then I picked up Malone Dies, I think, and there was so little material and it was such a narrow focus, and such plain language and no attempt at lyricism or flowery language, that he would spend a page or two talking about how he dropped his pencil, and what kind of pencil it was. This just seemed utterly strange to me, and wonderful, just so simple and clear. I didn’t read the whole book. I have to say that that’s a habit that continued. I rarely read the whole of a book, especially a book that really interests me stylistically.
Davis: Yes, I mean, sometimes I go back and finish it, and sometimes I read it all the way through, but it’s somehow enough to read the first ten or twenty pages and be amazed by what’s going on. But I think in those cases I’m reading it for my own craft. I’m really a lot less interested in what happens in that kind of book and how it ends, even though I know that’s a whole other part of it. I’m just interested in how the writer is approaching the material and what he or she is doing with it.
Wachtel: Would you read whole novels otherwise?
Davis: Oh sure, sure. There are all different kinds of reading. There’s reading to completely forget where I am and what I’m doing, so those books I read all the way through without even wanting to stop.
Wachtel: When you were a child, your family spent a year in Austria, where you learned German. How do you think that affected your sensitivity to language?
Davis: People muse endlessly on their own psychological makeup and history, but the theories could be all wrong. My theory is that it did have a profound effect because I was seven years old and I had never encountered another language before. Actually, the very first foreign language I was surrounded by was French, because we stopped in Paris on the way to Austria, so it was actually in the Tuileries gardens that I first heard another language around me and asked my mother, “What’s going on? Why are they speaking this way . . . and still having fun?” But then they put me in the second grade of the Ursulinenklosterschule, a convent school, and German was spoken in the classroom, and as I remember the teacher herself had some English, but it was broken English; it was not fluent. Some of the children could speak a little English, but I more or less had to learn German, and after a month I was reading in it. And the rest of that year I existed pretty happily in German with my school friends. But even though it was 1954, the war still felt very close, and there were still wounded people in the street and a sort of depression hanging over the city. My mother was also very ill and had to go into the hospital there for—I don’t know whether it was days or weeks. But it was a difficult year emotionally, and that was all in the German language. I do relate it to becoming a translator because I think that experience of being in the classroom, being surrounded by a language I didn’t know and yet knowing it, meant something. Then having it become transparent and something I understood. I think I’m just repeating that over and over. It’s not that I don’t know French any more—I know it by now—but it’s still a strange language to me. It’s not home. So I keep bringing it into English.
Wachtel: Yet you didn’t become a translator from the German.
Davis: Well, if you want stage two of the psychological story, how a translator comes into being . . . I went from a comfortable small town, Northampton, Massachusetts, to the big city of New York when I was ten and was put into a big school and felt very lost there, but I had tutorial sessions with a French teacher to catch up with the other children who had been studying French since kindergarten. So I think—maybe again this is a construct—that in those comfortable little sessions with my French teacher, I made a little home, a comfortable place in a strange school in the strange city. And I loved the book that we learned out of. A few years ago I finally managed to find another copy of it; like Rosebud, my original French grammar textbook.
Wachtel: You were also passionate about music as a young person, but you didn’t continue with that. Why not?
Davis: I can’t tell whether that’s because it wasn’t in the family tradition—
Wachtel: It wasn’t the family business.
Davis: It wasn’t the family business. You know, we were all shoemakers, and a shoemaker I was going to be. My sister played the clarinet very well, so music was in the house, but my mother and father did not play. My father could play the piano, but he simply didn’t. So I think either that, or I realized at some point that I wasn’t as good at music as I was at writing. I’ve continued the music ever since, in one form or another, and sometimes it’s been more exciting and compelling. It’s often hard to stop playing music in order to go write, because writing is more difficult for me.
Wachtel: Were your parents encouraging that you be a writer?
Davis: They didn’t discourage it. They kind of left me alone, as far as I can remember, which is good. They didn’t put pressure on me to be a writer, but so many of their friends were writers, so much of what they talked about was writing, and I was good at it, and they helped me. If I read a poem to them that I was going to take into school, they would talk to me about rhymes and rhyme schemes and how it could be a little better, but in a nice way. I showed my mother a short story that I’d written that had a not-very-nice mother in it, in fact a very not-very-nice mother, and she was a little hurt by it because it was so close to home, and yet she was giving me all the suggestions she could about “this part more” and “a little less of that.” I think I found the note or something that she wrote on it. So there was a lot of encouragement but no pressure.
