Lydia Davis Interview, November 8, 2006
(conducted for Meridian by Will Boast and Drew Johnson)Your parents were both, among other things, professors of literature. How did that affect your experience of literature? Were there areas you felt drawn towards and were there any that you felt pushed away from?
LD: First of all, they weren't professors of literature. They were both writers. My father was a professor but my mother didn't ever actually go to college. She ended up teaching very late in life and she taught creative writing, which she had done all her life. They had brought me into reading early because of the atmosphere of the house and the books around the house. When I was young and not yet rebellious they invited me into all sorts of reading—very broad. I wouldn't react against them until I was in college. Then I didn't really react against them as much as I was influenced by what my friends were reading—what they were excited about. And some of that departed a little or did depart very much from what my parents read.
Could you give us a sense of where those poles were?
LD: Well, I was very drawn to Beckett and even though my parents could appreciate Beckett, he was not their cup of tea. They liked a friendlier kind of short story than what you would read in Beckett.
But their exemplary writer? They were friends with writers so it's complicated. My mother especially. She lived in New York City and was friends with Nathanael West and later they were both friends with Dos Passos. Whom I loved when I was first writing seriously. They were friends with Grace Paley. My father taught Norman Mailer at Harvard. And he taught Sylvia Plath at Smith.
He maintained a friendship with Mailer, but not with Plath.
In some of your fiction, there is the implicit or explicit evocation of diary keeping, whether through the narrator tracking her own thoughts or through the use of journals or through correspondence with real historical figures like Boswell or Lord Royston. What do you like about diaries and how do you find yourself using them?
LD: I am drawn to diaries, I think, because they are a less finished form of writing. They're less finished and they're more fragmentary. They're closer to the moment of conceiving an idea and so they lack a lot of the artificiality that the finished product might have. Take a writer like Joseph Joubert who never wrote a book. He was always writing a diary, a notebook, towards writing a book, but he never wrote the book. I'm also drawn to more fragmentary poems like Mallarmé's "Pour un Tombeau d'Anatole"—those were poems he couldn't quite finish and they are beautiful in their fragmentary form. I don't know why I'm relating that to the diary form except that I like the idea of unfinished work and working in fragmentary and transitional forms.
In "Lord Royston's Tour" you use the form of a journey, or even more specifically an itinerary to set the terms of narrative. What freedoms does an apparently unmanipulated itinerary afford? And can you say anything about how W. G. Sebald uses the idea of the journey in his narratives?
LD: Well, it appears to give you total freedom to wander. Sebald appears to digress—I don't believe he's really digressing—he's very controlled, there is a very masterful plan. It also mirrors the way the mind might work. I don't think that anybody's mind would work quite the way a book by Sebald does work. It can't, but it gives the impression of the naturalness with which we move associatively from one thought to another. And I find his work very interesting because I can't quite tell what's real and what isn't. And it sits squarely in that in-between place between fiction and truth.
Some of your sentences in The End of the Story seem almost aphoristic or even to actually be aphorisms:
"There is a train near here, too, a freight train that takes so long to go by that I have forgotten all about it by the time it has passed."
"At times the truth seems enough, as long as I compress it and re-arrange it a little."
"She seemed to like it, but she said that the names were wrong. She did not want the hero to be named Hank. She thought no one could fall in love with someone named Hank. She said it made her think of "handkerchief." Of course it isn't true that no one can fall in love with someone named Hank. But she meant I could choose any name I liked for my hero, while men named Hank, and the men and women who fall in love with them, are not free to choose."
Is there something different going on here than in other passages of your prose and what purpose does this serve in a longer narrative?
LD: Do you mean they're complete unto themselves? I don't really think of the first as an aphorism or as a pithy saying but as just a line within the narrative—you know, there's a train going by. The third is very different because it's a whole comment on the one name, Hank, and it's all she has to say about that name. Some of the early parts of the book were already written in discrete pieces and then embedded in the novel but I think that that Hank fragment or Hank paragraph—even though it's a discrete piece—was not written separately. It was written as I came to it. It may be because The End of the Story was written after I had finished Almost No Memory (even though it was published before because of publishing desires—the publisher wanted the novel first). Maybe I was in the habit of composing a piece of writing of a certain length that was complete in itself. That may have influenced how the novel evolved so that it has narrative passages that do lead you on to the next bit of narrative, but it also has discrete discussions of one particular thing.
