Essays One 
by Lydia Davis.
Hamish Hamilton, 512 pp., £20, November 2019, 978 0 241 37147 3
Show More
Essays Two 
by Lydia Davis.
Hamish Hamilton, 571 pp., £20, December, 978 0 241 55465 4
Show More
Show More

Lydia Davis​ is big on lists. In her early short story ‘Break It Down’, the unnamed narrator attempts to balance financial and emotional ledgers in the aftermath of a love affair:

I’m breaking it all down. The ticket was $600 and then after that there was more for the hotel and food and so on, for just ten days. Say $80 a day, no, more like $100 a day. And we made love, say, once a day on the average. That’s $100 a shot. And each time it lasted maybe two or three hours so that would be anywhere from $33 to $50 an hour, which is expensive.

Dividing the cost of the escapade romantique by the quantity of sex is risibly anti-lyrical. It’s also, the narrator comes to realise, too crude, since every minute of the lover’s company must be factored into the equation: ‘We were together almost all day long. She would keep looking at me and every time she looked at me it was worth something.’ As he ruminates, the sentences get longer and longer, until they engulf whole paragraphs and the narrator is swept away in remembrance. All the time spent remembering must also be evaluated:

And so it’s not only every hour of the day while it’s happening, but it’s really for hours and hours every day after that, for weeks, though less and less, so that you could work out the ratio if you wanted, maybe after six weeks you’re only thinking about it an hour or so in the day altogether, a few minutes here and there spread over, or a few minutes here and there and half an hour before you go to sleep, or sometimes it all comes back and you stay awake with it half the night.

So when you add up all that, you’ve only spent maybe $3 an hour on it.

Finally the reckoning: when did pleasure turn into pain and how should that factor into the equation? This is the point at which the breaking down breaks down. ‘So I’m just thinking about it, how you can go in with $600, more like $1000, and how you can come out with an old shirt.’ Ah, who hasn’t woken up from the dream only to find themselves with an old shirt in their arms?

The story was published in 1983, but 38 years later Davis is still breaking things down numerically (‘Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits’; ‘Twenty-One Pleasures of Translating’; ‘Five Favourite Short Stories’) and also analytically:

When I look at Beckett now, to try to identify more exactly the qualities that continued to excite my interest as I read his work over the years and did my best to learn from him, I find at least the following: There was his precise and sonorous use of the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary – especially, in this example, the way he gives a familiar word like dint a fresh life by using it in an unfamiliar way: ‘the flagstone before her door that dint by dint her little weight had grooved’.

There was his use of Anglo-Saxon and alliteration to produce what were almost pieces of Old English verse: ‘worthy those worn by certain newly dead’.

There was his use of complex, almost impossibly tangled, yet correct, syntax for the pleasure of it, though perhaps also as a commentary on composition itself: ‘Were it not of him to whom it is speaking speaking but of another it would not speak.’

‘I made a short list for myself going up the millennia,’ she writes in ‘As I Was Reading’, an essay in which she sets out to read a history of France and decides to begin with the Ice Age. ‘I had never paid enough attention to history. In school, I had never liked the subject history, because it offered no clear answers, as math and the sciences did. I had gotten poor grades in history.’ She claims ‘translation is like a problem in math.’ She told the Paris Review that she loves Bach’s fugues because ‘here you have a highly cerebral structure, something almost mathematical. And yet it’s very emotional at the same time. So within that very mathematical and very disciplined structure, you have this huge emotional impact.’

Davis’s lists seem multiplicative, but they operate as divisions. Conversely, her classifications operate as digressions. In ‘A Note on the Word Gubernatorial’, she asks why this fascinating adjective developed in a different direction from ‘governor’:

The adjective is actually closer to the origin of both, which was the Latin gubernator, ‘governor’, and gubernare, ‘to steer’. The original, primary meaning of ‘to govern’ was ‘to steer’. In fact, there is a maritime word in French, gouvernail, that means ‘rudder’, or ‘helm’ – what we need to steer a boat. The Latin gubernator evolved into the Old French gouverneur and hence, eventually, into our English governor – our governor is one who steers the metaphorical ship of state. (The Latin also evolved into the Spanish gobernador – keeping the b – and the Italian governatore.)