Wachtel: You said somewhere that you realized that being a writer wasn’t a happy fate.
Davis: It wasn’t a happy fate when I first started out, but it became happy, say, when I was working hard at it and copying sentences from favourite writers and trying to work on my own stories—some of them endlessly. One took two years of work before it seemed at all finished. That was difficult. There were always moments of elation in the middle of it, and happiness, but the whole thing wasn’t happy, and it wasn’t until a few years later when I just found happier forms that I began to really take pleasure in it.
Wachtel: You were talking about growing up in a language-saturated environment. Precision in grammar is something that saturates your writing. For instance, you have a story “Honoring the Subjunctive,” which goes, “It invariably precedes even if it do not altogether supersede the determination of what is absolutely desirable and just.” That’s the whole story. Is that your definition of the subjunctive?
Davis: Not at all, really. [laughs] I think I came across that sentence in something I was reading, and it’s the subjunctive “do” in the middle of that—“even if it do not altogether”—I just loved it, because it was obviously correct in this, and yet so wrong to my ear. So honouring the subjunctive just means, “Here, I’m going to show you the subjunctive and give it a place of honour.” That’s all that means.
Wachtel: Because a good subjunctive is hard to find these days. [laughter]
Davis: It is, it is.
Wachtel: “If I were” is usually about it, and even that is starting to disappear.
Davis: Even that doesn’t exist a lot of the time in England. I’m very puzzled by the “was” and the “were” in England versus America, and I’m going to have to look into this.
Wachtel: I didn’t realize that, because Canadians usually adopt the English patterns.
Davis: I’m finding it’s used incorrectly all over. The “were” is used when it shouldn’t be, not the “was,” but I can’t give you a great example right now.
Wachtel: You give another example of precise grammar in the short story “Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelley.” This was also found?
Davis: Yes, it was in a hotel room: “Your housekeeper has been Shelley.” [laughter] And there’s something that appeals to me a great deal about it. It may be the name “Shelley,” I don’t know why. It may be the precise use of the “has been.” In other words, “We assume you’re leaving now, and this is who your housekeeper has been,” not “is about to be” or “is.” And then the presumption or the intimacy of saying, “Your housekeeper.” And the word “housekeeper.” You know, she’s not really my housekeeper. So everything about it.
Wachtel: Your story “Grammar Questions” looks at the difficulties in expressing a particular state in language. In this case, it’s the state of the narrator’s father dying. This could be an emotional situation for the narrator, but he or she tells the story from the perspective of grammar and the emotion is subdued. It’s not called, for instance, “The Death of My Father” but “Grammar Questions.” What’s going on there?
Davis: I think one thing that continues to interest me in different forms is having a lot of emotional content in a story but not approaching it directly, letting it be in the story but concentrating or focusing on something else. And so that’s what’s happening in that story. Let the emotional content not be acknowledged at all, really, let’s just talk about the grammar. And while talking about the grammar, we can intimate some of what’s happening. I think most of my stories do originate in a moment when whatever it is that I’m writing about actually does occur to me. I mean, that did occur to me, those questions did occur to me. If someone is dying, can you really say, “That’s where he lives?” You know, that doesn’t make sense. And as soon as you begin really looking at certain kinds of language, it often doesn’t hold up. There’s something a little wrong. It holds up in the sense that it’s useful to us. We use it and it communicates well, but if you look at it closely it’s wrong somehow.
Wachtel: Is that a way of controlling the emotion? Because a lot of your narrators experience things at kind of arm’s length.
Davis: The emotion is controlled within that story and it can imply that this narrator cannot deal with it, which is fine with me, because it isn’t exactly me, even though . . . it’s sort of the way I was trying to describe Proust’s work, that it takes from reality, but selects it and moves it around and then presents it as if it is reality, as if it is autobiography, but it’s not.
Wachtel: In your new collection, Varieties of Disturbance, there’s a somewhat odd piece called “We Miss You.” It’s about twenty-seven grade four children who write get-well notes to a classmate, and you write it in the style of a sociological study. Why did you want to tell the story in this way?
