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The Rear-View Mirror

Michael Hofmann

31 October 1996
The End of the Story 
by Lydia Davis.
Serpent’s Tail, 231 pp., £8.99, October 1996, 1 85242 420 6
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Break it Down 
by Lydia Davis.
Serpent’s Tail, 177 pp., £8.99, October 1996, 1 85242 421 4
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... about the plight of the author in the book and what the author does next, instead of the tedious periphrasis of ‘narrator’ and ‘first-person speaker’, but I need to begin by saying that what LydiaDavis proposes to us – even if (fat chance!) it’s a hoax from first word to last – is utterly compelling. As Auden would first look at a poem as a ‘contraption’ before going on to assess ...

Things they don’t want to hear

Clancy Martin: Lydia Davis

22 July 2010
The Collected Stories of Lydia​ Davis 
Hamish Hamilton, 733 pp., £20, August 2010, 978 0 241 14504 3Show More
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... Thanks. Where am I going to find a brick out here? I brushed the snow off a large stone a few yards down the embankment but couldn’t dislodge it. Then I remembered I had The Collected Stories of LydiaDavis in my backpack. I put it under the jack, it held – paper is much denser than you think, it’s the reason moving your books is such a pain, they’re heavy – and I changed the tyre. I was ...
18 November 2010
Madame Bovary: Provincial Ways 
by Gustave Flaubert and Lydia Davis.
Penguin, 342 pp., £20, November 2010, 978 1 84614 104 1
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... Eleanor Marx Aveling (Marx’s daughter – a quiet irony, given Flaubert’s caustic views on the Commune), as is the very latest, by the American short-story writer – and Proust translator – LydiaDavis. In between, most of the 15 or more versions have been made by men. The best-known of them are Francis Steegmuller and Gerard Hopkins; and though Steegmuller did write some fiction – ...

Reality Is Worse

Adam Mars-Jones: Lydia Davis

16 April 2014
Can’t and Won’t 
by Lydia Davis.
Hamish Hamilton, 304 pp., £16.99, April 2014, 978 0 241 14664 4
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... In her approach​ to story-writing LydiaDavis might almost have taken a vow of chastity, of the aesthetic sort publicised by the Dogme 95 group of filmmakers. Dogme principles included shooting on location, recording the soundtrack at the same ...


Michael Hofmann: Eley Williams

6 September 2017
Attrib. and Other Stories 
by Eley Williams.
Influx, 169 pp., £9.99, March 2017, 978 1 910312 16 2
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by Eley Williams.
Sad, 35 pp., £6, April 2017
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... consulted, and come to their own unconventional arrangements. It all makes for alphabetophile writing. In the reader, it produces a kind of constructive estrangement from words. Think William Gass, LydiaDavis or Anne Carson, and you won’t be too wrong. Now I feel like someone who thinks there’s a shower on the way, and then it rains for ten days straight. Williams is just full of alphabets. The ...

The Thing

Michael Wood: Versions of Proust

6 January 2005
In Search of Lost Time: Vol. I: The Way by Swann’s 
by Marcel Proust, edited by Christopher Prendergast, translated by Lydia Davis.
Penguin, 496 pp., £8.99, October 2003, 0 14 118031 5
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In Search of Lost Time: Vol.II: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 
by Marcel Proust, edited by Christopher Prendergast, translated by James Grieve.
Penguin, 576 pp., £8.99, October 2003, 0 14 118032 3
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In Search of Lost Time: Vol. III: The Guermantes Way 
by Marcel Proust, edited by Christopher Prendergast, translated by Mark Treharne.
Penguin, 640 pp., £8.99, October 2003, 0 14 118033 1
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In Search of Lost Time: Vol. IV: Sodom and Gomorrah 
by Marcel Proust, edited by Christopher Prendergast, translated by John Sturrock.
Penguin, 576 pp., £8.99, October 2003, 9780141180342
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In Search of Lost Time: Vol. V: ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘The Fugitive’ 
by Marcel Proust, edited by Christopher Prendergast, translated by Carol Clark and Peter Collier.
Penguin, 720 pp., £8.99, October 2003, 0 14 118035 8
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In Search of Lost Time: Vol. VI: Finding Time Again 
by Marcel Proust, edited by Christopher Prendergast, translated by Ian Patterson.
Penguin, 400 pp., £8.99, October 2003, 0 14 118036 6
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The Proust Project 
edited by André Aciman.
Farrar, Straus, 224 pp., $25, November 2004, 0 374 23832 4
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... vie véritable’? In context it is – Proust is telling us that the countries we long for occupy more space in our lived life than the country we physically inhabit – and both Scott Moncrieff and LydiaDavis settle for it. ‘Like a halcyon’s downy nest’ sounds distinctly Edwardian. This must be Scott Moncrieff’s language, and it is. It’s Clark’s too. But then, to stay with the same ...


Paul Grimstad: Flaubert’s ‘Gueuloir’

23 January 2014
Flaubert’s ‘Gueuloir’: On ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Salammbô’ 
by Michael Fried.
Yale, 184 pp., £25, October 2012, 978 0 300 18705 2
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... event in the history of the novel hinges in part on its perfect symmetry of style and subject. A woman of extravagant self-conception doomed to mediocrity in the banlieue of Yonville – someone, as LydiaDavis put it, ‘whose character fatally determined the course of her life’ – is mirrored in a prose in which intention and automatism, will and fate, are themselves indissociable. The question ...