The End of the Story seems to me to be a very patient book; it has deliberateness or a compulsion to take a thought to some form of completion or at least to try to do so. Do you find yourself trying to slow down your thoughts or your thinking?
LD: I don't try to slow my thinking down, in fact, it usually goes faster and faster. But I do like being very thorough, so I sometimes have to make a deliberate effort to stop myself from being as thorough as I want to be. In discussing the name Hank, for example, I would want to be very thorough. I could have stopped that little comment at an earlier point but I didn't.
This question is in reference to "Thyroid Diary." There's that kind of funny paranoia: "Are my thoughts really slow? Or is my thinking about my thoughts not quite there?"
LD: That's another example of following out the thought to its extreme—trying to cover every part of this situation. Of course I really enjoyed exploring all that: The mind is all I have with which to reflect on the mind.
Are there particular authors who have been able to do something like that?
LD: I was thinking of Maurice Blanchot, not that I necessarily want to get into talking about him. He goes into such strange places in his narratives where you think you're not allowed to go or where you never think of going. He takes a particular moment and looks at it under a microscope so that you're almost looking at atoms and how they interact.
When language is absolutely deliberate in that way, is subject necessarily circumscribed? Are there books that possess the precision of what might be called "language fiction" that possess the scope of the sort of "big book" that detractors hold up against it? Or, to put it another way, when a book emphasizes interiority by way of this "deliberateness" we've been talking about are some of the broader "social" themes the novel can tackle lost?
LD: Do you mean, "Are there things that you cannot write about in that way?" I imagine that you could vary your approach but then again I can't imagine writing War and Peace in that way. My models for The End of the Story—mentioning what I was looking at might help—were two by Marguerite Duras, War and The Lover, and then Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights. They're both by women, it's true, and they're taking fragments of things and exploring them and not necessarily putting them together in a strict linear form. And they're taking very limited subjects because even War isn't the war in a broader sense; it's just her small personal part of it. Then there were also several novels by Thomas Bernhard, and his approach in general—the obsessional monologue.
James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime seems close to those Duras and Hardwick novels—if in another vein—and close to The End of the Story. Turning to translating: How did your appreciation for Proust change while translating his work?
LD: I hadn't read Proust for about thirty years. I had started and read about two—thirds of Swann's Way in French, writing definitions in the margins. I evidently liked it but then I stopped reading, no doubt distracted by some other book. As I translated this book—I didn't read it first, I just started right in at the beginning—I did come to feel very close to Proust because you do put yourself in the place of the author—you're speaking the author's words as closely as you can, but in English. So I try to disappear, as much as I can, into the author I'm translating. As though I were an actor playing a part. I came to feel very close to Proust, but also to Scott Moncrieff, the earlier translator, because I was struggling to translate the same sentences and I could see exactly why he chose to translate a sentence a certain way. How he was trying to preserve this and not sacrifice that. I thought of Proust when you were asking about circumscribed writing because one thing translation allows me to do is to write in the manner of the person I'm translating. I can write these wonderful Proustian sentences that I would never write on my own, they just wouldn't be part of my impulse, but as a writer, I love to write them. The act of writing them is a great pleasure.
Was there an effect then on your writing outside of the translating?
LD: Because I didn't have much time to write, almost the only things I was able to write were tiny, tiny pieces. The Proust was this vast, warm ocean. It would have been very hard to write extensive, lush, ambitious writing because I was putting all of my energy as a writer into this lush, ambitious Proust, but I could pull back and do these very limited things. Stylistically, Proust's influence showed up only in my emails.
So now you're beginning your translation of Madame Bovary?
LD: Yes, I'm just beginning, and it is stylistically very different from Proust, of course. Whereas Proust revised by expanding what he had written, Flaubert revised by cutting. He went against his own lyrical impulse. And so far, this is making him more difficult to translate than Proust.
You've translated both French and German texts before in your career.
