This isn’t Proust

by HRM on July 5, 2012

Lydia Davis at Shakespeare & Company

On Monday, June 26th, Lydia Davis visited Shakespeare and Co. She read a sampling of recent work, stories which varied in both topic and length, some no more than a few sentences long. As always, we found her prose to be tonic: humorous in its absurdity, melancholy in situation. The following is a transcribed and edited version of the question-and-answer session that followed the reading.

Lydia DavisDiscussed: Beginnings in Paris; the sanctuary found in notebooks; death and mittens; a concise Proust; the ploddingness of prose; a woman’s body in contrast to her personal charms.

Q: It seems that the land that you have cultivated for yourself, and it seems completely your own, is to take moments that other writers might not realize are stories and make stories out of them, out of moments that don’t completely fulfill that definition. And I was wondering if it took a long time to have the confidence to say that two women having a two-minute conversation about a sweater comprises a story, because it really does, and I don’t know many writers who have the confidence to take that risk.

Lydia Davis: I’m sure, for one thing, I wouldn’t have written such short stories when I was first starting out to write. I was in Paris for a lot of the time, the very beginning of trying to learn how to write. That’s sort of irrelevant, but I can’t help mentioning it because—here we are. I wasn’t always happy here, but I was working hard anyway.

So I don’t think I would have had the confidence, and I wouldn’t have even thought that well, that’s a story. When you’re young, you’re somehow more ambitious. You think, ‘First of all, I should be writing a novel, but if I somehow can’t do that, fall short of it, I should at least be writing a long, meaningful story. Certainly not something really short.’

But the nice thing is that you can write in privacy. So you have your notebook, and you could just write it down because you heard the woman say it. And you could look at it again, an hour later, and say ‘Well it would be a little better this way.’ But it doesn’t commit you to anything, and you find it delightful. I had serious doubts that it was enough, but I found it delightful. That’s a really quite recent one.

So I just sit on it for a while. Not literally, but I let it be for a while, and I keep coming back to it. And if it still feels it has some substance, I finally say OK. I dare to send it in a group. If a magazine asks me for a story, I like to send more than I really want them to take. I mean, they’re very small. Partly because I want to see. It’s a way of testing the story. So if it keeps getting pushed aside by one magazine after another, I think maybe there isn’t enough.

But it depended mostly on me. And I found that delightful.

There’s a very short poem by Anselm Hollow. I should be able to quote it completely because it’s so short, but that doesn’t mean I remember the whole thing. It’s called “The Red Mittens,” I think, or “The Mittens,” or maybe it has no title. But I had it up on my bulletin board a long time, and it was just a few lines: “The red wool mittens are almost finished. I’ve been working on them for many years.” See, I think I’m doing it completely wrong. But the last line is “But my life is over.”

It was so simple, so I knew it very well, although not well enough to quote it obviously. But I found that every time I read it again it still had an impact on me. So I guess that was sort of the model for these very short ones. Does it still have an impact, even though you know it well and it’s so short.

That’s a long-winded answer to a very concise question.

Lydia Davis

Q: In sentence-making, what propels you forward and what makes you stop?

LD: That’s very difficult, because it’s different in every case. I do hear everything in my head, so I hear it, and I hear it in a certain way before I write it down. I guess that’s probably true of most people. But one sentence inspires the next one, and that inspires the next one.

I have a sense of the form, the shape, and the length of the story almost before I begin. Sometimes it’s incorrect, it’s wrong, but most of the time I know it’s not going to be anything longer than this paragraph or these two pages. The ending is very difficult. Either because I don’t have the wording quite right or I haven’t actually come to the end of the thought.

In “Jane and the Cane,” the very first one, I didn’t know how to end that for a while. The last sentence is something like “Mother complains that she’s always so tired of Jane and Cane.” By that time, I’m tired of it too. We’re all tire of it. And there’s been the theme of tired going through it. But that didn’t come right away. I had to wait for that last line.

And then even in the very short ones I’ll do a lot of revising, just to get the absolute right wording. And a lot of cutting. It might just be a word or two.

Q: I first came across your work through your translations of Maurice Blanchot. And so I was wondering if you think they affected your other work?

LD: I actually started working on the first [Blanchot translation] here [in Paris], L’arrêt de mort. I’ve translated six of his books, so they must have had an effect, but it’s a little hard to know exactly how much, unless I had a parallel life in which I didn’t translate Blanchot, or didn’t translate anything maybe.

But I think I was very drawn to translate him because what he was doing in his work felt very—I won’t say familiar, but I felt at home with it. He goes into great detail. He takes one encounter, and will open it up to form a whole book. He’ll make an abstract thing like a thought become a character. It was that focus, that relentless focus on detail that I found very interesting. He didn’t need a huge cast of characters and a lot of dialogue. So he was very spare.

Of course, then Proust was—but then I don’t know. Proust said he was very concise, too. And I agreed with him. He said that he never put anything more in one sentence than should be in that one sentence. So if it was very long, that could still be concise.

Lydia Davis

Q: I was wondering whether you call the very short pieces poems, and whether this makes a difference.

LD: It’s more complicated than that, actually, because some of the short pieces I did write intending them to be poems. Others I intended them to be prose, but wanted the lines to be broken because I wanted you to stop at the end of those lines. So even though I didn’t call them poems, they look like poems on the page. But I still think I come from short story, beginning. I never considered myself a poet.

There’s a certain ploddingness to prose that I like. It can be repetitious in an interesting way with language. But I wanted that sort of heaviness. “Jane and cane.” I didn’t want it to be too lyrical.

So in a way it’s arbitrary.

You can see it as a continuum from what is absolutely and unmistakably a poem, say a Shakespeare sonnet or something. And then, at the other end, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is unmistakably not a poem, although you find very long prose works that are called poems by their authors. It’s nicely confusing, I think.

Lydia Davis

Q: How does your translation of Proust differ from past editions? And were you and the other translators given any specific instructions as to some method that was different from the past translators?

LD: There’s really only one past translation—Scott Moncrieff. And then there have been two revisions of that translation. But a great deal of his original work is still in the revisions. So I really think of it as one, one previous translation, with revisions. Important revisions, but.

My translation was part of a group project, I did the first and then there were other translators for each of the other volumes.

In terms of how mine is different from Scott Moncrieff: it’s much closer to Proust. Of course I would say that. There are loyal fans of the Scott Moncrieff translation, and if that was the first version you read than when you read Proust, many people just can’t see any other version as being Proust. They really say that is Proust.

His version was more flowery than the original, and more wordy. He would use “strange and haunting,” when Proust just said “strange,” “étrange.” He would say “strange and haunting” for the rhythm of it. So his rhythms were quite nice, and even his prose is quite nice in a way. But Proust is much more spare, much more modern. The Scott Moncrieff translation is rather Edwardian not just in language but also in sensibility. It is famous for avoiding—instead of saying “woman’s body,” Proust would say “body,” and Scott Moncrieff would say “personal charms.” And things like that.

Some of these survived the revisions. Proust said “the entrance to the underworld”—that’s the original, the plain French—and Scott Moncrieff says “the jaws of hell.” So he’s replacing “entrance,” which is a fairly neutral word, with “jaws,” a metaphor. A dramatic metaphor. So all the way through he adds metaphor, he adds words. He dresses it up. It’s more wordy. So I feel there’s an important difference. But of course people who grew up with the Scott Moncrieff read mine and say, “This isn’t Proust.” They really make that fundamental mistake.

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