She’s got a lovely bunch of coconuts

5 months ago 105

A story in Lydia Davis’s new collection, Our Strangers, has the ungainly title “On Their Way South on Sunday Morning (They Thought)”. As we begin the story we see that the title might also be the first clause of the opening sentence: “Mark and Gail stopped to refuel their bikes and themselves”. The story’s conflict is complete by the end of the first paragraph:

But when they entered the restaurant, the woman who greeted them with menus in her hands said, “We only serve breakfast on Sunday.” “But this is Sunday,” Mark said. “Yes, so we only serve breakfast,” the woman said. They were still confused.

At this point the narrator intercedes to explain that Mark and Gail’s confusion is the result of a grammatical error: “The modifier ‘only’ seems to be misplaced, so that [the woman’s] meaning is unclear”. The narrator explains various ways in which the woman could have made it clearer, noting that “the placement of ‘only’ in a sentence has been a source of studious commentary since the eighteenth century”. Mark, meanwhile, blames himself: “perhaps, because his hearing was not as sharp as it had once been, he had missed the woman’s intonation”.

What has happened in this story? Two people’s emotional lives have been affected by a misplaced modifier. Though all three characters speak the same language, and want to transact the same business, a single word choice leaves two of them confused and self-doubting. Something has been lost in the translation of life into language, a danger that Davis, a translator of Proust and Flaubert, knows well. It is hard enough to move effectively from one language to another – even harder to move from experience to words.

Davis has made that difficulty, and the graceful, funny, awkward, surprising, unlikely, persuasive and moving ways in which it may be surmounted, her life’s work. Seen from a distance, each of her collections of stories – there have been nine so far, plus her novel, The End of the Story (1995), two collections of essays and innumerable translations – looks much like any of the others. Seen up close, however, they reflect different parts of her life. Her first books feature more drinking and divorce than her later ones. Our Strangers comes back more than once to ageing and loss. Davis’s process, meanwhile, remains consistent: she publishes constantly, in an array of outlets, large and small. Her acknowledgements sections are useful guides in themselves to the variety of publications active in any given decade since the 1970s. When she has between fifty and a hundred pieces of work, either newly written or newly revised, she publishes them as a book.

It would be helpful to readers new to Davis if editions of her writing could be stripped of their blurbs. As things stand it is difficult to read her without having one’s expectations shaped by superlatives. From 1986 onwards, when she began to be published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, her book covers have called her “visionary”, “a genius”, “a giant”, and her work “revolutionary”, “a grand achievement”, “life-enhancing”. Her CV is a young writer’s wish list, starred with names like “Guggenheim”, “Lannan”, “Whiting” and “MacArthur”. She won the International Booker prize in 2013, back when it was a lifetime achievement award, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a Nobel were next.

The problem is that this carapace of praise interferes with the process by which a reader comes to feel the power of her writing. Davis teaches us how to read Davis, one story, and often one word, at a time. It is slow work, and it has to be slow in order to work at all. Being told that she is “a literary treasure” makes it harder for a reader to let a story like “Marriage Moment of Annoyance – Coconut” work its modest magic. Here it is in its entirety:

After many days, he said to her:
“Could you do something with this coconut?”

This story is funny, probably more so if you have been married for more than ten years. I call it a story by default, although it is lineated, as poetry usually is. It has a conflict of sorts, but no explicit resolution. Maybe it is an anecdote, or a parable.

More “Marriage Moments of Annoyance” occur throughout Our Strangers, so that any one of them can be seen as part of a larger marriage portrait by the end. “Marriage Moment of Annoyance – Coconut” takes on particular resonance for the reader who has read a lot of Davis, because such a reader will notice immediately that the unspeaking wife in the story, an avatar of Davis herself, has done something with that coconut: she has made it into a piece of writing. It is what Davis does with everything.

In her essay “Translating Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir” (the Believer, December 2020/January 2021), Davis describes the philosophical situation from which much of her art arises:

We forget so much more than we remember. We forget most of what we read, and we forget most of what we experience. I come from a long line of thrifty men and women, so this bothers me: If we forget most of our experience, then how can we make good use of it?

She uses her experience by turning as much of it as possible into writing, then getting as much as possible out of that writing. A Davis story is never definitively over; it can always be reshaped, recontextualized, expanded or contracted. Several stories in Our Strangers, including “Betrayal (Tired Version)”, “An Explanation Concerning the Rug Story” and “More Corrections”, extend earlier work. (Though good luck finding them – the table of contents is misnumbered from page 72 onwards in this edition.) Most notably, the title story is a lengthened version of a piece called “Strangers”, which Davis first collected in Story and Other Stories (1983). The addition of “our” to the title inflects the story with an older person’s insight that we are only ever surrounded by strangers, some of whom we know intimately, some not at all. The tale suggests that another word for “our strangers” is “neighbors”, and it ends with an image of the power of that relationship: “a large awkward man with a briefcase, standing in the front hall talking to a couple of his neighbors and weeping”.

But Davis is concerned about forgetting, and, like Plato, she suspects that writing might actually accelerate it: she called her story about keeping notebooks “Almost No Memory”, then named a collection after it (in 1997). And she is acutely aware that writing does not bring back people we lose, something the current collection’s stories about her parents lament. After their deaths, her mother is a box of unspeaking ash (“I know she would want to hear this / She’s just upstairs, what is left of her”) and her father a conjugation puzzle (“Do I have a father, or did I have a father? / I can’t answer that question”).

“Egg”, which concerns a pair of babies acquiring language, suggests that, while it may be possible, with a lot of effort, to get language right, getting life right is largely out of our hands:

One baby sees a round white thing on the rug. He says “Eck?” At this, the other one looks up, interested, and says “Ack!” They’re learning the word, they’ve almost got it. It does not matter that the round white object is not an egg but a ping-pong ball. In time, they will learn this too.

Meanwhile, the author gets language right over and over. She can make you laugh at shameful length over an innocent entry on a community chat board (“Does anyone have a walnut tree who would be willing to part with their nuts?”), speak your guiltiest truth (“I always enjoy reading posters that agree with a favorite position of my own”) and slow you down sufficiently to actually see the world (“The landscape of this tree, now that the leaves are off, is bright with small red apples, dark twigs, and pale blue-green lichens”). Though I risk further hardening the carapace of praise in writing this, it is a fact that, nearly six decades since she began writing for an audience, Lydia Davis is still showing us how, and why, it is done.

Heather Cass White’s most recent book is Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a way of life, 2021

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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