Davis: Well, it’s based on reality. I found this folder of letters among my family’s papers. My brother was in the hospital when he was in fourth grade, and the teacher assigned all the children to write get-well letters. I was very touched by the letters, so I wanted to write something about them or do something with them, but I think I was more interested in letting them come through, or letting the children’s letters speak, than I was in telling some more traditional story about the boy who goes to the hospital. That wasn’t really the point. You know, we’re not worried about the boy who nearly died, we’re worried about exactly how these letters were written, and how many of the children could write a complex sentence, and how many could use the conjunction “but” instead of “and,” and how many had real content in the letters, and about the handwriting and so on. This is quite a long story by the way; this is not one paragraph. This is something like twenty pages. And the narrator takes it very seriously and does a real study of all the letters in every way. I really did that of course, so it was a terribly laborious story to write, because I did have to count all the sentences in all the girls’ letters versus all the sentences in all the boys’ letters.
Wachtel: And how many words there were in each sentence.
Davis: Yes. What was the longest sentence any child wrote, what was the shortest. It was just very labour-intensive, but I think then the children come through one by one or little by little, and the narrator remains this sort of cold fish.
Wachtel: It’s in the style of a certain era’s sociological study.
Davis: I suppose it is. Not that I read a lot of them. I’m just adapting. You pick up that tone you find when you’re reading articles that pretend to know how society is built.
Wachtel: In several of your stories there are ambivalent and even fraught relationships between mothers and their children. Can you talk a bit more about your interest in that fraught relationship?
Davis: Family relations, you know, are very complex; I don’t know of too many simple ones. We see some families that from the outside seem simple, happy, wholesome, but I doubt if they are completely. I think my mother was another example. She did write and she had a writing career, but she was also a mother and housewife and faculty wife. I think she was struggling with “they’re not paying a lot of attention to me.” She was someone who wanted a lot of attention and kind of stepped a little on her children to get attention for herself. At the same time, she was very lively good company and a fantastic person, a very stimulating person. She was always starting new projects and thinking of new things to do: learning calligraphy or making something. So she was fun and stimulating, but she was also difficult. I think it is valuable to write these things out in some form or other. In fact, she was quite remarkable. In her eighties she was a Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe. Until just months before she died at the age of nearly 101, she was still teaching a workshop in her living room. And it turned out the workshop was mainly all women. It wasn’t listed in the catalogue as “Women only,” but the few men who signed up for it were quickly intimidated by the number of women and left. The women would keep journals of daily events in their lives, or difficult events or happy events, and she would work with them to turn them into . . . not finished short stories, but just to improve the writing in them so that they became pieces of writing that other people could read and get something out of. It was a very popular class and she worked very hard on it, very conscientiously.
Wachtel: What did she make of all your stories that portrayed mothers in a bad light?
Davis: Any that would really bother her I didn’t show to her. Others I just didn’t publish. One that would have bothered her I published in a very small magazine called A Little Magazine, thinking it would be well hidden. She would never see it. But then someone from Harper’s found it and wanted to put it in their “Readings” section, and she might’ve seen it there. Then I had a moral dilemma, and I didn’t do the right thing. I didn’t withhold it from Harper’s, I let Harper’s publish it, which was wrong . . . not morally wrong, but just risked hurting her. But I talked to my elder son about this dilemma, and he had this very smart suggestion to change just a few words toward the end of the story that would make it not so hurtful or not hurtful at all, so she could read it differently. It didn’t hurt the story, but it would be something she could read and not mind too much. I thought, How smart. And I won’t put it in a book until she’s gone, and then I can restore it to what it was. So I did that and she just never happened to see it, so I was glad. I don’t like to publish things that are going to hurt people, even if they’ve hurt me. That’s another dilemma. Your mother might have hurt you over and over, but then when she gets old you just don’t want to hurt her. Why not? Don’t you have a right to hurt her back? No, you know how it feels if you do, so you don’t.
Wachtel: It’s trade-offs. Especially Harper’s; she might’ve been pleased or taken pleasure in your being published in Harper’s.
Davis: Yes, and I was always afraid one of her students would spot it, and then I’d have to trust it to their discretion. Anyway, we’re getting very very into family here. I have to say, my stories are fictional. They’ve taken a great deal from my life, but they’re not all from my life.
Eleanor Wachtel is the host and co-founder of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company, now in its twenty-seventh season. She has also published five books of interviews, most recently The Best of Writers & Company (Biblioasis).