Book Reviews - Winter 2020

The Barber of Language

A new collection from a celebrated prose stylist

By Sandra M. Gilbert | December 2, 2019
In addition to writing gem-like stories, Lydia Davis is an extraordinarily accomplished translator and an insightful essayist. (Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In addition to writing gem-like stories, Lydia Davis is an extraordinarily accomplished translator and an insightful essayist. (Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Essays One by Lydia Davis; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 508 pp., $30

“I liked teaching because I liked telling other people what to do,” remarks the narrator of Lydia Davis’s story “The Professor.” In the next sentence, she says apologetically, “In those days it seemed clearer to me than it does now that if I did something a certain way, it had to be right for other people, too.” But as Davis’s collection of essays reveals, this teacherly writer still likes telling other people what to do.

Davis is a kind of barber of language, a technician who cuts, clips, trims, shapes, shaves to produce prizewinning, tidy, sometimes witty, sometimes poignant fiction. How would she cut and shave the sentence I just wrote? Perhaps, I think, after studying Essays One, which features exercises of this sort, like this: Lydia Davis is a barber of language who cuts and shaves her prose to produce tidy, witty, or poignant fiction. I’m not sure I have the trick, though she does tell us in some of the most important pieces in her new book, grouped in a recurring section called “The Practice of Writing,” quite specifically how she herself trims and shapes, cuts and shaves, and thus, by implication, how we—if we’re aspiring writers—should follow the same procedures.

In addition to writing polished, gemlike stories, Davis is an extraordinarily accomplished translator (Madame Bovary, Swann’s Way) and an insightful essayist. Essays One (to be followed by a more technical Essays Two on the art of translation) offers 500 closely printed pages of book reviews, introductions to translations, analyses of works by visual artists, random meditations, and most of all “master classes” on writing. From my perspective, some of the liveliest (and potentially most problematic) moments in the collection are its eccentric how to instructions for hapless creative writing students.

For instance, there’s a discussion of how Davis herself applied her revisionary strategies to a work that began with a curious group email:

For those of you who have enjoyed Darcy Brown’s tennis lessons, cardio tennis classes, or friendship, she’ll be in town at the end of the week for about a week and a half. She’d love to see or hear from you.

She’s also getting rid of some items that she has in storage:

1 Queen mattress
1 Single mattress–box spring–frame
1 Surfboard Table
1 Scan Chair and ottoman
5 boxes of Kitchen and Bath items etc.

After Davis has wielded her linguistic scissors several times, this becomes the following little tale, complete with alteration of Brown’s given name:

NANCY BROWN WILL BE IN TOWN.

Nancy Brown will be in town. She will be in town to sell her things. Nancy Brown is moving far away. She would like to sell her queen mattress.

Do we want her queen mattress? Do we want her ottoman? Do we want her bath items?

It is time to say goodbye to Nancy Brown.

We have enjoyed her friendship. We have enjoyed her tennis lessons.

Less is more, or so this compositional process would tell us. And indeed, the email above (fictive or not) does seem to have morphed into a captivating fable for grownups, a tiny elegiac tale about saying or refusing to say goodbye.

Yet in a curious way, the original email has more heft than the more taciturn revision. The for-sale list implies nagging questions while cloaking Nancy (or Darcy) Brown in a haze of pathos. What are cardio tennis lessons? What is a Surfboard Table and what is a Scan Chair? Why would anyone sell, or want to buy, five boxes of mysterious Kitchen and Bath items?

And then, too, leaving aside the relative virtues of the email and its revision, I have questions—as a writer myself—about the critical propriety of using the creation of one’s own work as a pedagogical example. As Davis herself says, in her otherwise genial if somewhat condescending “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits,” one should “maintain humility with regard to language and writing.” Yet quite often throughout this volume, she implicitly defines her own compositional practices as exemplary, rather than turning to those of others.

At the same time, to be fair, many of the essays here eloquently celebrate writers from Proust and Kafka to Edward Dahlberg, Lucia Berlin, and Rae Armantrout, and the book also includes scrupulous introductions to Davis’s translations of French writers, including Flaubert, Maurice Blanchot, Michel Butor, and Michel Leiris. There are also exuberant and incisive essays about such visual artists as Joan Mitchell, Joseph Cornell, and Alan Cote, and—especially charming—early-20th-century tourist photographs of life in the Netherlands. One oddity: throughout her fine analysis of Cote’s work, Davis never mentions that she is and has long been married to this well-known artist. This lapse seems not only strange but inappropriate—as if I myself were to review a book by, say, one of my children or close friends and muse on it as if I’d never met the author. Surely the usual “full disclosure” line is warranted in this case.

I am, however, caviling. Though some of Davis’s essays don’t have the addictive quality of her short fictions (which someone once likened to small, rich chocolate candies), the best display the stylistic legerdemain that characterizes The Collected Stories and Can’t and Won’t. Among the literary critical writings, I much admire her brilliant discussion of Madame Bovary, which served as an introduction to her translation of the novel. And among the more personal essays (all of which I find engaging), I’m thinking particularly of the bravura “As I Was Reading,” which breathlessly captures a chain of thought that begins with the writer’s perusal of a history of France, and “Remember the Van Wagenens,” a lovely meditation on memory and loss. Lydia Davis is immensely learned; that is clear not only from her translation work but also from her distinguished discussions of the works she has translated. But in much of her nonfiction, she is also a master of the energies that drive her fiction, with its plain style, irony, sensitivity, and elegantly subdued power.

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