I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
This interview is featured, along with thirty-four others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.
I was a fan of Lydia Davis’s work for a long time before we became friends. Precise and meticulous yet impassioned and obsessive, intense yet often hilarious, painstakingly logical yet often veering more or less sharply in the direction of the demented, the stories in Break It Down—the first of her books that I read—expanded my ideas of what fiction could be, what language could accomplish. Frequently, I reread her stories and her remarkable novel, The End of the Story, when I feel that I’m becoming too narrow, too rigid, too limited in my own ideas about writing. I was glad for a chance to talk to her about her new story collection, Almost No Memory, and for an opportunity to ask questions I’d wondered about for years—to try and find out what makes her writing so original, so unique, so thrillingly peculiar.
Francine Prose Do you remember learning to read?
Lydia Davis Yes, and my memories of the Dick and Jane books are very happy memories. I loved learning the words “look” and “see”: “Run, Jane, run. See Jane run.” It was so clear and easy and unconfusing and neat. Actually I spent my second grade year in Austria. I had one year of learning to read in English and then I learned to read in German. I still have the German textbooks in which the letters got smaller and smaller as the pages progressed through the book.
FP How sadistic!
LD That’s right, very sadistic.
FP Do you think about the rhythms of Dick and Jane?
LD I always liked clarity and simplicity and balance. All rhythms can be seductive. I was attuned to the music of language as well as the music of music. Learning another language when I was seven probably made me hyperconscious of language; also the German language in the classroom was a wall of incomprehensibility around me. Gradually the words began to have meaning. But first I heard the language as rhythm.
FP So do you write for rhythm now?
LD Yes, it’s always rhythm. I always hear it in my head.
FP There are lots of books that make me think: I don’t care what’s in them as long as they’re written beautifully.
LD In fact Beckett said somewhere that he didn’t care what a text said as long as it was constructed beautifully, or something like that—all of meaning, all of beauty is in the construction.
FP It’s rare that people pay attention to that any more. What were your favorite books when you were a kid? Do you remember?
LD A turning point for me was Dos Passos’ Orient Express. That was one of the first “grown-up” books that made me excited about the language. It was one of the first I wasn’t reading for plot. Another was The Unnamable by Beckett. I got into that at 13.
FP You read Beckett at 13?
LD Yeah, I didn’t read the whole thing.
FP Where did you find it?
LD My father was an English professor, and somehow it must have been in the house. It made a very strong impression because it was so different from anything I had read. I opened this book and it said on the first page, “I’m lying here. I’ve dropped my pencil.” Later, in high school, I would go through one novelist after another—Nabokov, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, Joyce—and read everything.
FP Do you think about Beckett a lot now?
LD He was very important to me in my early twenties. I studied him. I was really picking apart sentence structures, seeing exactly how he constructed a sentence. Why it worked so beautifully. I suppose I wanted to do it as well as Beckett. So if I was going to do it as well as he did, I had to learn how he did it.
FP So you knew you wanted to write?
LD I knew from a very early age—maybe 12—but the funny thing was that it was more of a burden than a pleasure.
FP (laughter) How prescient.
LD Right. I knew it would be a lot of hard work. Like a Chinese emperor, the child knowing he’s going to grow up to be emperor. He may not really want to, but has no choice in the matter. I wasn’t reconciled or really content with the idea until I was in my twenties. As a child, what I really loved was music! I enjoyed writing a story when I had to write one, but what I really sought out was music.
FP Playing the piano?
LD Playing the piano, and I loved listening to music. I would listen to a record over and over again. Then I would go out and get the score and listen to the record with the score because I wanted to get as deeply into it as I could. I didn’t go into my room and write stories or write a novel the way some kids do. I spent all my time on music.
FP If you had to think of a modern writer … who’s the closest to music? Beckett and Joyce often seem to be writing more for the music of the language than for content.
LD How about Nabokov? Do you include him?
FP Well Nabokov, yes, he’s sort of like Bartók. What was the first thing you wrote, the first thing you thought was really something?
LD I can remember a day when the teacher read aloud my story and also a story by a classmate. I loved her story. I wasn’t so fond of mine. So I can say her story was a big influence on me, the first thing that I really remember liking. You know the book Iron and Silkwhere the English teacher asks a class of Chinese students to describe their most memorable experience? One of the students hesitates and hesitates and finally says that his most memorable experience was when his wife went to Beijing and ate duck there. He didn’t go. She went, but that was his most memorable experience.
