Things they don’t want to hear

Clancy Martin

  • The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
    Hamish Hamilton, 733 pp, £20.00, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 241 14504 3

The truck’s wheels slipped on the hardpack and I went for a tree, missed it, bounced off the snow bank and spun around to settle against the opposite side of the road. I got out to look at the truck and the front left tyre was flat. Because of the road’s camber I couldn’t jack the truck high enough. A passing truck slowed and the driver, leaning out of his steamy window, said (I had forgotten my gloves and my fingers were freezing), ‘You need a brick!’ and kept on driving. 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 Lydia Davis 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 back in my truck, with the heat blasting out, turning my fingers in front of the vent.

Lydia Davis’s mysterious, uncomfortably intimate short stories are often read as the working out on paper of her own very ordinary difficulties in managing life. When I suffered my flat tyre and her book saved the morning, I thought she would be pleased, because of the ordinariness of the problem she had solved, which nevertheless is exactly the kind of problem that, as one after another accumulates in a day or over a week, can come to make you feel that life is too overwhelming in its minutiae, too mundanely cumbersome to bear. I think one of the reasons her work is so powerful – though before this collection she was mostly known as ‘a writer’s writer’, someone you were introduced to in an undergraduate lit class if you were lucky, but more likely in an MFA programme – is this gift of making our unconscious or semi-conscious struggles visible, in stories that are rarely longer than a page or two.

Davis is a ‘writer’s writer’ no more: this collection of the majority of her published stories to date – her first collection, The 13th Woman and Other Stories, was published in 1976, and there have been seven other collections and a novel since – seems to have been received with more critical praise than any other piece of fiction published in the US in 2009 (see James Wood’s review in the New Yorker, for one example among many). Many of Davis’s readers have tended to argue that her power is in the microscope she applies to her own life. In ‘Mrs D and Her Maids’, for example, Mrs D writes to a prospective maid that ‘I must spend all my mornings at my work of writing,’ and that the maid ‘should be co-operative, willing to accept and put into practice new ideas, especially in handling the baby, and calm, patient and firm in dealing with him. Meals should be prompt. I should be glad to hear from you, and the sooner the better.’ It’s hard not to think that Mrs D is Lydia Davis – especially when you read the story in the context of others, which describe many similarly smart, distraught mothers and the troubles they are having with their children. But I don’t think Davis’s great importance comes from the way she may or may not be talking about Lydia Davis. Writers tend to be either narcissists or voyeurs (though of course one can be both), and Davis is much more interested in other people than she is in herself. Even when she is handling narrators whose situation must be similar to her own, or to what hers has been at one time or another, the reticence of her writing, its reluctance to offer the reader any psychological insight into its narrators and characters beyond what they themselves will grudgingly reveal, its tendency to stick to the facts and avoid asking questions (much less answering them), means that her stories are never inward-looking.

Here is one of my favourite stories, a single 20-word sentence, ‘“Information from the North Concerning the Ice”: Each seal uses many blowholes, and every blowhole is used by many seals.’ On the face of it it’s a mere stylistic exercise, like Queneau at his least interesting, or still worse a belated literary Pop: take a sentence that might be from a (rather odd) textbook, the antithesis of literature, and – look! – I can still call it a story. But then we read it a couple more times, we observe that it is surrounded in the collection by stories dealing with romantic relationships, and we try to interpret it. It is, we realise, a depressing parable about love and sex: men are seals and women are blowholes (blowholes!); the seals go where they please, the blowholes are passively used by the seals. Naturally this is a revelation ‘from the North’: it’s a proverb of hell not a proverb of heaven. And then the spareness of the story gets one to thinking about the voice of the narrator. What has this woman suffered that gives her this ugly view of sex and love? She thinks the whole thing can be summarised in a phrase. And we see that it’s information ‘concerning the ice’, the iciness of recent heartbreak perhaps, the cold, hard truth about the irresponsible sleek user of holes: this is the perspective of one who feels used. And this is ‘information’ to her.

