‘Early in Lydia Davis’s story collection Varieties of Disturbance, we encounter a husband and wife who have subjected themselves to a “good-taste contest,” judged by a jury of their peers. In this single-page piece, we are shown how the contestants measure up in a variety of categories—lighting fixtures, window treatments, food—then told, simply, that the husband wins. The story’s surface is stunning and taut, but it also provokes the reader to consider what’s happening just beyond the contours of Davis’s well-sculpted prose. Why does the husband have better taste in garden furniture? Was the wife angry about the verdict? And who is telling this story?
‘This kind of writing—elliptical, clear-eyed, harboring concealed emotions—has been flooring readers since Davis’s first major collection, Break It Down (1986). She has a knack for capturing the peculiar rhythms of minds behaving badly. One character in Varieties of Disturbance turns the decision of what to cook a date for dinner—beef? beets? definitely not snails!—into an all-consuming fixation. Her narrators tend to split their perspectives relentlessly, turning even the most ordinary domestic experiences—walking the dog, family spats—into dense nuggets of irresolvable contradictions.
‘It’s inspiring to watch Davis map out knotty ruminations without devolving into tongue-tied panic. Her stories are also deeply funny, though not in a willful way. Eschewing one-liners, Davis creates humor by making distressing topics collide with matter-of-fact, vaguely fascinated tones. It’s as if her characters were rubbernecking while cruising past the pileups of their own obsessions.
‘While the short pieces in Varieties will seem familiar to Davis’s fans, the longer ones reveal she is still pushing her material into even more complicated territory. The standout “We Miss You” masquerades as a sociological analysis of get-well notes sent by 1950s fourth-graders to a convalescing classmate. As the study’s author carefully analyzes sentence structure, gender differences, and imagery, the narrative subtly shape-shifts into the OCD musings of a methodical wack-job. The more authoritative the author gets, the more the study seems to undermine itself. She notes that one student’s handwriting frequently drops beneath the lines, speculating: “This may indicate a desire for more stability on his part, a fear of imagination, or, on the contrary, an unusually firmly grounded personality.”
‘Varieties also finds Davis cranking up her trademark philosophical jolts. Quite possibly buzzed on Proust, Davis (who recently translated Swann’s Way) delivers some intricate meditations on the elasticity of time. One new mother explains how having an infant has forced her to become so organized and forward-thinking that “the future collapses into the present.” Another story takes on the task of seeing twenty sculptures in one hour: the narrator wonders, at first, if three minutes is enough time to devote to an artwork, then, after executing some acrobatic logic, argues that three minutes is a long time—so long, in fact, it’s hard to imagine twenty three-minute periods fitting into a single hour.
‘Abstract yet accessible moments like this point to what makes Davis’s work great. No topic that falls under her characters’ gaze sits still, because they can see through almost anything, even themselves. But that doesn’t make their fascinations—with subjectivity, conflict, the fallibility of scientific assessment—irrelevant. Rather, hard-to-pin-down topics demand zigzagging eloquence.’ — Michael Miller
Lydia Davis: Ten of My Recommendations for Good Writing Habits
Lydia Davis, Art of Fiction No. 227
Lydia Davis @ Twitter
Lydia Davis @ PennSound
The Writers’ Writer’s Writing
The Many Voices of Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis @ Bookworm
Twenty Questions with Lydia Davis
TMO meets Lydia Davis
‘Learning to Sing’, by Lydia Davis
Balance and Coherence
a woman of few words well chosen
When going too far is going just far enough
‘Forgetting Caen’, by Lydia Davis
‘New Things in My Life’, by Lydia Davis
Honor the Syntax
Lydia Davis: how to write the perfect sentence
Buy ‘Varieties of Disturbance’
Lydia Davis with Ben Marcus, Conversation, 16 May 2012
Lydia Davis Interview: Advice to the Young
Lydia Davis reads “Once a Very Stupid Man”
the caterpillar by lydia davis – shadow puppet show by tadeyeske/perry
Eleanor Wachtel: You were raised in a literary household. Both your parents were writers; your father taught English literature at Columbia University. What was it like growing up in that environment?
