The Rear-View Mirror

Michael Hofmann

  • The End of the Story by Lydia Davis
    Serpent’s Tail, 231 pp, £8.99, October 1996, ISBN 1 85242 420 6
  • Break it Down by Lydia Davis
    Serpent’s Tail, 177 pp, £8.99, October 1996, ISBN 1 85242 421 4

Nothing in me wants to believe – nothing in the book makes me want to believe – that The End of the Story is a performance, but just for that reason I have to begin by saying what a good and believable performance it is: how much I admire the characters and the description and the action, and what a wickedly good account it gives of a novel that doesn’t much want to be a novel, that barely is a novel, but can be nothing else. I hope to lose patience and the thread soon, and get to talking 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 Lydia Davis 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 the kind of thing it might be, so one has to say of The End of the Story, ‘this works’ – though it’s probably the least interesting thing about it.

The End of the Story is an account of a love affair between – here goes – a first-person narrator and an unnamed young man. The narrator presents herself as a university teacher and a translator, just like the author. The young man is a student at the university where she teaches, or rather taught at the time, somewhere on the West Coast of the US, we glean, though we are never told. He is 12 years her junior, a circumstance to which she returns quite often. (It is part of the charm and the fluid economy of the book that we are indifferently told things once, more than once, or not at all.) The affair, which went on for a number of months and ended badly, has been over for some years.

The speaker makes no particular claims for the importance or the unique satisfactoriness of the relationship – rather the opposite – but still seems always to have intended to write about it, even when it was in progress. At the time of writing, however, or of letting go, she is teaching at another university, on the opposite coast, and living with a man she calls Vincent, and with Vincent’s elderly father. The ‘story’ then, such as it is, is distanced or framed or even negated in all kinds of ways – perhaps most of all by being treated as a story throughout, as something requiring to be written and causing difficulty in the writing. ‘I am thinking,’ writes Davis, ‘of some example from the natural world in which the living thing dies and then leaves a husk, sheath, carapace, shell, or fragment of rock casing imprinted with its form that falls away from it and outlasts it.’

The remarkable thing is that rather than diminishing or abstracting the story, all these bracketings and negatings somehow extend and vivify it. The paint washes outwards to cover frame after frame; the oyster nacres everything in sight. It is all so utterly the opposite of what one expects, and expects to happen: intensity of evocation, clamorous physical detail, hyperbole, photographic precision. Far from being central, the man seems almost random and incidental. The story happens in a kind of negative space which Davis continually elaborates and extends so that finally even its own processings, even distractions from it, rival it in interest and passion. It reminds me a little of William Gass’s tiny masterpiece, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (‘and I am in retirement from love’), which I imagine Lydia Davis must have known; and a little, too, of Botho Strauss’s novella Die Widmung, which hardly anyone knows in English, though it was published in translation as Devotion in 1980. And the opposite, I imagine, would be more rhetorically exalted books: Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, of which, not too long ago, I was unable to read two pages, or maybe Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, of which I managed only a little more – even though I had expected to enjoy them both. The difference, I think, is that Davis insists on now much more than then – she sees her story in a rear-view mirror, and the mirror isn’t even the whole of the story. Her book is striking for its coolness – or better, a cool fluster; she would say, with Lowell, ‘my eyes have seen what my hand did’; her qualities are all to do with distance: forgetfulness, bemusement, reflection, uncertainty, anxiety to get things right; she offers not an evocation of togetherness or remembered sensuality but the shapes of her curiosity, the physical pleasures of intellection. I expect I make it all sound abstract and second-best, but it really isn’t.