Her naivety is what creates this little truth, and suddenly we realise that only a young woman could have narrated this parable of destroyed love, a young woman who has for the first time realised that men will treat women like holes to be used, and resolves that this will turn her into ice. A woman who was more familiar with the ways of the world would not consider this an icy fact so much as a sad, boring, predictable one; she might accuse herself: how did I let this happen again? But this young woman concludes that she’s seen through the whole thing, that’s the end of the story, she knows the truth: she brings this information, this news, and that’s the way she’s going to feel about it for ever; it’s as short as an epitaph because she has said all that needs to be said, she’s spoken the last word. And we are supposed to feel sorry for her, and want to tell her, but no, it feels very different for the seal, there are no seals really – or very few of them – and even those don’t just use blowholes. Of course, literally read, the whole thing is a factual account of Arctic animal behaviour; at least, as far as we know: it could be that seals are very territorial about their blowholes, we don’t know, just as she doesn’t know. The fact that we don’t know, and suppose that she could hardly know (we’d better go and check!), is another layer in the fiction.

This story, which resembles Kafka’s ‘The Wish to Be a Red Indian’ or Luke 10.25-37 (‘The Parable of the Good Samaritan’) or any of Aesop’s fables, but adds complexity by adding the question of the identity of the narrator, is typical of Davis. Many of her stories are two or three sentences long, some merely a phrase, most are half a page, a page or two; the handful of long stories are still modest in length, rarely exceeding eight or nine pages. The range of types she presents is quite narrow: she tends to stick to mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, daughters and sons; they usually sound like upper-middle-class white people, probably well educated, perhaps artists, writers, academics, translators. She writes about people from her world, the people we expect that she knows. The characters are usually anonymous, but they are never archetypes, they are never meant to represent generalised personalities or ideas: the people in the stories – and this is where Davis elevates herself to a fiction writer of the very first rank – are always individuals with particular personalities and problems. (This is not to say that any particular story itself might not tackle an archetype or a philosophical idea – many of them, like Ponge’s poems, are exquisite miniature essays.)

Davis’s narrators employ various styles and forms, with various motivations, all necessitated by the different truths they are trying to share with us. The narrator of ‘Samuel Johnson is Indignant: that Scotland has so few trees’ (that’s the title and the whole story) is a very different person from the lover of gardens and doctors who worries over herself in ‘Thyroid Diary’ and compares herself to the perpetually withering cuttings she takes from a corkscrew willow tree. What a challenge to set oneself: to become hundreds of different authors. It reminds me of the line in ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, when the wife asks her dying husband, a writer, to try to ‘think about someone else,’ and he complains: ‘For Christ’s sake. That’s been my trade.’ (In Hemingway’s case you read that line and want to shake him by the throat and say: ‘Ha! That’s what you’re kidding yourself, you spend 90 per cent of your time thinking about “Papa”.’) Davis is a voyeur, not only of the objects of her stories, or of the stories they tell, but of her own storytellers; she is as curious about her narrators as she is about their narratives, and we fail her as readers when we listen only to the story and not to the person telling it.

Take the two different narrators of parallel stories from her early collection Break It Down (1986): ‘Mothers’ and ‘The Mother’. The first is two paragraphs long; this is the second paragraph:

Mothers, when they are guests at dinner, eat well, like children, but seem absent. It is often the case that they cannot follow what we are doing or saying. It is often the case, also, that they enter the conversation only when it turns on our youth; or they accommodate where accommodation is not wanted; smile and are misunderstood. And yet mothers are always seen, always talked to, even if only on holidays. They have suffered for our sakes, and most often in a place where we could not see them.

And here is ‘The Mother’ in its entirety:

The girl wrote a story. ‘But how much better it would be if you wrote a novel,’ said her mother. The girl built a dollhouse. ‘But how much better if it were a real house,’ her mother said. The girl made a small pillow for her father. ‘But wouldn’t a quilt be more practical,’ said her mother. The girl dug a small hole in the garden. ‘But how much better if you dug a large hole,’ said her mother. The girl dug a large hole and went to sleep in it. ‘But how much better if you slept for ever,’ said her mother.