Hmmmm, Stylish

Brian Dillon: Claire-Louise Bennett

19 October 2016
by Claire-Louise Bennett.
Fitzcarraldo, 177 pp., £10.99, October 2015, 978 1 910695 09 8
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... Bennett’s protagonist reminds me of one of those housebound wraiths out of late Beckett, or of Krapp, but stuck brooding on bananas and potential pratfalls. The more pressing comparison is with LydiaDavis. A few of the stories seem to ape the crisp, elliptical quality of Davis’s short, very short, texts. They are among the funniest pieces in Pond. ‘Oh, Tomato Purée’ is a half-page ode to ...

Sex on the Roof

Patricia Lockwood

6 December 2018
Evening in Paradise: More Stories 
by Lucia Berlin.
Picador, 256 pp., £14.99, November 2018, 978 1 5098 8229 8
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Welcome Home: A Memoir with Selected Photographs 
by Lucia Berlin.
Picador, 160 pp., £12.99, November 2018, 978 1 5098 8234 2
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... when Berlin died in 2004, it is extended to a respectable length by a selection of letters, mostly to her friends Ed and Helene Dorn. The lack of variety is puzzling (why not a few of her letters to LydiaDavis, say?) and the letters are not interesting in themselves, but they are worth reading to hear how much more herself she is in the stories. In the letters, curiously, she sounds like just anyone ...
2 March 1989
Tocqueville: A Biography 
by André Jardin, translated by Lydia Davis and Robert Hemenway.
Peter Halban, 550 pp., £18, October 1988, 1 870015 13 4
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... When Americans test the health of their republic, scrutinise the civic virtue of their fellow citizens, or worry that religion is playing too large or too small a role in public life, the text from which they draw their standards of political health and psychological well-being, and the text from which they draw their hopes and fears is a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old treatise written by a French ...

Stifled Truth

Wyatt Mason: Tobias Wolff and fictions of the self

5 February 2004
Old School 
by Tobias Wolff.
Bloomsbury, 195 pp., £12.99, February 2004, 0 7475 6948 7
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... such as John Barth, Robert Coover, Guy Davenport, William Gass, Harry Mathews, Paul Metcalf, Gilbert Sorrentino, Ronald Sukenick and Paul West, as well as their heirs, such as T. Coraghessan Boyle, LydiaDavis, Rick Moody, William Vollmann and David Foster Wallace. None of these writers – however popular or influential, however frequently their writing appeared in the Paris Review or Conjunctions ...

I’m here to be mad

Christopher Benfey: Robert Walser

10 May 2018
Walks with Robert Walser 
by Carl Seelig, translated by Anne Posten.
New Directions, 127 pp., £11.99, May 2017, 978 0 8112 2139 9
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Girlfriends, Ghosts and Other Stories 
by Robert Walser, translated by Tom Whalen, Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner.
NYRB, 181 pp., £9.99, October 2016, 978 1 68137 016 3
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... meant there was something playful, antic, not quite serious in these eccentric ‘types’, with their preference for short, fragmentary forms (which can seem to prefigure those used by a writer like LydiaDavis, who has translated some of Walser’s writings on art) over the epic and ‘mature’ monumentality of the novel. With Hannah Arendt’s advocacy, Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmares were seen ...

Poor Rose

Christian Lorentzen: Against Alice Munro

6 June 2013
Dear Life 
by Alice Munro.
Chatto, 319 pp., £18.99, November 2012, 978 0 7011 8784 2
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... or the snap of Mary McCarthy. The stories are always filled out, where an elliptical strategy might have proved useful to a writer churning over material she’s used before, as in the case of LydiaDavis. I started to think of reading Munro’s sentences as something like walking across a field after a blizzard in a good pair of snowshoes: it’s a trudge, but when you get to the other side your feet ...

Even My Hair Feels Drunk

Adam Mars-Jones: Joy Williams

2 February 2017
The Visiting Privilege 
by Joy Williams.
Tuskar Rock, 490 pp., £16.99, November 2016, 978 1 78125 746 3
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Ninety-Nine Stories of God 
by Joy Williams.
Tin House, 220 pp., £16.95, July 2016, 978 1 941040 35 5
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... pieces are extremely short they aren’t necessarily compressed, if compression implies the forging of wholeness. Williams prefers a sense of fracture and ambush. There’s no sense, as there is with LydiaDavis, whose taste for brevity amounts almost to obsession, that there is a moral hygiene involved in removing the superfluous, except perhaps in the piece numbered 61, which might almost be a homage ...

Crabby, Prickly, Bitter, Harsh

Michael Wood: Tolstoy’s Malice

22 May 2008
War and Peace 
by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Vintage, 1273 pp., £20, November 2007, 978 0 09 951223 3
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... in Translating Music, a pamphlet in the Cahiers Series published by Sylph Editions in conjunction with the Center for Writers and Translators in Paris (other volumes in the series are pieces by LydiaDavis and Alan Jenkins and a forthcoming work by Paul Muldoon). One of Pevear’s test cases is a sentence in which Tolstoy repeats a phrase with apparent (or indeed perhaps real) carelessness ...

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