Lydia Davis: ‘I write it the way I want to write it’

Index Entry, the shortest of the very short stories for which the American writer Lydia Davis is best known, runs to just four words: “Christian, I’m not a”. When Davis won the Man Booker International prize in 2013, Ali Smith called her a “daring, excitingly intelligent and often wildly comic writer who reminds you… what words such as economy, precision and originality really mean”.

Besides eight story collections and one novel, Davis has published more than a dozen translations, most notably of Madame Bovary and the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as well as, more recently, Night Train, a collection of very short stories by the Dutch author AL Snijders. These and other translation-related projects, including her 2014 modernising of Alfred Ollivant’s 1898 children’s classic Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir, are among the subjects of her latest book, Essays Two, a sequel to Essays One, published two years ago. Davis, 74, spoke to me from her home in rural upstate New York.

You talk here about how useful translating has been in times when you were stuck with your own writing.
The text is already there – you can really bend all your energies to it – and when you can’t do your own work, it’s very liberating to create something that may even be better than what you might have written.

You also say that translating always comes fraught with afterthoughts – you mention, por ejemplo, revising your Proust text post-publication. It seems the problem of when or how to stop is an important one throughout your work, which often draws energy from extending a line of consulta beyond expected limits…
Yeah, I find it a little paradoxical that I know when to stop when it’s a short piece of fiction, yet have a lot more trouble in the case of something like researching Alfred Ollivant’s family and sheepdogs, sheep-herding, different sheep-counting systems … It all becomes interesting; creo, bien, I could just keep going, until it embraces the whole world.

I did envisage at some point an edition of my version of Bob, Son of Battle which would be infinitely large, with infinitely long notes. The essay in the book just has a list of all the things I might have covered; I had to stop. Another essay that maybe tries the patience is the one about learning Norwegian. Because I was discovering the language on my own, each detail fascinated me, and I wanted to include it all. A reader can throw his or her hands up and say, that’s enough, and that’s OK; I write it the way I want to write it.

In your stories, as well as in these essays, your refusal to let something drop can be very funny…
It’s true that even the quite short stories can be exhaustive: it might just be one paragraph, but it exhausts all possibilities to the point of slight absurdity. There are others that don’t have that exhaustive impulse – they just make a statement and that’s it – but often I’m assuming a persona of someone who wants to uncover every angle, whatever the thing is. It’s not exactly me – I wouldn’t tire a friend out with this kind of lengthy reasoning – but it’s also my own mind.

Grammar Questions [from 2007’s Varieties of Disturbance] was heartfelt and serious, even while at the same time it might have been absurd, because it’s my own honest inquiry into how you talk about someone who’s no longer there. [La historia, a two-and-a-half page disquisition on tense, begins: "Ahora, during the time he is dying, can I say, ‘This is where he lives’?"] When I wrote it, I had not had much experience – I still haven’t – of people very close to me dying, so it was really an inquiry into a problem we all struggle with, of how you talk about someone who is no longer there, which is also a problem of how you deal with someone who was so present and now isn’t.

There’s a passing half-joke in one essay about how using en línea dictionaries means you have to learn to ignore the news, which isn’t something your work usually mentions.
No, no lo hace. I have been asked if I would write about the pandemic, or how we read in times of pandemic, or this or that, and I did start something about Trump, imagining him having a long conversation with his therapist, sabes, down the road, once he’s gone completely mad; that still interests me but I haven’t gone far with it. Another current-related piece [How He Changed Over Time, published last year in the Virginia Quarterly Review], which isn’t in a book yet, but which I did complete to my satisfaction, is about a fictional president’s transformation from Thomas Jefferson into Trump.

But I think my preoccupations tend to slip in more sideways, algo así como. The Cows [in 2014’s Can’t and Won’t] was just 80-something observations of the cows across the road from here; I realised later that it was my indirect way of saying, let us pay attention to things like the individuality and wellbeing of cows. Instead of writing an essay on animal welfare, I let the preoccupation come out indirectly.

What are you working on at the moment?
I have a pile of stories ready to be put in order for another book, and I’ll do that now that winter is coming and the ground is already freezing; I’ve planted my last shrub for the year. During the growing seasons, starting in March or April, I’ve kind of turned my attention away from writing to our land and garden, but also more and more to my immediate community, partly in reaction to the real crisis we’re in with climate change.

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