Both stories tell us something about mothers, something we already know but would rather not know or at least not admit, but the forms are very different: the first is a short essay, something that might have been excerpted from a meditation on mothers by a modern Montaigne; the second has the sing-song tone and alternation of action with dialogue of a children’s fable (complete with Brothers Grimm ending). What most distinguishes the stories from one another is the perspective of the narrator on motherhood (and, one feels, on each narrator’s own mother): the first narrator feels the quiet annoyance one often comes to feel with one’s mother after becoming an adult oneself, but ends with a tremendous moral defence of what we owe our mothers; the second narrator takes us along the familiar course of feeling inadequate to one’s mother’s expectations, and then takes it to an extreme. There are various signs in the first story – mothers ‘eat well, like children’, the mother’s age – that the narrator is herself a mother, who has come to understand what being a mother involves and feels guilt for having been irritated with her own mother all those years. But the second narrator seems to want to throw as hard a punch as she can at all motherhood; she may even imagine, as a child who feels inadequate to her mother’s expectations may, that her mother actually wishes her dead, like some witch-mother from a fairy tale. She is viciously angry or anxiously fearful, though of course one can feel both emotions at the same time. The point of this openness, an ambiguity that characterises so many of the stories, is to provoke us: not emotionally, but intellectually. If Davis describes a mother moralising, it is not to make us accept or be repulsed by a moral, but to ask what makes that mother a moraliser.

Davis describes motherhood from some unexpected angles. In ‘The Old Dictionary’, Davis, the translator of Proust, Leiris, Blanchot and others, writes:

I have an old dictionary, about 120 years old, that I need to use for a particular piece of work I’m doing this year … Each time I handle it, I take the greatest care not to harm it: my primary concern is not to harm it. What struck me today was that even though my son should be more important to me than my old dictionary, I can’t say that each time I deal with my son, my primary concern is not to harm him.

She goes on to explain that her dog is better cared for than her houseplants, though not as well cared for as the dictionary, and that all of these things are in a sense much better cared for than her son, in part because ‘my son needs many other things besides what he needs for his physical care, and these things multiply or change constantly. They can change right in the middle of a sentence. Though I often know, I do not always know just what he needs … Many times each day I do not give him what he needs.’ The story reflects the translator’s strange love of books, and the distance one feels from a text that one is trying to make into a new text, while preserving the integrity of the original; and at the same time the alienation and the care of motherhood. The blend of care and alienation is carried through in the tone of the story, by turns incredibly intimate (‘His body is strong and flexible … I have bruised his body’) and almost violently frustrated by distance, which is carried through in the imagery (‘My son gets dirty, and I can’t clean him’). This is the mother speaking of her child, the narrator reflecting on herself, and also the writer speaking of her work. And she can’t properly sort out what feelings are appropriate to which: she reports honestly how she thinks she is feeling, and a sense of guilt hangs over the entire narration, but we don’t feel sorry for her. The narrator, as a mother speaking for mothers, has by the end achieved a little victory over us, because we feel less inclined to judge our own mothers’ fumbling attempts to be both human beings and our most exigent caretakers.

Some of the commentaries on mothers could not be more familiar. Take the first paragraph of the title story of Davis’s 2007 collection, Varieties of Disturbance:

I have been hearing what my mother says for over 40 years and I have been hearing what my husband says for only about five years, and I have often thought she was right and he was not right, but now more often I think he is right, especially on a day like today when I have just had a long conversation with my mother about my brother and my father and then a shorter conversation on the phone with my husband about the conversation I had with my mother.