FP I can remember some dreadful little moralistic tales that I wrote in grade school and horrible little love poems in high school.
LD In high school I was more excited by essays because I was discovering how to think things through and come to new thoughts.
FP When did the stories in Break It Down start?
LD The earliest ones were written about ten or 12 years before they were published. They were written when I was in France after college. I was having trouble writing a traditional narrative story. There was one long story that I worked on endlessly. Looking back at the notebooks, I realize it took me over two years to finish it, trying another version and another version. In the meantime, I started doing these very short stories to break myself out of the rut of not writing or resisting writing. I told myself: You have to write two tiny stories every day. It didn’t matter how silly they were, I just had to finish two one-paragraph stories.
FP This is probably an impossible question, but when you say a story’s “not working” or “working,” what does that mean?
LD It’s flat. It’s dull. There were two stories, one called “What Was Interesting.”
FP Oh, I love that story.
LD The other was “The Center of the Story.” Both of those didn’t work as they were. The core of the story didn’t work. I left them alone for a long time. The way I rescued them was to come back and address the question as a part of the story. Why isn’t it working? The problem with one of them was that it had no center. The problem with the other was that it just wasn’t interesting enough.
FP Speaking of “What Was Interesting,” why do you think that obsessive love is such an interesting subject? It’s not in fact a condition that people find themselves in all the time, or even most of the time. And yet it’s always somehow riveting, and a number of the stories in Break It Down are about that.
LD It’s one of the first things we experience when we’re changing from being children to being adolescents. One of the signs is that we suddenly start falling in love with a camp counselor or with a teacher. Usually the first objects of our affections are at a distance, rather than someone who falls in love with us in return. Maybe it’s so compelling later because of those first experiences.
FP There’s that dreadful familiarity each time you have those first experiences all over again.
LD Obsessive or foiled or frustrated love is very compelling because you don’t have control over it. It’s the most extreme example of not being able to control another person.
FP It also puts you smack up against some unknowable mystery that I think at some points, or for some people, wisely gets turned into religious emotion. It’s that sense of the unknowable. In some of the stories in Break It Down it’s the question: Why is this guy doing this? You might as well be Job asking God why He’s done what He’s done.
LD Right, and I’m not allowed to ask. I can ask, but He won’t really tell me. Just as I can strive for grace or perfection but maybe it won’t be granted to me.
FP Or strive for knowledge. (pause) When did you figure out that the self watching the self write was a permissible thing to put in the story? So many of the stories have that element. It’s one of the things that give them dimension and textures and layers.
LD In The Unnamable, Beckett certainly includes the self watching the self write. There’s a story within a story. The old man who keeps losing his pencil is trying to tell a story about a strange family whose name I forget—Saposcat or something. I didn’t do it for a long time, because everything I read said you don’t do that.
FP You’re not supposed to do that.
LD So even though I got that from Beckett right away, it’s as if you have to go through the stages of writing more traditional stories before you can go back to what really spoke to you first.
FP Right. Here I am trying to write, trying to describe this thing for which there are no words, for which there is no point in writing, which I don’t understand the point of writing. Before that, there was Flaubert with all those pronouncements about how the writer should be as invisible in the work as God is in creation.
LD That’s why I felt as though I was cheating with “The Center of the Story.” I added another layer, and that other dimension or perspective automatically made the stories richer and more interesting. But is that cheating or not?
FP Why would you think it would be?
LD I guess this is why: either I should have had that intention from the very beginning, it should have been part and parcel of the whole conception; or the story should have been strong enough to stand on its own, anyway. My slightly uneasy feeling was, couldn’t I do that with each story that didn’t work? Here’s another story coming along with a broken leg. This one is just too slow. How can I speed it up? Ah, here comes another with another problem. I often seem to work in pairs: whatever impulse I have with one story there’s enough of that impulse left to do another story.
FP I was going to ask you about that, if the stories led to other stories or if they were all discrete stories?
LD They usually don’t lead to others, except that as I’m writing, I get a certain level of energy going that makes me more inclined to think of other stories. So in that sense one story will spawn a lot of other beginnings. I got into a strange thing at one point: “How He Is Often Right I & II” ended one way in one version and went off in another direction in another version. I simply didn’t know which was better. They seemed like two alternatives. I did publish them as “I & II” in a couple of instances, and then in another instance I combined the two into one. I decided one was weaker and one was stronger. I got very intrigued by that dilemma when I was writing the novel, feeling like I could have done it like this or just as well like that. It’s so much more comfortable when you’re writing a story and you see there’s only one way to go with it, but when you see that there are all these forks in the road and you’re not sure you’ve taken the right one …
FP But it’s also because the consciousness of the narrator in most of the stories is the consciousness of someone who can see a number of different possible explanations or paths or interpretations.
