This column/essay/interview with avant-short-story-writer/French-masterwork-translator Lydia Davis, written by Emily Stokes for the Financial Times, just made me smile from start to finish. I’m really looking forward to her take on Madame Bovary. (Which would be the third French novel to complete the trilogy of cultural touchstones + undeniable awesomeness? I’m thinking maybe Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.)
I met Davis briefly at an event she did at Penn just after publishing her terrific translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way. It was a joint event at the Kelly Writers House with Edith Grossman, who was just about to publish her also-excellent translation of Don Quixote. (Note – I’ve read Proust in French, but not Cervantes in Spanish, so I can’t vouch for fidelity, just joie de lire.)
I felt badly for them, because the place was virtually empty. I don’t remember if it was on an odd night or the advertising got confused, but there were maybe a dozen people in the room. I wasn’t going to miss it, because I was working up this whole theory about the relationship between Proust, Don Quixote, and slapstick comedy that ended up becoming the coda to my dissertation. (Basically, read Bergson’s On Laughter, Walter Benjamin’s long essay on Proust, watch a whole lot of Buster Keaton, then think really hard about photography, and it will all make sense.) I was taking a seminar on Proust that semester, and only my professor and I showed up (and she hadn’t known about it until I told her). It was strange.
Also, Davis (as you’ll gather from the piece) is a little quirky, introspective, more comfortable in the text than in conversation. Grossman was garrulous, which doesn’t quite actually mean what I want it to mean: aggressively but charmingly outsized, yet totally at home with herself. Davis cares about the squeak of the pepper grinder; Grossman would care about the ravioli. I am Davis, but pretend to be Grossman. Harold Bloom wrote the introduction to Grossman’s translation, and there’s a little bit of Harold Bloom in Edith Grossman. She spoke to this intimate room like Jim Harrison eats food.
After the talk, Davis and Grossman both sold their books, in hardcover, for $20 each. Now, the Quixote, if I remember correctly, normally retailed at $40, Proust at $30. Also, Swann’s Way was already out in stores; Don Quixote hadn’t actually been officially made available yet. Plus, I had exactly $20 cash in my wallet. So, being a good economic rationalist, I bought Grossman’s book, which she signed and we talked about Don Quixote. It was great. Davis, meanwhile, floated on the edge of conversation, with a glass of wine I think, barely touched, watching everything, waiting for her host at the Writers House to take her out to dinner and then to a hotel.
I got to talk with her for a little while just before, during the Q-&-A, about Proust and comedy; she was insightful, and funny, in very much a Samuel Beckett way. And it’s a Beckett take on Proust she’s got, which is pretty much my take too, which is probably why I liked her translation so much once I finally got the chance to read it, which didn’t happen until Christmas 2007. I read most of it out loud to my son, who was about four months old then. In retrospect, it’s probably why he gets such a kick out of kissing his mom and me goodnight. But jeez — I really wish I’d had more cash that night.
This is a long way around of reading the essay at hand, where Davis parts with two different stories that I think taken together manage to say everything I want to say about reading and the encounter with media. The first is from an actual short story of Davis’s, at the end of this paragraph; I’ll keep the whole series to preserve the rhythm.
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.”
The second is from an anecdote, related by Stokes:
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.