For Lydia Davis, Language Is Character

[ Read an excerpt from “Essays One.” ]

Finding the right word is one thing, taking it for a walk another. Like most writers who are called “experimental,” Davis shrugs off the label — it suggests rules or protocols, when in fact she proceeds by intuition, accident and divination. She can seem, in her fiction and the way she talks about it, like a writer who is all minimalist control. There is a beautiful account here of how she wrote certain stories based on Flaubert’s letters to his lover, the writer Louise Colet. Davis agonized over how much detail to alter, whether to keep an occasional “etc.,” and how much breathable white space to dilate Flaubert’s dense paragraphs with. But there are exuberant economies in writing too, as Davis says of Henry James and Marcel Proust, whose books seem baggy only if you’re not concentrating. In an essay on Joseph Cornell, Davis delights in the measured extravagance of lists. Here’s just a fragment from one of hers: “a meridienne, banquette, pouf, ottoman, ear, stile, cross rail, stretcher, cross stretcher, crinoline stretcher, cornice, top rail, diamond point.”

“Essays One” is dominated by pieces about writers and writing. It’s a joy to read Davis on John Ashbery’s wedging solid Anglo-Saxon words into his Rimbaud translations, on Lucia Berlin’s admirable monosyllables or on the young Thomas Pynchon’s “heady sense of a smart college boy’s power over language.” But the Cornell essay — “a response by analogy” — is another sort of adventure, oblique and incantatory, something closer to a prose poem than a critical essay in its mysterious affinity for the artist’s work. Davis’s essays about visual art (including one on her husband, the painter Alan Cote) are consistently stranger and more compelling than her merely wise and brilliant reflections on literature. Best of all is “Dutch Scenes,” a series of extended captions to snapshots of the Netherlands taken by a friend’s great-great-grandfather in the early 1900s. Here Davis reaches the tireless attentive ambiguity of a story like “The Cows” (from “Can’t and Won’t”); observing the hats of turn-of-the-century Dutch women, she deadpans: “Here, one is black, while the others are white, surely signifying something.”

A planned second volume of Davis’s nonfiction (“Essays Two,” I presume) is to include her many writings on translation; it will be worth it alone for the thrillingly detailed pieces she has written about translating the first volume of Proust. There is a question, I suppose, about whether Davis’s disparate, occasional nonfiction deserves the weighty presence of two fat volumes titled “Essays.” Outside of a handful of more intimate pieces — on her great-great-grandfather’s meeting with Abraham Lincoln, for instance — she is not really an essayist, critical or personal, in a determined sense. Or is she? In its skewed relation to the real, her fiction already lives on the outskirts of the form. No matter. One gets the impression that even the most fleeting of pieces in “Essays One,” such as a few paragraphs about her favorite short stories, written for a British tabloid, has been given the precise and playful Lydia Davis treatment: “Subtly, or less subtly, you always want to surprise a reader.”

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