LD Yes. It’s very unnerving. It was very unnerving with the novel not to be sure that this or that decision was right.
FP How far in advance do you know?
LD Know what?
FP What’s going to happen with a story or the novel?
LD I hate to say “right from the beginning” because that contradicts everything I’ve ever thought and studied and learned and taught students—that you shouldn’t know. But of course in most pieces even if you know, there are a lot of things you don’t know that will happen along the way. With the novel I knew roughly what events and what time period I wanted to cover. But in the one-paragraph stories, I didn’t know exactly where a certain argument was going to land. But that’s a different problem because those are not plotted stories. In a plotted story I might know that X was going to get sick and better again, but in these logical argument stories, I really do have to write them over and over again.
FP You say “logical argument,” but it’s always a kind of logic that’s just teetering on the edge of absurdity.
LD Right, it’s got to be water-tight logic within an absurd situation or starting from an absurd premise.
FP That’s what’s thrilling about them. You’re reading it and you’re absolutely convinced, and it’s not until the end that you go, “Huh?”
LD Yes. I’m thinking of one called “Ethics.” I heard on a television program that the idea of “Do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you” was the basis for all systems of ethics. Then I realized if I applied it to one person I knew, it wouldn’t work because he would really want certain people to be angry and hostile towards him because he was already feeling that way towards them. So I had to work that out.
FP What is it that you’re trying to get to in “What I Feel”?
LD The revelation that the character has is that her feelings may someday not seem very important to her. Once they’re not important, then life is a lot easier. But it’s still important to her what she feels, or it still plays a big part in how she reacts to things. I guess what’s so hard to get is the very end, that she’s comforted both because she realizes “Ah, I am free of this horrible burden of my feelings” and that she realizes “Someday I will be free of this horrible burden of my feelings.” I still haven’t quite got it.
FP I always think how much of what the Buddha said made perfect sense, and yet is difficult and impossible to follow. Still, it’s comforting to think that you can get to that point.
LD Exactly. But I can’t even get the last sentence. It’s 95 percent there, but not 100 percent. I was still working on it in the copyediting stage. So that really is an example of the thought not being quite there until the writing is there. As long as it’s not expressed quite right I haven’t brought it to some sort of completion or realization.
FP So I guess the question is: Do you think about, I don’t know how to even put it, the religious states of consciousness?
LD More and more, I suppose. Maybe because I’m approaching 50. It seems much more urgent to … I have always loved the language of the King James version of the Bible. It’s hard not to love that. I was asked to write an essay on the New Testament last year and I did.
FP What was the essay about?
LD I wrote about a book written by the Jesus Seminar about what Jesus actually, probablysaid. It’s a fascinating work of detective analysis to try to discover what in the Gospels is actually quoting or nearly quoting. They color-code it so that only what’s printed in red are the words that Jesus probably spoke. And there are very few, some of the parables and then the word Abba, which I love. Aramaic for “father.” The word Abba is the only thing he quite certainly said. It’s partly my fascination with detective work, but I love the idea of taking this figure who has really been such a problem and trying to put all of the images or the preconceptions and misconceptions to one side and try to get to what the man actually said. You get to one word, Abba. Which is also pleasing because of the pattern of the letters, a rhyme scheme in poetry: ABBA.
FP And also a palindrome.
LD And the first two letters of the alphabet.
FP Why is Jesus a problem for you?
LD The figure of Jesus has been so overlaid with sentimentality. It has served so many political agents. It has been so completely co-opted by certain groups of people.
FP Also it seems to me that one of the things that you’re writing about is how difficult it is to practice the things that the scriptures make sound easy. Kindness, charity, patience—all the virtues. So many of the stories in Almost No Memory are about what happens if you actually think about those things for two seconds, or try to put them into practice. It’s impossible.
LD Like a good Christian, which I’m not, I wrestle daily with these problems. How to have more patience, how to love someone.
FP And the situations for which you need the most patience are precisely the most difficult ones to be patient in.
LD Right. If it’s easy for you to be brave, are you really being brave? If it’s easy to be patient, are you really being patient? It may be easier to be brave in a heroic situation than patient in a boring, mundane situation. So you should get more credit for being patient with your two-year-old in the supermarket than you should for saving somebody’s life. It’s the tedious things that are more difficult.
