Essays One, the first nonfiction essay collection by fiction writer and translator Lydia Davis, reviewed by Marcus Pactor

Lydia Davis requires little introduction. She is well known for her innovative short fiction, her lone novel, and her many translations. But Davis has also published a number of essays over the past few decades and, at long last, has begun to compile them in two volumes. Essays Two will be published in the near future. Essays One focuses on writing issues: the development of her work, the writers she admires, the habits she recommends.

Her writing here, as in her fiction, is clear and lucid, charming and unencumbered by academic or otherwise pretentious language. This is not to say that her style is either simplistic or minimalistic. Many of her sentences contain highly complex movements, full of excellent, specific, concise, and precise language. These qualities, always present in her work, are especially impressive in this volume, in which she is often describing her own abstract mental operations in relation to other people’s books, paintings, and ideas.

Passionate readers and writers, regardless of their previous experiences with Davis, should enjoy the three “Forms and Influences” essays. As the title implies, they show how her reading has influenced her development as a writer. They form a kind of narrowly focused autobiography, one interested less in births, deaths, and love affairs than in the ever-evolving three-way relationship between the writer, her work, and the world of literature. In the first one, for example, she describes her early attempts to write a New-Yorker-style story, her growing fascination with Kafka’s parables, and her discovery of Russell Edson’s The Very Thing that Happens, and how that last book revealed to her the possibility of the shorter—the much shorter—form.

So much of these essays are about form—about shaping stories, stylizing sentences, borrowing from others. The origins of Davis’ “Reversible Story” and “Jury Duty” make for especially worthwhile reading. In the latter case, we learn how her partial reading of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (she didn’t finish the book) led her to appropriate the questionless interview form for her own purposes. In the former case, we learn how Davis uses an arbitrary potential story shape to transform a mundane observation about a wine cellar into art. Her descriptions of her approach make her seem like a cross between Marcel Duchamp (recontextualizing the banal into art) and Georges Perec (always seeking a new formal challenge).

The essays do, in some ways, clarify the connection between Davis’ fiction and her translations of French literature. She enjoys, for instance, the highly stylized play of mind present in the work of Michel Leiris and Maurice Blanchot. Her pleasure as a reader led her to translate their work, those translations required correspondence with the writers, and all that developed into tenderness for the men themselves. We feel this tenderness in “Maurice Blanchot Absent.” In it, she describes not only the power of his work and the difficulty of translating his novel Death Sentence, but also his disappointment with a book cover, which he “expresses … gently in the perfect conditional—‘I would have preferred …’” Davis is as sensitive to his grammatical construction as others are to a physical gesture or facial expression. And we sense her own feeling in the adverb “gently.”

Even her digressions offer memorable insights, as when she describes, in “A Beloved Duck Gets Cooked…,” the five key attractions in Beckett’s prose. In an essay about Rae Armantrout, she helps a poetry ignoramus like myself, a person who never quite understood the appeal of Armantrout’s work, see how the poet’s ambiguous fragmentary lines and stanzas imply meanings and connections, and also the ways in which those poems resemble Basho’s haikus. Her essays often read like the lecture transcripts of an exceptionally articulate, well-versed, and wonderful teacher, one who can show not only what is wonderful about the book under discussion, but the techniques the writer has used to create that wonder. I now want to buy at least one book by just about every writer she analyzes—by Armantrout and Leiris and Joseph Joubert and Anselm Hollo—and I want to reread other books I have not touched in years—by Barthes and Mallarme and Stendhal.

I was unsurprised, given Davis’ interest in short forms and her translation work in French literature, to read about any of the above-mentioned writers. But I was happily surprised to find a short essay on Pynchon’s early work—another essay that made me want to reread old books. Here she describes the way Pynchon balances his postmodern concern with author and artifice with a quite traditional development of character and setting. But the conclusion is the best part, her observation of Pynchon’s “quiet lyrical humanity,” his “unapologetic gentleness, inviting and inclusive, that contrasts with the weightier complex pessimism and bravado of the later novels.”

The focus of the book often and interestingly veers away from writing—toward modern art, Abraham Lincoln, the Shepherd’s Psalm, the historicity of Jesus, and the varieties of traditional wardrobe in the Netherlands. Her “Response by Analogy to the Work of Joseph Cornell” is one of the book’s most fascinating pieces in terms of both subject and technique. It is a thirteen-page sentence that does not end even when the essay ends, that is nonetheless broken into paragraphs full of clauses on clauses, as well as irregular indentations, italicized and capitalized phrases, and a fascinating series of images juxtaposed against reworked lines from the Bible and Psalms. All that might sound as though Mary Caponegro possessed Davis’ body for a couple of weeks and used the opportunity to let her inner Anne Carson loose, but the essay seems to me like Peak Davis. Each image and word has been chosen with care. Each line is syntactically perfect and thoughtfully set with its proper neighbor. Each paragraph, indentation, and italicization has its purpose. She has written this piece.

In the lengthily titled “Fragmentary or Unfinished: Mallarme, Barthes, Joubert, Holderlin, Flaubert,” Davis turns her attention to a form that we, knowing her short fiction, might have guessed would greatly appeal to her. The essay contains a wonderfully condensed wealth of knowledge about the writers listed in the title as well as an opportunity to infer the ways in which their work has influenced hers. When she describes the values of silence, associative logic, musical harmony, the simultaneously whole and broken appearance of a piece of writing, the ways in which those qualities enhance each of those various writers’ works, as well as the grief and doubt that must parent this form, we might freely think again of a piece like “Reversible Story,” of classic gems like “Examples of Confusion” and “Cockroaches in Autumn,” or any number of her brief one-sentence pieces.

Each of those values is on display in the final and most personal essay in the collection. “Remember the Van Wagenens” is a long, fragmented meditation on memory and death. It is quite different from her essay on Blanchot. That essay was exactly the sort of thing you would expect to read in a magazine soon after an author’s death: focused and straightforward, with paragraphs strung traditionally one after the next. In this one, Davis seems to follow wherever her thoughts lead, and the piece is broken into numerous fragments. Early on, she recalls her dead French teacher, but this essay is not really about Mlle. Roser. She recalls, too, her quest for her lost French grammar book and a childhood friend. She explores the inaccuracies of memory as well as the ways in which memory preserves one’s personal history and—possibly—other people’s lives. She takes us on tours of many real and supposed houses and apartments. We learn, too, about her father’s (never directly named) dementia. We feel the weight of her grief over him not only in the passages in which he appears but in all the others: as she ponders whether it means anything to hold a stone from Hadrian’s Wall if you do not know who Hadrian was or how much it means to a Mozart fan to stand in front of Mozart’s home if and when he later learns that it was not Mozart’s home at all,  and when Davis turns the houses into metaphors for minds and the apartments into metaphors for dreams, and, at the essay’s end, when she revisits a quote from a movie adaptation of Forster’s A Passage to India. She associates all these (and many other) disparate things and concepts together in an unlikely but fulfilling harmony. It is a fitting end to the volume, reminding us that she is not only a masterful critic but a virtuosic writer as well.

I am grateful, as I am not often grateful, to know there will be a sequel. I very much look forward to Essays Two, which is perhaps my best recommendation of Essays One.

Essays One, by Lydia Davis. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November 2019. 528 pages. $30.00, hardcover.

In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist(b)OINKX-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram and YouTube. Disclosure: HFR is an affiliate of and we will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Sales from help support independent bookstores and small presses.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments (