What is the correct way to refer to the dead? What would Kafka serve with dinner -- beets or potato salad? How do you spell Nietzsche? In forms ranging from the wry one-liner to a lengthy study of get-well letters by schoolchildren, the latest story collection from Lydia Davis, "Varieties of Disturbance," poses a series of word problems for the existentially challenged.
This is a description that would also fit two of her previous collections, "Break It Down" and "Almost No Memory," the former containing a story that begins, "X is with Y, but living on money from Z." Like word problems, her stories define their variables precisely and economically. Unlike such problems, they have no solutions.
Reading Davis, one becomes alert to an elegance peculiar to doubt. There are, in a characteristic work, at least two ways of understanding any given situation. In "Passing Wind," either the visitor or the dog farted. The problem is how to let the visitor know it was not his hostess. Would blaming the dog embarrass the visitor further, if he did it, or relieve him of embarrassment? Davis diagrams this knot without undoing it. When the last loop is traced, the story is done; the characters are left where they started. But the knot that binds them there is revealed as oddly lovely, a symmetrical pattern woven of language-as-thought, thought-as-language. The contrast between an ignoble or painful situation and the elegance of its logic is always striking and sometimes chilling. Her stories, for all their humor, can be irrationally terrifying, like beautifully made little boxes in which your thumbs have somehow become trapped. The immediate reaction may be laughter, but worrisome implications loom.
In one piece in "Almost No Memory," a writer is working on a story that seems to have no center. She asks herself whether the solution is to cut as much material as possible, reasoning that the less there is, the closer the remainder must be to a center, or to arrange it all around the periphery, leaving the center empty. These two options -- leaving only the center or omitting only the center -- nicely describe two extremes of the work included in "Varieties of Disturbance."
Readers of another of her collections, "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant," will be familiar with the first extreme, the one-liner; that volume's title story reads, in full, "that Scotland has so few trees." The best of these one-line pieces are like strands of DNA, next to nothing in themselves but implying much. My favorite in the new collection is "Collaboration With Fly": "I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe." The image has a precedent -- in "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass," Polish author Bruno Schulz describes a text fantastically amended by insects -- but the white space she leaves around it makes it new. What's left out, the reader works to supply. "That word": What is it? Cant, can't? Id, I'd? Surely it matters that the fly's a he, not to mention that he's a fly, a creature associated with death well before Emily Dickinson wrote, "I heard a fly buzz -- when I died." Thus "Collaboration With Fly" becomes "Collaboration With Reader."
THE opposite extreme is new to this volume: long, quasi-documentary pieces that offer exhaustive (and somewhat exhausting) details, while seeming to omit just what most of us read fiction for -- story. "Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality" offers a sociological analysis of the lives of two old women. What makes these women unusual in a work of fiction is not that they are eccentric or troubled but that they are neither. They are happy, their methods are adequate to their ends, and their lives change gradually, not in moments of crisis. Such characters are not well represented in fiction, which furnishes the "interesting" in the form of conflict. As the narrator of "Television" says, "we want major events." When life is complicated, we "want to watch a movie made for TV, which will be simple and easy to understand, even if it involves disaster or disability or disease."
Reflecting on my own appetite for catastrophe, I find "Helen and Vi" belatedly interesting, though in reading it I felt a vexed restlessness. Perhaps it did supply a crisis after all -- not in the story but in my sense of what a story should be. As in a Kafka parable, the absence of resolution -- the missing center -- haunts the reader like a presence. We wonder why it's missing, we wonder why we want it, we wonder whether the absence of meaning is not in itself inevitably meaningful -- a point Maurice Blanchot makes in a famous essay, "Literature and the Right to Death." Its translator: Lydia Davis.
DAVIS is as acclaimed for her translations as for her fiction; her version of Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way" won the French-American Foundation's Annual Translation Prize. It was through her translations of Blanchot that I first knew of her and wondered whether, admiring Blanchot, I was really admiring Davis doing Blanchot. Maybe I would admire Davis doing Davis as well.
Indeed, I did. But even then, I sometimes had the odd feeling I was reading a translation. Perhaps it was because of her pitch-perfect imitations of other authors (in this volume, "Kafka Cooks Dinner," a poignant and funny tour de force, is the sole example) or her somewhat puritanical renunciation of the swish of a signature style (a show of reserve that has itself become immediately recognizable). Her concerns are a translator's concerns: the necessity and difficulty of close reading -- of books, of people, of the world; the obligation to refrain from imposing one's own agenda on that reading, however tempting it may be; and the impossibility of fulfilling that obligation.
Much of her work is about translation, literally or figuratively. Her novel, "The End of the Story," is about a translator and fiction writer closely resembling Davis herself. In "The Walk," a seemingly autobiographical story included in this collection, a translator of an unnamed author easily identified as Proust takes a stroll with a scholar hostile to her work. Two versions of a longish passage from Proust are given, her translation and the one he prefers. Two versions of their walk are also given, hers and what she imagines to be his. We are left to judge how much these two people have in common. Perhaps slightly less than "Dog and Me." ("Even on a hot day, I do not leave my tongue hanging out. But I bark at him: 'No! No!' ")
Translation, broadly speaking, is the movement from one system of meaning to another. Many of these pieces induce a double take: the first reading literal, the second metaphorical. Of course, the double take is the mechanism of humor, but the comedy is often black. This is a death-haunted book, to the point that the "Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room" in the piece bearing that name -- "Your housekeeper has been Shelly" -- seems creepily elegiac. The most moving story of the collection is the austere "Grammar Questions," which begins, "Now, during the time he is dying, can I say, 'This is where he lives'?" and proceeds to demonstrate the inadequacy of all the words in which one might speak of a father's death. It is a story without a trace of sentimentality, but this omission is precisely its power.
Much of the discussion of Davis' collections addresses the query, "Are these really stories?" We could put that puzzle to rest right now: Yes, of course they are, if she says so. (Post-Duchamp, that's not hard to accept.) One of the great pleasures of Davis' work is discovering the many forms a story can take. And how much of the shtick of fiction it can do without: almost all of it. How nice to feel our heartstrings go unplucked. Which is not to say that they do not sound. *