FP I want to go back to the self-watching-the-self-write question. One of the things I like best about writing is that it shuts off the voice of the self when you really get into the work, all those voices, “What are we having for dinner?” or “Why did blah-blah say that to me?” or “How are we going to pay the bills?”—shut up. I think this is one reason I write, because it’s the only way I can get some peace and quiet. How does the self watching the self write enter into that equation? Is it also a way out of distraction, or is it just using the distraction?
LD It is definitely just as far from the annoying distractions of daily life. I seem to be moving in the direction of less and less fiction and more and more philosophical investigation. But then there’s another part of me that says that it would be really very enjoyable to write a straightforward novel in which fictional characters interact in fictional situations. A simply told novel—that would be fun, too.
FP In Break it Down a number of the narrators wear glasses. Are you nearsighted?
LD Definitely. And now I’m bifocal. I probably have an astigmatism, or I’m myopic. I don’t know all the technical terms. My father wore trifocals—the ultimate English professor.
FP One of the things that I love about the stories is that there’s something out of focus that reduces everything to first principles. Only in very few stories does the reader know where the story is taking place—what city—and only in very few stories do the characters have names. Or they have odd generic names like Wife Number One. When I was a kid I didn’t wear my glasses for years because I was too vain. And when I first read the stories they recreated that sense of not seeing exactly, but somehow feeling that not seeing is more accurate than seeing.
LD When you’re not wearing your glasses, all you can see is what is close to you. You can’t see the context. You can’t see the rest of the room or across the street. I also didn’t wear my glasses some of the time out of vanity. I have thought about this because I notice it all the time—that in reading students’ work or discussing other peoples’ work, I don’t have much trouble focusing on detail, word to word, sentence to sentence, but I have to make a major effort to step back from a piece of writing and summarize what its themes are. As a child I resisted knowing much about the outside world—politics, international situations. In college I had only a very vague sense of facts, of distances. I remember being asked in some psychological test how far it is from New York to London, and even though I’d been to Europe at least twice already, I said about 15,000 miles. I was terrible at current events in school. I did well on one assignment which was to take a newspaper article and point out where the reporter was showing bias. Again, that was a close textual analysis.
FP It was just about language.
LD I hated history because the events could have come out too many different ways. Whereas I loved math because there was only one way a problem could come out.
FP And languages?
LD I was very good at languages. I loved Latin. Latin actually made more sense than French, probably because of the math element again.
FP I loved Latin, although I hated math. That the two things were related never occurred to me. I loved Latin because of how logical it was, like solving a crossword puzzle. There was an answer, and you got it.
LD When you’re solving the problem of the Latin sentence, there are two things going on: the pleasure of solving the puzzle, but also the emotional satisfaction of finding out what this mysterious thing is. Then there’s another pleasure—the pleasure of putting it into English words. I like English best. People assume because I translate French I’m a Francophile, but the fact is I don’t like French as much as I like English.
FP What is it about English?
LD The plainness. I love the Anglo-Saxon words as opposed to the Latinate. Bread, milk, love, war, peace, cow, dog. The English word “and” seems much more solid, like an apple. Maybe it has to do with those early Dick and Jane books again. Words beginning with “a,” “and” and “apple” are somehow healthy. The Spanish “y” is just preposterous. It’s weird and strange. (laughter)
FP Does translation help in other ways besides taking up so much of your time?
LD I get a lot of pleasure out of it. I’ve been doing it for about 25 years and it’s become even more enjoyable, but I worry that as it becomes more enjoyable maybe I’m becoming a worse translator. I’m worrying about this with the latest text I’ve been working on, Michel Leiris’s Rules of the Game, a four volume autobiographical essay. I did the first two volumes and then I started working on the third volume in a sort of blissful state, because I was translating it almost literally rather than reworking a sentence. That’s the way I like to translate anyway, keeping, as much as possible, the same word order and the same words. If I could use a cognate of the French word I would. It was like a hand in a glove. But then I began to worry: Have I gone too far? Am I creating a language that is going to read as a stilted difficult language in between French and English?
FP But it does make you more conscious of the words and of the necessity of dithering long enough to find the right word. I always wish my students would understand that one word may actually be better than another word, and it’s worth the time to get that word no matter how long it takes.
LD That’s one thing that I really like about translating—I don’t have to think up the next word. I don’t have to use my imagination. That’s why it’s a relaxing thing to do, and at the same time it’s a form of writing.