The pedantry is played, if not for laughs, then with a wink: her riff ends nicely with the joke on ‘goober-natorial’ that applied to Jimmy Carter when he was governor of Georgia, the Peanut State. But the philological passion is genuine, even compulsive. Over the five hundred pages of Essays One and the six hundred pages of Essays Two, Davis parses language every which way: grammatically, etymologically, prosodically. Combinatorial conundrums such as optimal sentence or modifier order offer a pleasure like no other. In ‘Revising One Sentence’, Davis dissects her own composition process. Here’s the line in question: ‘She walks around the house balancing on the balls of her feet, sometimes whistling and singing, sometimes talking to herself, sometimes stopping dead in a fencing position.’ Here is the revising:

She is likely to walk around the house lightly on the balls of her feet … (bad rhyme here: likely/lightly)
She walks …
… around the house slowly … (doesn’t suggest happiness)
… around the house slowly but delicately (too much explanation)
… around the house slowly, carefully (not strong enough)
… around the house slowly, carefully, balancing on the balls of her feet (too wordy).

And in her discussion of her story ‘Nancy Brown Will Be in Town’, which is made up of ten short sentences, based on an email she once received, Davis makes a numbered list of the formal problems it posed, focusing particularly on the order of the last two sentences:

Instead of ‘We have enjoyed her tennis lessons. We have enjoyed her friendship,’ I now have ‘We have enjoyed her friendship. We have enjoyed her tennis lessons.’ The first order was more ‘logical’ or traditional … And yet the reversed order was actually more interesting to me: the more familiar, and expected, ‘friendship’ first; the more surprising, even absurd ‘tennis lessons’ second, so that the piece, which is, after all, somewhat absurd, ends on an absurd note.

Davis is always on the lookout for a ‘surprising’ construction. Take her admiration for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73: ‘When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang’ – a prime example of the way out-of-order word choice can sometimes be the better option. She expands on her ideas about sentence order, and the order of clauses within sentences, in even greater detail in Essays Two, which contains pieces on translating Proust, Flaubert and others.

Is it strange that Davis – who has only one novel to her name, The End of the Story (1995); who is known not only for short stories, but for short short stories; and whose reputation as a translator (Swann’s Way, Madame Bovary, Michel Leiris) rivals her reputation as an author – should have produced 1100 pages of craft talk? Or is the capacity for craft talk a symptom of scruples functioning as creative constraint? ‘This was the sort of question I typically spent some time worrying over: Do you ease a scruple? Or do you calm a scruple? A scruple, etymologically, is a small, sharp stone. I often think of that etymology when I have an actual small, sharp stone in my shoe.’

I’m unsure. The pieces in Essays One – divided into categories on ‘The Bible, Memory and the Passage of Time’, ‘The Practice of Writing’, ‘Writers’ and ‘Visual Artists’ – were composed as occasional pieces for journals, commissions for anthologies, or talks and classroom lectures, aimed at creative writing teachers and their students. The craft talk can be eye-glazing, conventionally unconventional, especially when she praises contemporaries and obscure, small press writers. Yet when Davis breaks down the work of writing, she can be very funny, often at her own expense. Guiding us – scrupulously – through the revision process of one of her stories, ‘In a House Besieged’, she ends the essay: ‘By the time of the final version, I knew how to spell besieged.’ (She admits to having studied the comedy of Barbara Pym.)

The pieces​ in Essays Two, though even more refined in the direction of specialists, brim with daring experiments, not all of which succeed but none of which is boring. When she deconstructs translation, wading in murkier terrain, I was reminded of the bereft lover/accountant of ‘Break It Down’, who paid for an experience to which no aeroplane can return him. Is it any wonder that translations are either ‘faithful’ or a ‘betrayal’ (a point Davis makes in an essay on Madame Bovary)? Is it any wonder that, translating Maurice Blanchot’s ‘interesting and difficult novels’, she broke them down only to realise ‘I had earned about a dollar an hour – a good wage at various times in the 19th century’? There is an element of knight-errantry, quest, romantic fatalism as she pursues the elusive foreign language, and often a distant century.

Essays Two places us at the intersection of two pleasures: ‘(1) the pleasure of writing; and (2) the pleasure of solving a puzzle’. This is translation. It all goes back to a first-grade classroom in the Ursuline Cloister School in Graz in 1954, where Davis found herself, aged seven, without a word of German. Her father, an academic, had uprooted the family for a year. ‘I theorise now that I must have gone through a few weeks, at least, of some frustration and bewilderment,’ she writes:

Then, this frustration must have been followed by gradual enlightenment as I became progressively more familiar with the meaning of what I was hearing, and eventually it must have implanted in me a hunger to repeat the experience, or at least a strong desire, at the sight of words that mean nothing to me, to find out what they mean.

As the mongrel child of immigrants who moved to the US less than a decade before my birth, I have also always thought my ‘experiences of incomprehension, of opacity’ led to my obsession with verbal arts (although, perhaps to my shame, it expressed itself in poetry rather than translation). It comes from encountering speech as an impenetrable wall – except it isn’t really, as Robert Frost knew. (He used the metaphor of people speaking through a wall, where you can discern the tone but not the words, in his ars poetica ‘The Sound of Sense’.)

One could extract an entire book on Proust from Essays Two. When she agreed to translate Du côté de chez Swann for Penguin in 1995, Davis knew that ‘whatever the merits of other books I had done, this one by Proust was the most highly regarded, and the work I did on it might eventually come under close scrutiny.’ Of course, it would be something of a thankless task to try to displace the beloved Scott Moncrieff translation, with which she developed a happy relationship. The most surprising revelation here is Davis’s admission that she had never read À la recherche du temps perdu, only managing to get two-thirds of the way through the first book when she was living in France in her twenties. It is from that Gallimard edition, annotated by her younger self, that she starts translating many years later. ‘What is hard to determine,’ she writes, ‘is what sort of influence reading Proust for the first time had had on me as a young writer.’

I was dumbfounded, because my first thought on reading The End of the Story was that it was Davis’s Albertine disparue: the account of an unnamed female professor trying to analyse, detail by detail, a doomed love affair with a younger man who vanishes from her life. Despite her stated influences – Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and, above all, Thomas Bernhard – I thought of no one so much as Proust. As Davis says of his style, ‘to be exhaustive is, of course, an infinite task: more events can always be inserted, and more nuance in the narration, more commentary on the event, and more nuance within the commentary.’ It is not only Proust’s exhaustive quality but his investigation into the perversity of eros that chimes with The End of the Story – as when the narrator thinks she has worn out her grief at the end of the affair:

But then I said to myself that since I seemed to be cured of my grief, he and I could enter into a new kind of relationship, and in the joy of that feeling I went looking for him yet again. I fooled myself every time, because at such moments part of me became clever and the other part stupid, just as much as was necessary.

Proust has determined both the content and form of romantic obsession:

One friend, though surely exaggerating, reported that Proust would arrive late in the evening, wake him up, begin talking, and deliver one long sentence that did not come to an end until the middle of the night. The sentence would be full of asides, parentheses, illuminations, reconsiderations, revisions, addenda, corrections, augmentations, digressions, qualifications, erasures, deletions and marginal notes.

‘To be exact and economical,’ Davis reminds us, ‘does not necessarily mean to be brief.’ If her novel takes the content and form of romantic obsession, it is no great leap to see that her essays on translation follow suit. If you subtract the book on Proust from Essays Two, you are left with a series of thrilling and bizarre accounts of reading in languages she doesn’t have, as well as trying to translate ‘English into English’, either in updating anachronistic classics or (once) in converting a family heirloom, a New England ancestor’s diary, into a found poem.