Lydia Davis: It made you very self-conscious. Both my parents started as fiction writers. My mother continued to write short stories. My father gave it up eventually and became a professor of English and a critic. But we couldn’t really say anything after a while—I mean, after a certain age; I imagine at three I didn’t mind—but at a certain age we couldn’t speak without being aware of how we were saying something, how it was being phrased, as well as what we were saying. So if we made a sort of clumsy repetition, one of them might very well point that out, sort of lightly with a smile, but it was a very language-saturated household. And my father loved etymologies—a love that I inherited from him too—so he would often go to the dictionary and say, “I wonder where that word came from” and find some fascinating origin, which was truly entertaining to a child.
Wachtel: Did the idea of having your language corrected have a repressive effect on your talking?
Davis: It did, and that continued right up to the end, you know, that I would be very aware—less so with my mother, who was a little more garrulous and so was sort of waiting for a chance to start talking as soon as I was done, but my father would consider very carefully what I had said and that made me feel very insecure. I don’t know if this is a good example, but I remembered it just the other day. When he was in the nursing home—you know how you want to say the things that you don’t want to have forgotten to say . . . our family was not, as you can imagine, given to spontaneity—I said to him, “You’ve been a very good father.” I just wanted him to know that, and he said, “In what respects?” [laughter]
Wachtel: Did you also concern yourself with being potential material, because both your parents published stories in The New Yorker, for example?
Davis: No, and that’s nice. My father had stopped writing by then, and although my mother took a great deal from our domestic life, she didn’t take it very closely. I mean, she would take bits and pieces, interactions with a maid or with a teenager, but she didn’t take me exactly, so there was never that discomfort. I did it a bit with my sons but very sparingly also. Although, my younger son loves the one story that he is most clearly represented in, and he loves me to read it in public, so it’s a kind of attention in a way.
Wachtel: I read somewhere that you started reading Beckett when you were about thirteen. What did you like about his work?
Davis: Well, the house was full of books, so I was always taking a book off the shelf and looking at it. It’s not that my parents were great Beckett fans, because they really weren’t. They came from an earlier kind of writing, more traditional. They found Beckett a little lacking and difficult. I guess I had been immersed in all the good children’s books, the really wonderful ones—Jane Eyre, of course, was a book that would appeal to a teenaged girl, and Dos Passos—I’m thinking of the books that had impacts at various points. Then I picked up Malone Dies, I think, and there was so little material and it was such a narrow focus, and such plain language and no attempt at lyricism or flowery language, that he would spend a page or two talking about how he dropped his pencil, and what kind of pencil it was. This just seemed utterly strange to me, and wonderful, just so simple and clear. I didn’t read the whole book. I have to say that that’s a habit that continued. I rarely read the whole of a book, especially a book that really interests me stylistically.
Davis: Yes, I mean, sometimes I go back and finish it, and sometimes I read it all the way through, but it’s somehow enough to read the first ten or twenty pages and be amazed by what’s going on. But I think in those cases I’m reading it for my own craft. I’m really a lot less interested in what happens in that kind of book and how it ends, even though I know that’s a whole other part of it. I’m just interested in how the writer is approaching the material and what he or she is doing with it.
Wachtel: Would you read whole novels otherwise?
Davis: Oh sure, sure. There are all different kinds of reading. There’s reading to completely forget where I am and what I’m doing, so those books I read all the way through without even wanting to stop.
Wachtel: When you were a child, your family spent a year in Austria, where you learned German. How do you think that affected your sensitivity to language?
Davis: People muse endlessly on their own psychological makeup and history, but the theories could be all wrong. My theory is that it did have a profound effect because I was seven years old and I had never encountered another language before. Actually, the very first foreign language I was surrounded by was French, because we stopped in Paris on the way to Austria, so it was actually in the Tuileries gardens that I first heard another language around me and asked my mother, “What’s going on? Why are they speaking this way . . . and still having fun?” But then they put me in the second grade of the Ursulinenklosterschule, a convent school, and German was spoken in the classroom, and as I remember the teacher herself had some English, but it was broken English; it was not fluent. Some of the children could speak a little English, but I more or less had to learn German, and after a month I was reading in it. And the rest of that year I existed pretty happily in German with my school friends. But even though it was 1954, the war still felt very close, and there were still wounded people in the street and a sort of depression hanging over the city. My mother was also very ill and had to go into the hospital there for—I don’t know whether it was days or weeks. But it was a difficult year emotionally, and that was all in the German language. I do relate it to becoming a translator because I think that experience of being in the classroom, being surrounded by a language I didn’t know and yet knowing it, meant something. Then having it become transparent and something I understood. I think I’m just repeating that over and over. It’s not that I don’t know French any more—I know it by now—but it’s still a strange language to me. It’s not home. So I keep bringing it into English.
