Lydia Davis: Miniatures from a Mind on Fire

Lydia Davis keeps popping up in conversation as a favorite writer of our favorite writers — Rae Armantrout, the Pulitzer poet, among them, and the novelist Robert Coover. Dan Chiasson makes her Collected Stories “one of the great books in recent literature, equal parts horse sense and heartache.” David Shields‘ demand in Reality Hunger for aphorism, personal urgency, and “an explosion on every page,” is always satisfied in a Lydia Davis story, whether it’s short or very short or just a sentence or two. So finally, we are hearing Ms. Davis beautifully honed prose in her own voice, and engaging with her on how she writes it: suddenly sometimes, but also waiting patiently a year or two for the shape (and punctuation) of a last line, as in “Head, Heart,” in its entirety here:

Head, Heart

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

As Paul Harding, of Tinkers fame, was formed in part by the drum patterns of Elvin Jones, Lydia Davis seems to have been influenced by the sleek wit of pianist Glenn Gould and the architecture of Johann Sebastian Bach. Ms. Davis — often hard to distinguish from the narrative voice in her stories — grew up idolizing Glenn Gould and “working as hard at the piano as any professional, partly to avoid doing other things that were harder, but partly for the pleasure of it.”

The narrator that’s so intriguing in many of these nearly 200 Collected Stories is, like the author, a professor whose father was a professor. She’s a bookish New York woman who thinks of herself (we don’t) as “prim.” She is in and out of the City — to lonely weekend places, to France for long stays — without ever having to tell you what city. She’s been married, and she’s brought up a son. “My husband” in these stories is a man now married to someone else. Our narrator is a woman who “always needed to have a love even if it was a complicated love.” She fantasizes about marrying a cowboy — “I imagined that maybe a cowboy would help me stop thinking so much.” But she goes on writing endlessly about her own mental process. She is not a great housekeeper in town or country. She drinks a bit, and sees a shrink. But always she is pursuing her own non-stop line of questions and answers on her own: what can she learn, for example, about giving her son something like the care she devotes to her century-old dictionary? “… I consider its age. I treat it with respect. I stop and think before I use it. I know its limitations… I leave it alone a good deal of the time.” She wonders if memories, to be happy, must be recalled happily by the other people in the picture.

I blurt out unwisely that I read these stories asking: “is this the way chicks’ minds work?” But it’s not chicks, of course. It’s writers with minds on fire and a gift for sentences that go off like little rockets. Lydia Davis writes in the company that includes Montaigne, Emerson, Proust, Beckett, Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Parker. She also reads wonderfully.

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