She refers to these as experiments – not, she assures us, in the sense of ‘experimental writing’, which subverts literary conventions in a spirit of rebellion, but in the scientific sense of setting controls and not knowing whether she will succeed or fail. Fail she often does. In trying to translate Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century English into 21st-century English, she regrets normalising him, as Kafka was normalised by his early translators (or Emily Dickinson by her editors). ‘Translating Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Grey Dog of Kenmuir’ is a more interesting case. At epic length (the essay is more than sixty pages long), she recounts her experiment with Alfred Ollivant’s 1898 children’s classic, a favourite from her own childhood and ‘one of the great dog stories of all time, if not the greatest’. She thought she might give it new life and save it from obscurity: the style ‘is of an earlier time, with more complex constructions and more sophisticated vocabulary; and the speech of the characters is mostly in Scots and Northern English dialect’. There are other problems with the book: animal cruelty, sexist stereotypes, the unvarnished portrayal of an alcoholic father. But the most immediate obstacles – those which chiefly concern the translator/updater – have to do with language. What do we do with a children’s book that contains Britishisms, dialect, specialised words from defunct professions and bygone rural life?

And where does it end? We must worry that the words élan, epithet, antipathy and wraith also trouble the fluency of the reading experience. As do inversions. It’s not enough to assert that the exotic words are, or should be, part of the pleasure, such as the following features of the Cumbrian landscape: fell, ghyll, tarn, spinney, mere, dell, sea fret (‘a wet mist or haze coming inland from the sea’). It’s not enough to assert that previous generations of children read, enjoyed, and even loved this book across cultural barriers – apparently children once tolerated negative capability. It’s not enough to recall the seven-year-old Davis, uncomprehending in an Austrian classroom, and to find in that experience the seed of her career as a writer and translator.

The question of what is difficult – and to whom, and how much difficulty is too much, and what effect it might have on a hypothetical reader – seems to me unanswerable. I wanted to think Davis’s experiment was silly and misguided, but the essay that results is an odyssey. It is another example of her ‘break it down’ methodology, but it makes a grand sweep into questions about the metaphysics of children’s fiction and leads to an unforeseen conclusion. After all the excogitation, the research – she even contacts Ollivant’s heirs and ends up as a recipient of his granddaughter’s holiday newsletters – Davis is sitting at her typewriter translating the final scenes, and starts weeping. ‘I would say to myself, But this did not really happen, and then feel pained again, as though it had. How powerful is this thing, the suspension of disbelief – how powerful fiction and its illusions!’

This reminder – ‘once the words are written, and read, and imagined in our minds, they are real to us’ – harks back to ‘Remember the Van Wagenens’ in Essays One. It’s an essay about memory, about how memory keeps the dead alive, and in it she emphasises the materiality of thought: ‘The memories exist physically in the brain cells.’ Her own madeleine is the smell of a canvas school bag, the neural receptors for which have lain dormant since childhood. Is it possible that our early reading is a real experience in our brains, which can’t distinguish between sensations we have received first-hand and those we have read about?

This hypothesis suggests a corollary: that the more words we know, the bigger our sensorium, and therefore the sum total of ‘experience’. An addendum to the corollary: the more foreign languages we know, the more words we have for things and the wider we travel. Davis bears this out with impulsive forays into new languages, jumping in at the deep end with a single book and no dictionary. All she needs, she decides, are context and cognates. For Spanish, she picks a book already familiar to her in English, Las aventuras de Tom Sawyer. As a further, more whimsical experiment, she translates part of the Spanish back into English, and compares her translation to Twain’s original.

For Norwegian, she chooses a family saga, Dag Solstad’s Det uoppløselige episke element i Telemark i perioden 1591-1896 (‘The Insoluble Epic Element in Telemark in the Years 1591-1896’). The nature of the story – ‘detailed accounts of the births, marriages, deaths and property transactions of Solstad’s ancestors’ – promises a fairly basic and redundant vocabulary from which she can slowly tease out meaning. Knowledge of German helps, as well as her abiding interest in Anglo-Saxon root words. The essay is broken down into subheadings, one of which, ‘My Method of Figuring Out the Words: Breaking the Word into Its Component Parts’, sums up Davis’s guiding principle. She carried this method into another project, translating A.L. Snijders’s stories from Dutch (another language she doesn’t quite have) as part of a project to translate a little something from every language her own stories have been translated into.

