Book review: Essays, by Lydia Davis

In his recent selected essays and reviews, the critic James Wood describes his work as “serious noticing”. It is a phrase that might easily be applied to this collection of works by Lydia Davis, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. It is an erudite, prickly, illuminating journey, and one which will give different hopes and castigations to writers and to readers. Davis seems at points like a horologist, unpicking the mechanism, dealing with the intricacies of the escapement, finding out how the self-winding gears actually work.

Lydia Davis PIC: Will Oliver/AFP/Getty Images

The book is divided between thoughts on other writers (particularly when translating them), observations on art works, and very self-reflexive and honest accounts of her own writing practice. It ends with a glorious cadenza on memory, on how memory can be fictional, on the importance of keeping memories for those who are no longer here. It is the most affecting and moral of the pieces. “Who is this woman talking to, who sits by her husband’s grave and talks to him?”, she writes – and notice the subtle, almost psalm-like repetition of talk – “She is not ‘pretending’ to talk to him. She is ‘really’ talking to him. She is really talking to someone who is not there, or does not seem to anyone but her to be there. Because of the force of her imagining.” The carefulness of observation yields the ethics of these finest pieces. Stay slow. Look hard. Put yourself, even for a moment, in another’s life.

The more ostensibly literary essays are a joy, as Davis both makes you re-read things you thought you knew (Madame Bovary, À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu) and introduces you to writers you didn’t know about at all. She is especially convincing on why we ought to read Michel Leiris, for example. “Leiris is rarely brief, rarely plain… since every thought seems to produce a possible counterthought that should be included.” That might well be the perfect description of Davis’s own work. Something is asserted, and then undermined. A proposition is made and debunked. If there were a perfect Davis sentence it would be “I thought that I thought that, but thinking back, I don’t think so.” She is immaculate on how memory is slippery and mutable, how we constantly rewrite our own stories.

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Rewriting is one of the book’s excellences. There is something both humble and brave about showing the process of noting, drafting and editing in such scrupulous detail. I was reminded of an Oscar Wilde quote: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma. In the afternoon – well, I put it back in again.” Looking into this quote, it appears in multiple versions, and Davis has a wonderful essay on the ways in which family stories, specifically an anecdote about how many handshakes stood between her and Abraham Lincoln, are also so multifarious. The stories spread, change and alter.

There is a great deal in this collection. Davis ranges over dreams, notebooks (after all, when you are revising a sentence you are revising not only the words of the sentence but also the thought of the sentence), overhearing, Neanderthals, trying again and failing better, the problems of translating Proust, Kafka and his fragments of stories never written, Stendhal’s quasi-biography and much more,. Some parts approach the gnomic, as in a piece called “Fragmentary Or Unfinished”, which ends with an almost biblical cadence. “We have written about it, written it, and allowed it to live on at the same time, allowed it to live on in our own ellipses, in our silences”. That sentence shows the extent to which Davis can hone a sentence. The final section of the book has two remarkable pieces about the Bible; one on the Scholars Gospel, an attempt to define the “genuine” words of Jesus, and one a close, hard look at the 23rd Psalm. They are perhaps not what the reader who wanted guidance on writing habits or some gossipy accounts of the working life of the writer might want. But they might be what they need.

The joy of this collection is its own shimmering uncertainty. Davis never takes her first idea as the best idea, it loops around its own precarious thinking. It constantly revises itself as it is being written. One memory is linked to Graz in Austria or perhaps Nottingham. It also has a genuine relish in the specificity of things. Despite all the wonderment at the whorls of memory, language and reading, it is sometimes simply a quick notice of an unusual colour in a painting, or a word that seems askew.

This is a subtle and clever book, but it is not without its simple punches. Here is one piece of guidance. “Free yourself from your device, for at least certain hours in the day – or at the very least one hour. Learn to be alone, all alone, without people and without a device that is turned on. Learn to experience that kind of concentration. Develop focus, learn to focus on one thing, uninterrupted, for a long time.” Stuart Kelly


Essays, by Lydia Davis, Hamish Hamilton, £20