FP Do you take notes on, as they say, real life?
LD If I’m in that really nice awake, alert frame of mind I’ll take copious notes. I like to be in that frame of mind because it usually means I’m working on something, but sometimes for months and months at a time I’ll just stop writing. Then at other times I write just about everything down.
FP I love when that happens—when everything seems related to what you’re writing. It’s like everything has a little message that you’re being sent that will be useful to you someday. Oh, look at the way that person holds that chicken drumstick!
LD And listen to what they just said. Everything you notice forms a nice sentence. I’m afraid I sometimes take notes on telephone conversations even as they’re going on, but I hasten to say only within my own family.
FP Thank God! (laughter)
LD My own family—because I’ve been hearing the way they talk and the sorts of things they say for so long, sometimes I’m thinking more about how they’re talking than what they’re saying. My family tends to say rather funny things. My mother will refer to “the nicest Republican you could find.” My sister will mention a man with three premature nephews. So I am sometimes guilty of what most people would probably think of as how a writer works. People are afraid a writer will take notes on what they’re saying or doing and use it as material.
FP I do that, too. I think that my job is to notice the things that you’re not supposed to notice. The things that people say that are just supposed to be normal conversation or friendly chat, but that are searingly unkind. I can’t stop noticing them. Of course when you put those things in your book no one ever thanks you for it.
LD I have to say, though, that I’ve never put anything into a story that my mother or sister has said. I have used things that my husband has said. I think it’s uncomfortable for people to be written about even when it’s very positive, because they feel as if they’re being used.
FP Do you think so? I think people are often flattered.
LD One friend was very uncomfortable. Another friend skimmed the story to find all the places she appeared to see if they were okay. Then she settled down and read it again from the beginning. She said it actually had a very good effect on her because at that time she was feeling: What does my life add up to? She’s in her forties, and enough decades have gone by so she was feeling a little discouraged. When she saw herself in print and saw all the things that she had said and done and thought, she had a different feeling. Her life did add up to something. She was a real person. Not because she was in the book, but because the book showed her to herself. That was very nice.
FP It also means that on the simplest level somebody’s been paying attention or listening, which I think everyone wants. Or at least that’s what I try and tell myself when I’m afraid of the other response which is: How dare you invade my privacy and use me?
LD Even though a lot of my friends are writers, I’ve rarely felt troubled by that, are they going to go home and make a note of our conversation?
FP You’re right, it never occurs to me. (laughter)
LD It never occurs to me, either. I ought to know better.
FP One of the things about your work—even though I’m not sure what I mean—is if you took Lydia’s name off the story, you would still know it’s a Lydia Davis story. What do I mean? Maybe you know.
LD Well, I was just writing a letter yesterday to a man who read my novel and wrote about it in exactly the way you would want someone to read a book of yours.
FP Where was this?
LD This was in The London Review of Books. Michael Hofmann wrote it. It was smart. It was beautifully written. He saw things I didn’t see. He caught everything I would have wanted someone to catch. He called the book a comedy—toward the end of this very serious discussion—which pleased me to no end. What I found interesting was after a couple of months of enjoying this review I began having this uneasy feeling that maybe he just read it the way I would like someone to read it, but that doesn’t mean that’s what the book was, or is. I really had to face up to the philosophical idea that a book is completed by the reader. Suddenly the book didn’t have a single existence anymore. And maybe another review, a short little dismissive review that it also got was just as accurate. I mean that reader saw this negative version of the book which had been my worst fear as I was working on it.
FP If somebody’s response is what you intended, it’s as if you asked a question and got an answer. The right answer. If no one in the entire universe understood the thing you were trying to do, then maybe you weren’t able to do it. But if someone actually got it, as this guy clearly did, then it was there to be gotten and someone else just didn’t get it.
LD Well, that would be nice. But, if he’s the only one who got everything, then was it written for only one person?
FP Hardly anyone can read anymore, that’s the trouble.
LD That might be one answer. Hofmann used some very nice phrases. Here’s the phrase that sprang to mind when you asked how would you know a story was by me—he used the phrase “fussy drone.” (laughter) What he appreciated was the shapeliness of thought, the shapeliness of structure. He implied that there was a sensuality to the structure of the sentences and the structure of the thought. If all the sensuality is contained in the shapeliness of the grammar or the structure of the sentence then that structure has to be exactly right. The sentence has to be just right and the thought has to be just right because if it isn’t, well, it’s not as shapely.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee