‘Something undefined’ – Lydia Davis

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis (Farrar Straus& Giroux) 2014

I mentioned Lydia Davis in a review of a collection of James Wood’s book reviews a couple of years back – I’d never heard of Davis, which is perhaps not surprising because my knowledge of fiction writers these days is pretty scant.

Trying, slowly, to rectify that, because as I put it in that earlier piece, the ‘rich, slow joy’ of reading is something I miss,  and I forget I miss it until I remember to actually do it.

This is a collection of short stories, jottings, dreams and almost-jokes. Of the latter, one,  ‘Negative Emotions’, had me chuckling with delight for ages after reading it.

There is often a tone of self-doubt – a knowing, ironic self-doubt, but it is a knowingness and irony which is not there for a smart-alecky effect. There is always a clear emotion behind such pieces, a sense Davis is taking the reader into her confidence rather than keeping us at bay.

One story, headed, ‘Not Interested’, begins

‘I’m simply not interested in reading this book. I was not interested in reading the last one I tried, either I’m less and less interested in reading any of the books I have, though they are reasonably good, I suppose.’

The way that sentence tails off into ‘I suppose’ is a nice touch.

Or:

‘Life is too serious to me to go on writing… Writing is too often about people who can’t manage. Now I have become one of those people. I am one of those people. What should I do, instead of writing that people who can’t manage, is just quick writing and then to manage. And pay more attention to life itself.’

There is a dream – Davis’s pieces are often fragments of dreams – called “The Party” which is incredibly descriptive: like a fast crane-shot on film which she describes arriving at the party somewhere unknown but vaguely familiar  with ‘a curving driveway  by lanterns among the trees… Under a lofty floodlit stone windmill.’ She described walking across gravel past ‘noisy fountains’ and entering the windmill going down stairwells rather than up,  visiting ‘a vast circular room, it’s raftered ceiling lost in darkness’… the centre of which the room is “a giant carousel motionless and crossed by powerful beams of light: white horses, four abreast, are harnessed to open carriages that rock back and forth on their bases; a ship with two figureheads rises high out of static green waves.’

Davis is very good on writing which really does make you see what she is describing: its a marvellous, rare and difficult art to pull off.

Sounds as well as pictures feature: there is a piece on onomatopoeia of a sort called ‘The Language of Things in the House’ – the washing machine and spin cycle goes ‘Pakistani, Pakistani’;,  the wooden spoon in the plastic bolstering the pancake goes ‘what the hell, what the hell’;  an iron burner rattling on its metal tray goes ‘Bonanza’; a pot in the sink with water running in it goes ‘a profound respect’;  rubber flip-flops (that’s jandals, to we New Zealanders) on the wooden floor goes ‘Echt’.

And there is a central sad story called The Seals which seems part memoir,  part something else:  something undefined.

On the strength of this,  my first reading of Davis’s work, I would say ‘something undefined’ applies to much of it. Fascinating.

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