Wachtel: Yet you didn’t become a translator from the German.
Davis: Well, if you want stage two of the psychological story, how a translator comes into being . . . I went from a comfortable small town, Northampton, Massachusetts, to the big city of New York when I was ten and was put into a big school and felt very lost there, but I had tutorial sessions with a French teacher to catch up with the other children who had been studying French since kindergarten. So I think—maybe again this is a construct—that in those comfortable little sessions with my French teacher, I made a little home, a comfortable place in a strange school in the strange city. And I loved the book that we learned out of. A few years ago I finally managed to find another copy of it; like Rosebud, my original French grammar textbook.
Wachtel: You were also passionate about music as a young person, but you didn’t continue with that. Why not?
Davis: I can’t tell whether that’s because it wasn’t in the family tradition—
Wachtel: It wasn’t the family business.
Davis: It wasn’t the family business. You know, we were all shoemakers, and a shoemaker I was going to be. My sister played the clarinet very well, so music was in the house, but my mother and father did not play. My father could play the piano, but he simply didn’t. So I think either that, or I realized at some point that I wasn’t as good at music as I was at writing. I’ve continued the music ever since, in one form or another, and sometimes it’s been more exciting and compelling. It’s often hard to stop playing music in order to go write, because writing is more difficult for me.
Wachtel: Were your parents encouraging that you be a writer?
Davis: They didn’t discourage it. They kind of left me alone, as far as I can remember, which is good. They didn’t put pressure on me to be a writer, but so many of their friends were writers, so much of what they talked about was writing, and I was good at it, and they helped me. If I read a poem to them that I was going to take into school, they would talk to me about rhymes and rhyme schemes and how it could be a little better, but in a nice way. I showed my mother a short story that I’d written that had a not-very-nice mother in it, in fact a very not-very-nice mother, and she was a little hurt by it because it was so close to home, and yet she was giving me all the suggestions she could about “this part more” and “a little less of that.” I think I found the note or something that she wrote on it. So there was a lot of encouragement but no pressure.
Wachtel: You said somewhere that you realized that being a writer wasn’t a happy fate.
Davis: It wasn’t a happy fate when I first started out, but it became happy, say, when I was working hard at it and copying sentences from favourite writers and trying to work on my own stories—some of them endlessly. One took two years of work before it seemed at all finished. That was difficult. There were always moments of elation in the middle of it, and happiness, but the whole thing wasn’t happy, and it wasn’t until a few years later when I just found happier forms that I began to really take pleasure in it.
Lydia Davis VARIETIES OF DISTURBANCE
‘Lydia Davis has been called “one of the quiet giants in the world of American fiction” (Los Angeles Times), “an American virtuoso of the short story form” (Salon), an innovator who attempts “to remake the model of the modern short story” (The New York Times Book Review). Her admirers include Grace Paley, Jonathan Franzen, and Zadie Smith; as Time magazine observed, her stories are “moving . . . and somehow inevitable, as if she has written what we were all on the verge of thinking.”
‘In Varieties of Disturbance, her fourth collection, Davis extends her reach as never before in stories that take every form from sociological studies to concise poems. Her subjects include the five senses, fourth-graders, good taste, and tropical storms. She offers a reinterpretation of insomnia and re-creates the ordeals of Kafka in the kitchen. She questions the lengths to which one should go to save the life of a caterpillar, proposes a clear account of the sexual act, rides the bus, probes the limits of marital fidelity, and unlocks the secret to a long and happy life.
‘No two of these fictions are alike. And yet in each, Davis rearranges our view of the world by looking beyond our preconceptions to a bizarre truth, a source of delight and surprise.’ — Picador
A Man from Her Past
I think Mother is flirting with a man from her past who is not Father. I say to myself: Mother ought not to have improper relations with this man “Franz”! “Franz” is a European. I say she should not see this man improperly while Father is away! But I am confusing an old reality with a new reality: Father will not be returning home. He will be staying on at Vernon Hall. As for Mother, she is ninety-four years old. How can there be improper relations with a woman of ninety-four? Yet my confusion must be this: though her body is old, her capacity for betrayal is still young and fresh.
Dog and Me
An ant can look up at you, too, and even threaten you with its arms. Of course, my dog does not know I am human, he sees me as dog, though I do not leap up at a fence. I am a strong dog. But I do not leave my mouth hanging open when I walk along. Even on a hot day, I do not leave my tongue hanging out. But I bark at him: “No! No!”
Getting to Know Your Body
If your eyeballs move, this means that you’re thinking, or about to start thinking.
If you don’t want to be thinking at this particular moment, try to keep your eyeballs still.
I don’t know if I can remain friends with her. I’ve thought and thought about it—she’ll never know how much. I gave it one last try. I called her, after a year. But I didn’t like the way the conversation went. The problem is that she is not very enlightened. Or I should say she is not enlightened enough for me. She is nearly fifty years old and no more enlightened, as far as I can see, than when I first knew her twenty years ago, when we talked mainly about men. I did not mind how unenlightened she was then, maybe because I was not so enlightened myself. I believe I am more enlightened now, and certainly more enlightened than she is, although I know it’s not very enlightened to say that. But I want to say it, so I am willing to postpone being more enlightened myself so that I can still say a thing like that about a friend.
She didn’t know if it was him or the dog. It wasn’t her. The dog was lying there on the living- room rug between them, she was on the sofa, and her visitor, rather tense, was sunk deep in a low armchair, and the smell, rather gentle, came into the air. She thought at first that it was him and she was surprised, because people don’t pass wind in company very often, or a t least not in a noticeable way. As they went on talking, she went on thinking it was him. She felt a little sorry for him, because she thought he was embarrassed and nervous to be with her and that was why he had passed wind. Then it occurred to her very suddenly that it might not have been him at all, it might have been the dog, and worse, if it had been the dog, he might think it had been her. It was true that the dog had stolen an entire loaf of bread that morning, and eaten it, and might now be passing wind, something he did not do otherwise. She wanted immediately to let him know, somehow, that at least it was not her. Of course there was a chance that he had not noticed, but he was smart and alert, and since she had noticed, he probably had, too, unless he was too nervous to have noticed. The problem was how to tell him. She could say something about the dog, to excuse it. But it might not have been the dog, it might have been him. She could not be direct and simply say, “Look, if you just farted, that’s all right; I just want to be clear that it wasn’t me.” She could say, “The dog ate a whole loaf of bread this morning, and I think he’s farting.” But if it was him, and not the dog, this would embarrass him. Although maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe he was already embarrassed, if it was him, and this would give him a way out of his embarrassment. But by now the smell was long gone. Maybe the dog would fart again, if it was the dog. That was the only thing she could think of –the dog would fart again, if it was the dog, and then she would simply apologize for the dog, whether or not it was the dog, and that would relieve him of his embarrassment, if it was him.
Oh, poor Dad. I’m sorry I made fun of you.
Now I’m spelling Nietszche wrong, too.
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 hole and went to sleep in it. “But how much better if you slept forever,” said her mother.
The Good Taste Contest
The husband and wife were competing in a Good Taste Contest judged by a jury of their peers, men and women of good taste, including a fabric designer, a rare-book dealer, a pastry cook, and a librarian. The wife was judged to have better taste in furniture, especially antique furniture. The husband was judged to have overall poor taste in lighting fixtures, tableware, and glassware. The wife was judged to have indifferent taste in window treatments, but the husband and wife both were judged to have good taste in floor coverings, bed linen, bath linen, large appliances, and small appliances. The husband was felt to have good taste in carpets, but only fair taste in upholstery fabrics. The husband was felt to have very good taste in both food and alcoholic beverages, while the wife had inconsistently good to poor taste in food. The husband had better taste in clothes than the wife though inconsistent taste in perfumes and colognes. While both husband and wife were judged to have no more than fair taste in garden design, they were judged to have good taste in number and variety of evergreens. The husband was felt to have excellent taste in roses but poor taste in bulbs. The wife was felt to have better taste in bulbs and generally good taste in shade plantings with the exception of hostas. The husband’s taste was felt to be good in garden furniture but only fair in ornamental planters. The wife’s taste was judged consistently poor in garden statuary. After a brief discussion, the judges gave the decision to the husband for his higher overall points score.
Collaboration with Fly
I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe.
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Yeah, see, I don’t find any of those actors you like attractive, so we’re in different realms, I guess. Actually, I can’t think of any actors I’m attracted to. I think I’m more into real people or maybe non-actors and maybe a few porn stars, ha ha. I’m doing a Christophe Honore day this week, coincidentally. ** Misanthrope, Then Sypha was very brave to make that post. Yeah, here too, rain, rain and almost nothing but. Nice pit fire? Even parties sound appealing to me at this point. ** Sypha, Thank you! It was a big hit once again. And I’m glad my gif insertions weren’t intrusions. Very good news that your dog is turning out okay. Oh, man, sorry. I watched LG sing the National Anthem too, believe it or not. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. I’ve never met Viggo, but everyone says he’s great. I read a long interview with Tomato du Plenty over the weekend — the last one he gave before the died — and he made it clear that Tommy Gear is the one in charge of The Screamers stuff and is the reason so little has ever been released. So I’m guessing TG was talked into releasing the demos with the caveat that it be limited to vinyl as a way to make their stuff available but just barely or something. I don’t remember being scared by ‘The Twilight Zone’ as a kid but that show ‘The Outer Limits’ used freak me the fuck out. ** Scunnard, Hi, J. I’ve been pretty okay under the circumstances, you? No, no objection to you using the blurb. I’ll go find the kickstarter thing. Take care, man. ** ae, Hi, a. Thanks for sharing your scares. Um, no, I didn’t see that comment, hm. Sometimes comments come in while I’m doing the p.s., and I forget to refresh and miss them. I’d love a copy of the zine! Do you need my snail mail? If so, write at me email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!! ** Jack Skelley, Hey, Jack! ‘A History of Violence’ is one of the Cronenbergs I haven’t seen. On it. Thanks, bud. How’s your week’s dawning? ** Dominik, Hi, D! Scared of the wind! That’s interesting, that’s cool. I can totally how that could be a really scary fear to have. In fact, I think if I start thinking too much about wind I’m going to be like you used to be. Oh, like an in-person escort writing workshop? Now that would be, err, interesting. Hmmmm. It’s funny: after I invented that love I ended up reading a review of RM’s sister’s book — which I’m imagining you’ve read? — wherein she supposedly makes a fairly plausible case that he’s living in a kibbutz in Israel. Your love is lucky. A freshly Bresson de-virginised love sounds nice. Love traveling back in time and erasing the idea of Mickey Mouse from the young Walt Disney’s imagination, G. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, B. Oh, you’re a dog fearing guy. I know a bunch of you guys. For me, it’s tarantulas. One chased a running, screaming me for about 10 minutes when I was 6 years old or something. ** Eoghan, Hello, Eoghan! Welcome, very nice to see you! Do you know where that fear of yours comes from? My hugest fear is outer space, like being in outer space, and especially the idea of being outside a capsule or rocket ship or whatever doing a ‘space walk’. I could literally die of a heart attack if I let myself think about that. But I have no idea where that came from. How and where are you? ** Bill, Hey. Oh, okay, I’ll check youtube. You never know. You’d be amazing (or not) how much stuff gets blocked over here. Finish your work? ** Steve Erickson, It seems me the problem with mainstream gay movies is that they’re inevitably psychological dramas with actors, gay or straight, acting their fucking heads off. Ugh. As someone living in a very cold city at the moment, I hereby will whatever magical powers I may have to your heater. ** G, Hi, G. Yikes, that childhood fear of yours is pretty fucking scary. Oh, right, I remember that story in ‘Ministry’. Wow, interesting. ‘The Worst’ is all true. It was originally a confessional talk I gave at a literary foundation here in France. There were more ‘worsts’, but I edited some of them out for the published version. xo. ** Brian O’Connell, Hi, Brian. Thanks for sharing all those scares. Scary. The only childhood fears I can remember, apart from being chased by a tarantula, came from expectable places like horror movies, yawn. I was mostly a kid who found being scared kind of interesting and exciting. I think I thought of my fears as potential premises for writing even then. My weekend … not a lot. Rain, cold. Worked on the script-fiction thing. I watched the new Errol Morris film, ‘My Psychedelic Love Story’. I love his work, and it’s not one of his masterpieces, but it was complicated and twisty/back-pedalling and fascinating like only his films can be. And emails and blah blah. Pretty quiet. How was yours or your Monday if you prefer? ** Okay. I realised the other day that I’ve never spotlit a Lydia Davis book, and that seemed weird given her work’s never-ending excellence, so I made the post you see before you today. See you tomorrow.