The End of the Story is noticeably – for an American book, amazingly – unspecific and undetailed: hardly any names of characters, no names of places, cars, products. A couple of pages from the end, Davis writes, ‘Now that Ellie is living in the South-West’, and I marked it. She doesn’t discuss her eschewal of place-names and even – with that exception – cardinal points, but it seems like a way of not cosying up to the reader, of keeping her focus tight, offering no facile or specious handles on her story, of the kind that she mocks in ‘Mothers’, from her 1986 volume of short stories, Break it Down: ‘The mother of a guest is mentioned in conversation: this mother is in Oregon, a state few of us know anything about, though it has happened before that a relative lived there.’ The names of her characters, though, exercise Davis considerably. We get some names without descriptions, other descriptions without names; we get her principal character’s embarrassment at not being sure of the young man’s surname for several days, for the richly ironic reason that ‘during these days I was almost always alone with him.’ And then there is her agonising, as a writer, as to whether and how to name the man in her book, which turns into something like a version of Aesop’s fable of the two men and the donkey: ‘She’ – Ellie – ‘seemed to like it, but she said the names were wrong. She did not want the hero to be named Hank. She thought no one could fall in love with someone named Hank. She said it made her think of “handkerchief”.’ Or later: ‘For a long time I called him Stefan. I was even calling the novel Stefan at that point. Then Vincent said he did not like the name because it was too European. I agreed that it was European, though I thought it suited him.’ And so on.

This is part of what I mean by ‘negative space’: an aspect of a book one doesn’t normally get to see, one of the many primings of Davis’s canvas. You’d have to call it an intermediate stage, though in fact it’s just as much ‘there’ as the final outcome, the ‘I’ and ‘he’ – two pronouns which tell the whole of her story, the ‘I’ somehow implying and persisting into the present, the ‘he’ receding into some minute, mythological past. Nor is that all. Near the end of the book, Davis says she began by trying to write it in the third person. ‘Then a day came when I had used she for I so long that even the third person was too close to me and I needed another person, even farther away than the third person.’ By the time she puts it into the first person, the story has become so weathered by its evolution in the third that it chafes oddly with what is traditionally a fresh, sensitive and vulnerable pronoun. The effect is remarkable.

The End of the Story is written with obtrusive – though never pedantic – correctness and a kind of other-century decorum. Davis always writes full sentences, is very careful with her tenses and auxiliaries, and tends to avoid contractions: ‘isn’t’, ‘hasn’t’ and so forth. There is a sense of painstaking thought and difficult control in her sentences and paragraphs, giving form to often sorry or remote or undignified material. The vocabulary is notable for its moderation and refusal: ‘I was told that he and his wife had a daughter and that they named her after a European city’ – instead of telling the reader, inconsequentially, ‘Amsterdam’ or ‘Brno’. Or: ‘I could only take a little fruit, dry bread, certain vegetables, water and juice’ – where ‘take’ and ‘certain vegetables’ (certain vegetables!) even risk a kind of 18th-century pompousness. About the highest term of approbation is ‘pleasant’, used with some of its original force, but still, on the whole, interestingly lukewarm: Vincent’s father’s wheelchair rolling ‘pleasantly over the fresh sawdust’; going to bed with someone being, grimly, ‘not either pleasant or unpleasant’; or the first physical description of the young man (after 80 pages), beginning, ‘He was certainly nice-looking’ – effectively belied by what follows. Unsurprising, although in the context of contemporary fiction and even poetry wholly astounding, is the absence of any intimate scenes worthy of the appellation. The word ‘sex’ is nowhere used, and – as with the names of places or makes of car – the book and the reader are the better for it.

Instead of a lush vocabulary, Davis offers the satisfactions of grammar and tone, and a shapeliness of thought instead of anything more obviously and unreflectedly sensual. Even where there is sensuality, the ordering mind will take charge:

I was nervous, too, at the thought of living with a woman I did not know, whom no one knew very well, in that house with its musty smell of garlic, stale incense, millet, tea, dog, cat and rug shampoo. Though Madeleine kept her part of the house very clean, it was infested with fleas from the animals. My room had no fleas in it but was covered with a layer of old dirt.