If she often seems like a superior mechanic tinkering with a Porsche engine, consider it a déformation professionnelle; as a translator, she tells us, ‘it is possible … I have read more in my French dictionaries than I have in French literature itself.’ This is no bad thing for those of us who love to hear that, for instance, the word ‘brochure’ derives from broucher, ‘to sew’, as in sewn pages. But the sensuality of language – the experience of language – is the telos of the translator: ‘Finally, sometimes, working very slowly indeed, I would allow myself to dwell on a single word for a long time, searching out its history, finding the way it was used in quotations from different authors, I would be in effect caressing the word.’

Reading these essays made me feel I was wasting my life. I couldn’t hop onto a transatlantic flight, but I could at least make expeditions into an unknown language, and it would alter my brain just the same: ‘This confrontation with the densely printed text in the unknown language turned out to be oddly exhilarating. It was like diving, or jumping, into the deep, cold and mysterious waters of a mountain lake.’ Yet the final essay of this armchair-travelling volume is about an actual sojourn in Arles (first published in the LRB of 12 August 2021). As always, Davis goes back to the root, in this case the Roman roots, and then gives us a cross-section of civilisation built on civilisation, spolia and repurposed chapels, the Hôtel de Ville rising out of a cryptoporticus, Van Gogh emerging in the place of the lost Arles lion.

Reading Davis on Arles made me circle back to Essays One, which also ends on a series of pieces about time and geography (the best essays in that volume). ‘As I Was Reading’, an investigation of epochal time, proceeds rhizomatically from word to word: millennium leads to millinery, which leads to chiliasm. A chiliad is a period of a thousand years. Its origin is Greek, but it prompts more research into Sanskrit and Indo-European etymologies, and Davis roams the dictionary parsing the difference between, say, epoch and era while speculating on the blissful emptiness of the Ice Age: ‘The further back we go, the fewer people there were in the world, and the fewer people there are, the less that happens – to people, anyway.’ A pair of essays discuss literary style and the Bible; it turns out that Jesus, who wrote nothing, is an exquisite stylist. He is a master of the concrete image, especially ‘exploited in a surprising and unusual way, as for instance: “Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from brambles.”’ His intertextual subtlety is often lost on us:

Jesus’ sayings and parables are often characterised by humour, paradox and exaggeration combined. In the parable of the mustard seed, for instance, he compares God’s domain to the lowly mustard weed. He uses the image of the mustard weed as a parody of Ezekiel’s mighty cedar of Lebanon and the apocalyptic tree of Daniel, traditional images for God’s domain at the time. Jesus is poking fun at the symbol of the mighty tree that prevailed.

Jesus comes to seem a literary precursor to Davis, even down to his sardonic humour. Incidentally, her approving phrase ‘he was … a person of few words’ is also adduced to her great-great-grandfather (‘a man of few words’), whose legendary status in the family is sealed by his having travelled from Iowa to Springfield to shake Abraham Lincoln’s hand. Thus she can say that she is ‘only three handshakes away from Lincoln’, an image that imbricates the passing of time and the linkage (the link in Lincoln isn’t lost on her) of human generations.

It seems, in the end, that an obsession with words, their proper order and their etymologies, is nothing less than a search for proof that time existed. Even in print there is no firm ground or fixed point: ‘I did not notice … that as I grew older they also changed, that my books were gradually becoming wrong about certain things.’ This leads her to point out the irony in the etymology of calendar, ‘a Latin word meaning “moneylender’s account book”’, recalling the narrator who tried to reckon the cost of ten days of love, only to discover that memory – into perpetuity – accounts for most of the experience.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 44 No. 1 · 6 January 2022

Ange Mlinko writes about Lydia Davis’s obsession with word order (LRB, 2 December). David Lodge, in The Practice of Writing (1996), tells

a story well known to all students of Joyce, that one day in Zurich, when he was writing Ulysses, he met his friend Frank Budgen in the street and told him he had been working all day and had produced only two sentences. ‘You have been seeking the right words?’ asked Budgen. ‘No,’ replied Joyce, ‘I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentences I have.’

Paul Devine

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences