Monday, October 19, 2009

The Morning Reading: Lydia Davis

I've been enjoying the recent spate of reviews of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, none more so than James Wood's appreciation in October 19, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. Only an abstract is available online, so you have to visit a library or buy your own copy - or borrow mine.
"The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $30) will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions, distinct and crookedly personal. Davis’s tone is dancelike, insouciant, and often very funny. Her work contains many piquant details. The smallest pieces are sometimes sweet jeux d’esprit, and are like the captions you might encounter at a contemporary art installation. What deepens the work, and moves it from game to drama, is that this brisk, almost na├»ve tone is often revealed to be a mask, a public fiction, behind which a person is flinching. What is omitted or suppressed becomes highly charged, and the hunger strike of the spare, lucid words on the page can take on a desperate aspect."
"Near the end of the collection, there is a peculiarly simple and lovely text of just three pages, entitled "How Shall I Mourn Them?" It consists of a list of repetitive questions, which begins:

Shall I keep a tidy house, like L.?
Shall I develop an unsanitary habit, like K.?
Shall I sway from side to side a little as I walk, like C.?
Shall I write letters to the editor, like R.?

Because of the long deep journey we have made with the writer, now over hundreds of pages, but especially because of the tender material in several late stories, we infer that the title refers to mourning departed parents. The questions seem to refer to the habits of friends and acquaintances who, like the writer, have also been in mourning, and whose peculiarities are produced by their grief. But as the list of questions continues, you notice that, amid the oddities, the habits described become more ordinary: "Shall I look up words in my dictionary, like R.?" or, "Shall I get a little arthritis in my hands, like C.?" Or, "Shall I always read with a pencil in my hand, like R.?" what is being described, one gradually surmises, is not freakishness, but just life itself. So the answer to this beautiful text's question is: "I shall mourn them just by surviving them."

A tiny entry a few pages later, on of the last in thw book, and entitled "Head, Heart," throbs with pain. "Heart weeps," Davis writes, and "Head tried to help heart," by reminding it about loss: "You will lose the ones you love. They will all go." Heart feels better, but not for long:

"Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart."



Lou said...

I am moved by these lovely words--thank you.

Rebel Girl said...

Glad you liked them!

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