LD: Well, I've only just now translated German. In the last couple months.
Has that just been affinity, preference, or just the professional landscape?
LD: I learned German before I learned any other foreign language, living in Austria for a year when I was seven years old, but I really haven't translated German until lately. After I finished the Proust, a few years ago, I suddenly decided that I wanted to translate texts from languages I didn't know as well. I translated a story by a Mexican writer, and then just recently, for the same magazine, which is Diane Williams' NOON, I translated two very short pieces by the Austrian writer, Katrin Röggla, but I had real trouble translating them. I had to go for help to the translator of Robert Walser, Susan Bernofsky.
So no grand plans?
LD: If you mean in the way of translations, I'm planning to complete Madame Bovary and then probably not take on anything book-length after that. I had been planning to stop translating after the Proust, but I couldn't resist Madame Bovary.
Has your taste in prose or sentences changed over the years?
LD: Yes, I think it has: it's not exactly a taste but what I'm drawn to and what I want to read. In the beginning, my masters—the writers I was learning from—were Joyce, Beckett, and Nabokov. I didn't read contemporary writing much at all. Which I now think, in retrospect, was good. Because you're going to pick up the style of your time anyway unless you're really insulated. I did want to learn from the best writers and then a period came when I wanted to start reading contemporary writers. What I'm drawn to now is writing that isn't by trained writers at all—sometimes it's clumsier writing, but clumsy writing can be fresher and more surprising.
An example of that, perhaps? Where do you find this writing?
LD: Old diaries, that kind of thing—to get back to diaries. What I'm reading now is old diaries, old letters, family papers, as it happens. But it could be anybody's family. Could be any amateur writing.
Mavis Gallant has written that stories aren't meant to be read one after another, but one at time. Does this seem to be the way of things to you? Could there be an upside to reading unrelated stories in rapid succession?
LD: I think she's right. I think I would rather be read that way. If you read the stories one after another, they may all run together. That's why I like reading on trains and buses: you read a short thing and look out the window, and you at least give it a chance to sink in. I think it's also why in the last two books—Samuel Johnson Is Indignant—and Varieties of Disturbance—I put the very short stories consisting of only a few lines in between the longer ones rather than in a section of their own. Arranged this way they separate the longer pieces.
There was this line that kept getting said in all the sudden fiction anthologies: that very short pieces matched our attention span. Do you put any credence in that?
LD: No; I've heard that a lot too, and it sounds good and may be appropriate to some people's lifestyles, but after all, there are people happily reading Proust. You know, it's not that we can't, as readers—we can dive into really sustained pieces of writing and stay in them.
Who should we read that we're not reading, both stateside and from the great beyond?
LD: I think we probably should be reading—I know this will probably disappoint you because you probably want me to say the names of all these wonderful, undiscovered contemporary writers—we should all be reading older work. We should be reading back in our own language. I bet you haven't read Samuel Johnson or Boswell; or maybe you have in college courses, but for fun?
And then there are actually a lot of terrific 20th century writers like Robert Musil who are not read or talked about enough. Like his masterpiece, The Man without Qualities. We may get assigned some of these writers in college and then we're grateful when the course ends whereas as writers we should be reading prose and poetry of all periods, pretty voraciously. After all, we happily look at paintings from all periods. I'm trying to think if there are any gems I could mention
Well, here are some odd ones: Frederick Ted Castle's Anticipations; Peter Altenberg's Telegrams of the Soul; How to Imagine: A Narrative on Art and Agriculture by Baruchello and Martin; Luc Chi's Wen Fu: The Art of Writing; Werner Herzog's Of Walking on Ice; Bachelard's Poetics of Space, Kenneth Gangemi's The Volcanoes from Puebla.
Prose writers should be reading poetry more. One problem I have with a lot of contemporary fiction is that the language is uniform, unsurprising, not very particular. I think they probably pick up this language from reading too many similar contemporary writers or from being in too many workshops or just from soaking up too much of the spirit of the times. And so I think younger writers should do more to develop their own view of the world and their own language and imagination—which may mean getting away from the writing of their contemporaries by reading from other cultures, other times, and mixing with other kinds of people. Words of advice!