It is an irresistible reminder of a Venn diagram: Madeleine’s room, clean but with fleas (Set A), the speaker’s room, dirty but no fleas (Set B). No intersection – everywhere is either dirty or flea-ridden. The mathematical presentation is a matter of wit and decorum, as often with Davis.

A different configuration is made by a paragraph near the end, by which time the speaker and the young man have broken up and are out of touch, but she imagines going to visit him at the docks, where he is working. The whole thing is couched in the conditional, by now a kind of visionary negative:

The other men working with him would stop for a moment to watch as he came over to speak to me. He would be tired and preoccupied, annoyed at being interrupted because now the night would seem all the longer, or embarrassed that I should see him doing this work, or embarrassed before the other men to be having a visit from a woman, or else happy to have a break in the monotony of the work, to have unexpected company in the middle of the night, and pleased in front of the other men.

It is a beautiful paragraph, beginning and ending fugally with ‘the other men’. The long sentence is so strikingly well-ordered that the reader doesn’t immediately realise that what he is confronted with is, first, not actually happening and, second, a splintering multiple choice version of that. (The diagram version would either be one set cut in pieces, or else a number of discrete sets whose circumferences touched.) And it’s only after that that the reader is struck by the sorry pathos of the entire scene: the other men – witnesses – to give it some basis in fact, the solicitous pessimism of his different possible ‘reactions’, the sadly cool range of possibilities. What painstaking realism in an unreal situation, what detached order masking something so utterly fervent and disorderly!

The End of the Story is a comedy, but one of an unusually deep and astringent kind. If there are ‘tears of things’, then there must also be laughter – however hollow – or smiles or half-smiles or grimaces or wincings of things. It is comic to set it apart from epic, perhaps; comic in the sense that everything in it is pointed. You never get Davis raising her head as if for laughter or applause (there probably aren’t many things you’d want to laugh at or clap), but that’s because she has enough to be getting on with in her rear-view mirror and the young man’s third shirt-button: ‘if he was hugging me against his chest, what I would see, within an inch of my eye, was the weave of cotton threads of his shirt or woollen threads of his sweater or the fuzzy nap of his lumber jacket.’ There is something intrinsically funny about being so rapt about noticing things like ‘Each house on this street seemed to have a lawn and just one other thing growing on the lawn, as if that were a rule.’ Or: ‘There were five quarrels, I think.’ This is not survivor’s humour – in the line of resistance from Dorothy Parker to Lorrie Moore – which seeks finally to claim health and deny pain. Davis’s fussy drone is never funny like that, but she never stops being funny either. When the young man tears through the great books only to become ‘indignant’ at their failings, she doesn’t say or feel he is preposterous, and she doesn’t say or feel he’s cheap ‘when he made a very large pot of rather thin cabbage soup for us to eat for supper’. When her landlady’s acupuncturist tells her landlady that ‘everything in her body was reversed – the yin things were yang’; or when a pick-up turns out badly (‘In bed with me he continued to talk about his religion’) and most other writers would be flagging ‘Californian kook’ or ‘sinister zealot’, Davis doesn’t quite know what to do, and so she stays with it. ‘I did not understand very well what this meant,’ she says of Madeleine’s complications, and the scene with the man goes on, horribly and painfully: ‘Then, after he was finished, because I lay with my back turned to him and only grunted when he spoke to me, he must have sensed that I wanted him to leave, and he did leave, at last.’ Humour as catharsis, effectively annulling, Midas-like, whatever it touches is not Davis’s thing: she is more responsible, more tortured and in the end funnier than that. Her book begins and ends with an account of being given tea in a bookshop, ‘with a paper tab hanging over the side of the mug. And since all along there had been too many ends to the story, and since they did not end anything, but only continued something, something not formed into any story, I needed an act of ceremony to end the story.’ This is how it ends, only it doesn’t really, it runs and runs. It is a remarkably original and successful novel.