Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Interview with Lydia Davis

BY JENNIFER HOWARD AND RACHEL MANGINI

Lydia Davis is the author of a novel, The End of the Story (2004), and four books of short stories which were recently released as the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009), a collection that spans three decades of Davis’s career from Break it Down first published in 1986 to Varieties of Disturbance published in 2007. Davis is also a much-lauded translator of Proust, Blanchot and Flaubert. Her 2010 translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary met with wide critical acclaim. She will be reading at the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series on April 7, 2011 at 8:30 p.m. in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium at the University of Pittsburgh.

Hot Metal Bridge: A recent AWP panel on experimentation in writing cited your work as an example of the unconventional and/or mixed genre between fiction, poetry and philosophical essay. Do you see experimentation as integral to writers, particularly young writers starting out? Do you see the future of writing as becoming more cross-genre or anti-genre?

Lydia Davis: I think actually younger writers may tend to be more conservative in the beginning, because they are mastering forms and don’t have the self-confidence yet to venture into new territories. But that’s a generalization—there are many exceptions. I was conservative when I was starting out—it took me a few years to understand that I could try anything I liked.

As for the future—that’s so hard to predict. I think the tried-and-true forms, such as the traditional narrative short story, will remain healthy. There’s a huge audience for a traditionally told story. But there will always be the impatience, too, with the traditional forms and the thirst for something new and unexpected. It’s always exciting to watch what’s happening in all the arts, in that sense: to watch the traditional thrive alongside the totally unexpected.

HMB: Many digital publications seem to be making space for experimentation and genre crossing. Do you spend time reading online? If so, what journals interest you at the moment?

LD: I have to confess that I don’t spend a lot of time reading online. It’s just a matter of not having enough hours in the day. I subscribe to about ten print magazines, and there are piles of books in the house that I haven’t read, and more coming in, literally every day. But the internet is amazing, and I use it a lot for research, which usually leads me to wander around cyberspace like everyone else, because there is so much out there. But to try to answer the second part of your question, I have read Salon and The Complete Review, and I’ve read some very interesting blogs and chat rooms without remembering what they’re called. The infinite amount of material out there is sometimes overwhelming.

HMB: In her essay “You Need Not Doubt What I Say Because it is Not True,” Marilynne Robinson writes that “narrative is the essential mode of our being in the world” and that fiction necessarily mimics the narratives we tell ourselves individually and collectively, but that fiction is “narrative freed from the standard of truth, a standard over against which every other kind of narrative falls short.” Being that much of your writing plays around with ideas and modes of narrative, sometimes eschewing conventional narratives altogether, what do you believe to be the place of narrative and its importance in fiction?

LD: I think I would agree with Marilynne Robinson about narrative being the essential mode of our being in the world. Just imagine how we hunger for a story. We all perk up at the opening words: “Guess what happened to me today” or “One morning Gregor Samsa woke up to discover…” On the other hand, balancing my own thirst for narrative and enjoyment of it, is a great concentration on poetry over the years, with its close focus on what just a few words can suggest, and how a bit of syntax or punctuation can change everything. So my own emphasis falls somewhere in between—I like or need a bit of narrative, a suggestion of it, but it is balanced by other modes, the philosophical investigation or the fragment of prose poetry.

HMB: You have been extraordinarily prolific and your work runs the spectrum from several page stories to single sentence images. Have your writing habits changed over time? What role does revision play in your writing process?

LD: I would say my writing habits have remained pretty constant though the forms of my writing have changed over time. If anything, I was a little more systematic when I was starting out: I would try to stay at the desk for a certain number of hours each day. Then, when I gained more confidence, I could relax that schedule a little. Over the years, I evolved a pattern in which I would work on a translation pretty constantly and write when I had a chance. (I also had children to bring up!) But even now I still revert to a stricter schedule if I find I’m not doing enough.

As for revision, it’s extremely important. I usually write a first draft pretty quickly and then revise it endlessly, reading it over from the beginning until nothing bothers me. Even the one- or two-line pieces have usually been subjected to a lot of revision—changing a word here and there, taking out a comma, putting it back in… I hear everything in my head.

HMB: Many writers have been critical of the impact that teaching has on their writing. How has teaching affected your writing?

LD: I think it would be very hard to keep up a good productive writing schedule if one were teaching full time, although I have friends who do. I have been lucky to be able to teach half- or quarter-time most of my teaching life, so there is the rest of the year for writing. But what I enjoy is sharing with the class what I learn outside of class: i.e. in my life as a writer I do a lot of reading, thinking about writing, talking about it with other writers, discovering odd things about metaphor or word origins. I’ve made a habit of bringing all this into the classroom, either reporting it or using it in an assignment. So the course actively reflects what is going on in my own development.

HMB: It seems that sometimes there is a tension between “readability” in a book and “experimentation” (we are thinking of Beckett’s trilogy, of James Joyce, of certain parts of Virginia Woolf and Thomas Pynchon) or abstractness. Does a book have to be engaging on a purely readable level or is there a place for an abstractness in which the text has to be critically read (or taught), perhaps with other texts in order to be fully understood? How and what is the balance between those two and which authors do you think achieve this balance?

LD: Instead of the word “abstract” I would simply use the word “difficult.” I.e. Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is not abstract (what I’ve read of it!) but quite concrete, yet at the same time difficult to read because of the many layers of multilingual puns, etc.

I don’t think a book has to be readable, but of course the more difficult it is, the fewer readers it will have, inevitably. I’m sure that was all right with Joyce—most writers write to please themselves in the first place, to create something that intrigues and satisfies them. (Then there are other writers, naturally, who want to be popular, and who write to please a public, preferably a very large public.) To take Joyce as an example, it is interesting to see how he progressed from quite readable and traditional stories (Dubliners), to a readable and traditional novel (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), to a more ambitious, complex yet still wonderful book which would lose some more conservative readers (Ulysses), to, finally, a book that very few have read, even among his fellow writers (Finnegans Wake)—though plenty of us have a copy there on the shelf.

Beckett made something of the same progression, though his work did not get larger, but smaller, more crabbed and peculiar. Maybe this ties in a bit with what I said in answer to your first question, that writers tend to start out a little more conservative, mastering the traditional forms.

HMB: As a translator of Proust and Blanchot, what do you feel is the translator’s responsibility in terms of preserving the essence or soul of a book when translating? How do you achieve this? Do you ever feel that you must choose between maintaining the integrity of the original and getting the sound or rhythm right in the translation?

LD: I am right now going through Flaubert’s Madame Bovary yet again, preparing the paperback edition. So the problems of translation are at the forefront of my mind. To start with your last question, translation is always about compromise, which can make it very frustrating. There is often a choice to be made between having the sentence sound right and natural, and staying close to the original. I’ve tried particularly hard in the case of Proust and also Flaubert to stay close to the original. I usually feel that if I am careful with each part of the text, then the whole of the text will be faithful to the original in essence or soul, as you say. So I go over every sentence, even every phrase, many times. You asked about revision earlier—I sometimes think translation is endless revision. After all, you can’t or shouldn’t introduce new material or cut out material, you shouldn’t do much inventing, so you are endlessly rewriting the sentences that are given to you, trying to achieve that miracle—the natural and good sentence that also follows the contours and the spirit of the original.