Lunch with the FT

August 7, 2010 12:29 am

Lunch with the FT: Lydia Davis

The US writer famed for her translations of Proust talks about the art of the very short story and why she aims to be ‘invisible’
Illustration of Lydia Davis

In a recent story by the American writer Lydia Davis, the narrator describes the precise conditions under which a woman can or cannot drive a car. She cannot drive, for instance, if there are too many clouds in the sky – and she can’t have music playing if there are also passengers in the back. If there are two passengers and also a small caged animal, as well as music playing, she cannot speak while driving. Towards the end of the story, conditions complicate even further until a particular experience comes into focus. “If the man next to her opened his newspaper so wide that its edge touched the gearshift,” she writes, “and the sunlight shone off its pages into her eyes, then she could not speak or listen while trying to enter a large highway full of fast-moving cars, even if there were no clouds in the sky.”

My mind turns to this story when, sitting in the passenger seat of Lydia Davis’s family car on a muggy, cloudless day, our conversation (about the poet John Ashbery, who lives nearby) suddenly stops; Lydia Davis is preparing to park. I think of the story again as we settle down into Ca’Mea, a family-run Italian restaurant in the picturesque town of Hudson in upstate New York, to engage in another everyday feat of multitasking: talking about books while eating lunch.

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Lunch with the FT

Davis’s narrators are forever trying to do two or more things at once – to talk with the hiccups; to make scholarly notes while sobbing; to write a story while looking after a baby or husband – or, more generally, to concentrate. As Lorin Stein – previously Davis’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, now editor of the Paris Review – once noted, Davis’s narrators are “precise about feeling muddled”, occasionally so precise they can seem a little “unhinged”. In one story, for instance, a speaker writes a scientific report of 27 get-well letters sent by a class of fourth graders. In another, a woman struggles to find the correct tense with which to speak about a dying man. In another – which pops into my head as we sit down to eat (there is a Davis story for most occasions) – the narrator describes how, on reading a line of poetry while eating a carrot, she finds that she has not really read the poetry – or hasn’t really “consumed it, because I was already eating the carrot. The carrot was a line too.”

We are sitting in the restaurant’s side-room, which is empty and quiet except for some impressionist-style scenes of Florence painted in loud colours, and jazz playing in the background. The waiter asks Davis – who has a girlish, delicate figure, a greying bob, and startling blue eyes – if she would like her usual beer. She explains to me that she was here only the night before to celebrate her 63rd birthday with friends and with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter with whom she has a son. I suggest we order, and Davis snaps open her menu, as if suddenly remembering what we’re here for. “I’m always oblivious of my hunger – oblivious to, I mean,” she says.

Like Samuel Beckett, one of her heroes, Davis is a translator as well as a fiction-writer – best known for her 2003 translation of Swann’s Way , the first book of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, for which she won a MacArthur “genius” grant. Her most recent work is a translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, to be published next month. She started both translating and writing fiction when she moved to France with her then boyfriend, the novelist Paul Auster (to whom she was for a time married and with whom she has a son). For months, while house-sitting, she remembers, the two writers were “very solitary, and the most disciplined and un-distracted”. That was, she tells me, “in 1873 – I mean 1973.” (She is, she says, still in “Flaubert-time”.)

Davis grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her family moved to New York when she was 10. Her mother was a writer, and her father taught Modernist Literature at Smith College and Columbia University (his students included Sylvia Plath and Norman Mailer, a family friend). Davis is now herself a teacher, at the State University of New York in Albany – although, she tells me in her soft, careful voice, “I am basically the sort of person who has stage-fright teaching. I kind of creep into a classroom. I’m not an anecdote-teller, either, although I often wish I were.”

Today, Davis occupies a very particular place in American letters, being both one of the most respected writers in America and, until recently, when her collected stories were published in a pleasing tangerine-coloured hardback, relatively unknown. Lorin Stein has compared her to the Velvet Underground, saying that, although their first LP sold only a few thousand copies, everybody who bought one went out and started a band; Davis has similarly influenced a generation of writers including Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Dave Eggers, who wrote that Davis “blows the roof off of so many of our assumptions about what constitutes short fiction”. Rick Moody has described her as “the best prose stylist in America”.

Davis’s stories are unusual for their length – many are only a sentence long – and for never having a conventional plot. Instead, as James Wood recently wrote in The New Yorker, they raise the question of “how much a fictional story about a fictional self can shed, and still remain a story about a vivid self”.

The answer is “almost everything”, Wood concluded, citing the one-sentence story “Insomnia”, which reads in its entirety: “My body aches so– / It must be this heavy bed pressing up against me.”

She won’t have a starter – “when I’m doing a lot of talking, it’s hard to eat at the same time,” she says – but we both order the ravioli della casa (spinach and ricotta), and I’ll have a tricolore salad to start. Davis looks hesitant for a moment, and then asks the waiter if he could turn off the music.

Writers often answer the question of where their stories come from with an enigmatic shrug; Davis, however, says she found one on a hotel bed – a card left by the housekeeper that simply read, “Your housekeeper has been Shelly” (Davis made it into a story by giving it a title: “Example of the Continuing Tense in a Hotel Room”). Another, called “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”, comes from Boswell’s diary, and reads “that Scotland has so few trees”. She tries to remember her thinking behind dividing up the sentence in this way. “I think it was just too much in one go,” she concludes.

