From The Lydia Davis Symposium
The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 35
Much has been written about Lydia Davis’ pared-down “style.” Her sentences are crafted with an economy that borders on parsimony. What is less frequently observed, however, is that her devotion to exactitude entails a repetition of words and phrases that—to a reader who happens to be tone-deaf to her particular brand of deadpan humor—can come across as tedious and even peevish. In a steady flow of neurotic energy, sentences are arranged much like a child might stack up pennies in painstakingly precise towers to distract itself from bickering parents. Yet Davis’ observations nearly always contain a sly wit. Her repetitions are not the repetitions of Beckett or Bernhard; they do not circle around the unutterable core of what language, by its very nature, fails to convey. On the contrary, Davis’ sentences clarify. Theyinsist. What is more, the continued reassertion of a thought and the perseverance in its reiteration frequently correspond to the respective narrator’s participation in a series of situations that find her hapless and misunderstood, situations that are highly distressing. Davis is concerned with correction, revision, rectification. If you no longer love me, if you are lying to me, then my only recourse is to recount, as precisely as possible, what happened, and in what sequence: what you said, and what I thought about it; what I believed you were thinking and not saying; what I said in response and what relationship this bore to what I thought and felt. In the absence of truthful communication and in the disorientation of shifting emotion, an accurate portrayal of circumstances is required to set the record straight. When spoken words no longer serve mutual understanding, language, in response, becomes a matter of validating one’s perception, a vehicle for self-preservation.
Issue 35: The Lydia Davis Symposium
Essays by David Winters, J.C. Hallman, Lynne Tillman, Madeleine LaRue, Florian Duijsens, and Scott Esposito — and an interview with Lydia Davis by Dan Gunn.
Republished by Three Quarks Daily, August 3, 2020.