It is the mother, of course, who is the cause of the many varieties of disturbance in the story (and therefore the book). Who won’t recognise herself or himself in this description of a series of complex and increasingly irritating phone calls from a mother? Towards the end of Varieties of Disturbance (which ends The Collected Stories, the title echoing William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience), the disturbance brought about by mothers escalates through a sequence of stories that begins with ‘Her Mother’s Mother’, who ‘In the night, late at night … used to weep and implore her husband, as her mother, still a girl, lay in bed listening’, soon followed by the two-sentence ‘Mother’s Reaction to My Travel Plans’ (‘Gainsville! It’s too bad your cousin is dead!’) and then by ‘Travelling with Mother’, in which the narrator tells us she is taking a trip with her mother on a bus, and then suddenly reveals: ‘In my rolling suitcase I had the metal container, well wrapped in clothes. That was now her home, or her bed.’ Her mother is dead and ashes. ‘Before,’ the narrator says, ‘she could not leave her house. Now she is moving.’ And then: ‘It has been so long since she and I travelled together. There are so many places we could go.’ There is no one left to be angry with. They are still together, and she is free – they both are free to go where they please – but the freedom tastes like ‘an apple so old it was nearly baked like a pie apple’ (this comes after a line in an earlier story about mothers in which an old woman ‘spits the skin of her baked apple on a plate’). She has waited for her mother to die, as the two of them now sit there waiting for the bus, and whatever she expected from her mother, all those years, is gone. She is free, but she doesn’t know where she will go next. This is something I admire about many of Davis’s narrators: they tell themselves things they don’t want to hear.

There are also things they don’t tell themselves, or don’t admit. Even the third-person apparently omniscient narrators sometimes seem like people trying to avoid taking responsibility for the stories they are telling (just as a mother will assume impersonal authority through her manner of speaking: ‘That’s just the way it is,’ or ‘Why? Because I said so’). The narrator of ‘Her Damage’ (already we’re asking, in the familiar, accusatory colloquialism, ‘What’s her damage?’) relates: ‘She burned her hand feeding the wood stove. The baby rolled off the side of their bed and fell onto the floor. She took the baby out for a walk late in the afternoon when the temperature was below freezing, its face turned red, and it started screaming with pain.’ These are all bare facts, but the story ends with a long, lyrical paragraph that has the female character trying fruitlessly to take family pictures – ‘the last being a shot of an oil barge with a tugboat coming up the creek through the first winter ice towards her where she stood at the window, beginning to realise there was no film in the camera’ – and we see that the third-person narrator is much more connected with this dysfunctional family than she pretends, that this third-person ‘she’ is a device that the character-narrator is hiding behind, just as ‘she’ hides behind the camera that fails to take pictures. The story is about a woman who can’t cope, and part of that failure – or her self-deceptive strategy for making it through the day – is to put herself in the third person, to become an onlooker.

And sometimes the narrators tell themselves nothing at all, but even this is meaningful, as in ‘Certain Knowledge from Herodotus’: ‘These are the facts about the fish in the Nile:’. That’s the whole story. Of course there is a play on the word ‘certain’ (‘certain’ is one of Davis’s favourite words, it occurs in a great many of her stories): ‘certain’ as in a discrete number, but also ‘certain’ as in ‘without a doubt’. In Davis’s epistemology, things are measurable as being of a certain number (everything is particular), but there is no certain, absolutely reliable knowledge. We recall that Herodotus’ work is supposed to have marked the transition from mythical ways of thinking to historical ways of thinking, from fiction to fact – but no facts are offered about the fish in the Nile. Herodotus’ promise of knowledge is empty, misleading. There is no one truth, just as there is no one source of the Nile. Why a fish? I like to think it bears a relation to feminism: the Nile fish was cursed for eating the phallus of the god Osiris, who was responsible for the yearly drought and periodic flooding of the Nile. The source of all things has the symbol of his power devoured by the female fish, leaving behind mystery, a lacuna, an absence of certain facts. The story could be read as a celebration of non-male thinking; it could be a woman’s complaint about not having the power to speak. But Herodotus is silenced here too. Davis leaves the historian looking like a boy who didn’t want to finish his homework, or didn’t know how. In any case, there is an absence waiting to be filled, a seeking rather than a dogma, a question rather than an answer.

So, in a story called ‘A Friend of Mine’, the narrator tries to summarise what she knows about her friend and, finding that what her friend thinks of herself is very different from what other people think of her, and that in general it is impossible to know ‘what she really is’, concludes:

All this being true of my friend, it occurs to me that I must not know altogether what I am, either, and that others know certain things about me better than I do, though I think I ought to know all there is to know and I proceed as if I do. Even once I see this, however, I have no choice but to continue to proceed as if I know altogether what I am, though I may also try to guess, from time to time, just what it is that others know that I do not know.