My tricolore salad arrives – strangely, all green – and the waiter grinds pepper on it. I am curious how she thinks her translations may relate to her fiction. Davis, wincing slightly at the pepper grinder, which is squeaking, tells me about one story called “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman”, which came about as Davis was translating a biography of Marie Curie composed of sentences so sentimental and nonsensical that they were, she says, “too good to waste”. She was interested “in the idea that a story written very badly could also be very moving”; even as she corrected the translation, she explains, she found herself weeping at the death of Curie’s husband.

I ask if she had a similarly emotional response to translating Madame Bovary; in the introduction she wrote to accompany her translation Davis notes that Flaubert often found himself weeping as he wrote it, and that he so identified with Emma during her last days that he was physically ill. She shakes her head. No, she says, she wasn’t at all moved by the book. In fact, when she first read Madame Bovary as a young adult, she was unimpressed; “I didn’t like her; I didn’t like the story; and I didn’t see all this wonderful style”.

Translating an author, Davis explains, is like living with them. Flaubert, she tells me, “despised his characters, despised their thinking and their way of being in the world. He concentrated a great deal, in his letters, too, on the sheer stupidity of people.” Translating Proust (whom she refers to as “my Proust”) was, she says, much more pleasurable – partly because she liked “rebuilding his long sentences”, but also because she sensed what she calls a “generosity” in his writing. “He was also very generous to his friends,” she says, almost as if speaking from personal experience: “He would bring them fruit baskets and pay them other little attentions.”

Our ravioli arrives – neat, bite-size parcels of spinach and ricotta – and another waiter offers us the black pepper again. Davis notes that this isn’t the squeaky grinder, and the waiter explains that this one does, in fact, squeak but less loudly than the other. There is another, he says, which is quiet, and another, his favourite, which is very long, so that you can reach over the table with it. Davis listens attentively, apparently pleased with the waiter’s attention to detail.

Davis realises now that one of the main reasons she did not take to Flaubert when she read him as a girl was because she was, in fact, not reading Flaubert. Translators have tended to pad out Flaubert’s French, or to correct it. “He was so fussy about getting things just the way he wanted them – and the translators weren’t paying him the respect of reproducing those details. They were just treating Madame Bovary as a story.”

Several translators, Davis explains, ignore Flaubert’s pet-hates – repetitions and metaphors. In her own translation she has made an effort not to elaborate and has even preserved Flaubert’s own erratic capitalisations. “Some of this is very subtle,” she sighs.

Despite Davis’s aim to be “invisible” as a translator, it is paradoxically her translations, more than her fiction, which have until recently attracted the most critical attention – both favourable (she was named a Chevalier of Arts and Letters in 1999) and less so. Her translation of Swann’s Way won awards but it also attracted surprisingly harsh criticism, including a review from Christopher Hitchens, who felt it too “close” – overly literal or unpoetic.

Davis, nodding thoughtfully, tells me that she was saddened by the reviews but has concluded that people were simply enamoured with the Proust they were used to – the 1922 translation by CK Scott Moncrieff, who, according to Davis made Proust flowery, turning “said” into “remarked” or “murmured”, or “strange” into “strange and haunting”. “Anyone who loves Proust loves that one,” she says, “but it wasn’t Proust,” she insists – “it wasn’t close enough; it was a different book. I don’t want to rewrite what I’m translating, and I don’t want to bring my own style into it.”

There is, of course, a paradox here; Lydia Davis’s style of translation is, in fact, very much her own; her translations, like her stories, are sparse and demanding. She has been criticised for the abstruseness of her diction (“lacustrine” for lakeside, for instance) but, she explains, she would rather use a single, correct word than elaborate – after all, people can always simply look up a word they don’t know.

Davis’s determination not to alter or smooth over a text is, perhaps, one of her boldest statements – an almost ethical decision not to make things easy for the reader, or to make compromises. At times, reading Davis’s translation of Flaubert, I became aware that I was reading a translation – it is rigid, a little unnatural, perhaps – but maybe this would not bother Davis; she likes reading to be a layered experience, and would rather that the process of writing was explicit than that any narrative seemed “artificial”.

Davis takes a break to put another 25 cents in the parking meter and, when she returns, says, tentatively, “I do find I have a limited – I get kind of talked out after a while.” We take a pause to focus on our coffees, and then, very gently, talk about books we like to read (Lydia Davis always has two on the go, one difficult, one easy) and visual art (which she follows only “in the margins”). Her favourite activities, she tells me, are reading old copies of the Times Literary Supplement in her kitchen, and watching her three cows through the window as she writes.

As we walk to the car, she tells me about a recent project, based on dreams and dream-like experiences, inspired in part, she says, by French surrealist Michel Leiris, whose work she has translated. A thunderstorm is brewing outside and Davis drives me to the train station. As we draw up outside it starts to pour but Davis hops out of the car to stand under an awning for a moment so she can show me two pictures from her wallet. The first is her home – a large redbrick schoolhouse covered in ivy with large windows. The second is a photograph of two cows – standing in the snow like black cut-outs on white paper, staring flatly at the camera. Something about the picture is irresistibly funny.

She sent the photo, she tells me, to her friend Rae Armantrout, a poet, who called her afterwards. “She asked me why I had sent her a picture of two pigs strung up on a spit,” says Davis – and then turns the picture upside down.

I can see what she means; the line of horizon does resemble a wire, and the cows do look a bit like pigs. “It was just one of those confusions,” she says, shrugging.

Then she bids me farewell, and drives away.

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Ca’Mea

333 Warren Street, Hudson, New York 12534

Salad Tricolore $7.50

2x Ravioli della Casa $26.00

2x Dogfish Head beers $12.00

Espresso $3.00

Cappuccino $3.00

Total (including service) $55.62

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