In The End of the Story, the lone novel among Lydia Davis’s many books of short fiction, essays, and translation, the narrator writes of a brief, intense affair that ended badly. Her lover broke it off abruptly and told her he was seeing someone else. The narrator was for months a jealous wreck. Her attempt years later to make a story out of the affair is worked into the novel itself; she describes reading over the journals she kept at the time, in one case finding an account of a difficult phone call. She sees that she had written in her journal, “I was in pain because I still held him in a little corner of my heart.” A little corner of her heart? Only the deranging effects of romantic obsession could have led her to such a gloopy metaphor. “Now,” the narrator writes, “the idea of my heart having a corner bothers me”—an unmistakable sign of good mental health for a Davis narrator. Her essential self is the rigorous, reading self that has clearly regained the upper hand: she’ll take her metaphors precise or not at all.
This stringency, which the narrator shares with her creator, is also one of Davis’s defining features as a translator. Her new volume of nonfiction, Essays Two, is on the subject of translation, an occupation that began for Davis in her twenties as a way to earn money while she was living in France and working on her fiction, and has ended up a career in which she has found distinction—first for translations of the avant-garde French writers Maurice Blanchot and Michel Leiris, and later, more prominently, for translations of Proust’s Swann’s Way and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
Essays Two is a companion to Essays One, an earlier volume of critical pieces about reading, writing, and art. Like many of the narrators of her short stories, Davis is a taxonomist and enumerator: she sorts, classifies, and numbers things. In the course of the new volume, she identifies eleven rules, two “sins,” and twenty-one distinct “pleasures” of translation.
As a translator, Davis is known for fidelity, clarity, and, in the case of Proust, decluttering. Her plainer Proust left a few readers howling for the flourishes of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, the first and for decades only translator of Proust into English. Davis occasionally casts a cool eye on the kind of translator’s liberties and blunders she wants to avoid. Why say that beetles are buzzing “busily” when Flaubert said no such thing and took pains to avoid gratuitous metaphor? Yet the collection is not, mostly, about problems with other people’s translations but the process of working on her own—a kind of shop talk we’re allowed to listen in on.
For Davis the translator, pleasure is closely tied to difficulty. “See if, for oiseuse, you can find a word in English beginning with o and ending in the z sound that means the same thing and, if possible, has the same derivation”—this is the kind of challenge she sets for herself. “Handily, for this last problem, there was the perfect solution, otiose,” which means, “like the French, ‘at leisure’ or ‘idle.’”
The solutions are not always so tidy:
Certain translation situations are fairly desperate: What in the world is the author saying? Any amount of cogitating and searching—in reference books, online, in correspondence with smart native speakers—yields nothing.
To this day, translators debate whether, in a certain sentence, Proust uses boule to refer to a loaf of bread or a hot-water bottle; either comforting object would make sense in context. (After consulting previous translations, various colleagues, and her local baker, Davis goes with the hot-water bottle.)
Her goal of staying as close as possible to the vocabulary of the original novels leads her far down the path of etymology, both in English and in French. (Pleasure #10: “You become more and more knowledgeable about your own language and its resources as you work.”) Translating into a language that offers so many synonyms, Davis tries to find one that either shares its etymology with the French original or derives from a similar context. She might translate a word not into its exact contemporary equivalent but into its etymological ancestor: “Alors, ‘then,’ comes from the Latin illa hora, ‘at that hour.’” Knowing this, Davis might in some cases use “at that hour” instead of “then.”
When translating, Davis tells us, she keeps Harrap’s New Standard French and English Dictionary beside her, the volume for A–I on her left, the volume for J–Z on her right. But she finds herself most often working with her French-French dictionary, Le Petit Robert. Nearby are two editions each of Webster’s and the OED. Translators may be wizards but they seem like scriveners—bent over desks, surrounded by multiple bound volumes, pursuing arcana, working slowly, getting paid little:
On one book, one of Maurice Blanchot’s interesting and difficult novels, I worked at a snail’s pace, even though I was not independently wealthy, and later calculated that in translating that book I had earned about a dollar an hour—a good wage at various times in the nineteenth century.
Davis once said in an interview that she would find it “almost morally or ethically wrong” to deliberately impose her own style on a translation. Her scrupulousness is, perhaps, a counterbalance to the translator’s power, and to the peremptory instinct that prompts translation in the first place. Thinking over what has kept her translating all these years, Davis writes:
I suspected, but wasn’t quite ready to admit, that the fact was I really wanted to write this book in English, whatever it was: I wanted to convey those strange moments of Blanchot’s L’Arrêt de mort in English, I wanted to construct those complex sentences of Proust’s Du Côté de chez Swann in English, I wanted to tell the story and make the wry comments, in English, of Madame Bovary.
At heart is “simply the desire to do it myself.” Or, to put it a slightly different way, Davis quotes Clare Cavanagh, the translator of Wisława Szymborska and other Polish poets: “You see a wonderful thing in front of you, and you want it.”
When Davis moved from translating contemporary French novelists to those of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she added a new dimension to her work. She was not only shuttling between languages but also between eras. She acquired yet another dictionary: the Grand Dictionnaire Français-Anglais et Anglais-Français published in 1885. Proust would have been fourteen when this edition of the dictionary was published; it reflects the going usage of his childhood and adolescence: “None of the English would or could date from later than Proust’s childhood years, and none of the English interpretation of the French words and phrases would be modern ones.”
While working on Swann’s Way, Davis began to wonder how ambient noise might have influenced the rhythms of Proust’s sentences. In my favorite chapter of Essays Two, “Hammers and Hoofbeats: Rhythms and Syntactical Patterns in Proust’s Swann’s Way,” Davis describes the sounds that Proust would have heard in his daily life from the age of about seven to seventeen. Her argument for the connection between sound and syntax is outshone by the captivating list of the sounds themselves:
Multiple footsteps of people out walking, in regular or irregular patterns and softened by the surface of dirt or grass; farmers calling and shouting at their animals or fellow laborers, maybe shepherds calling or whistling to their dogs; others calling dogs and children and each other; on country roads, wagons or carriages passing with the sound of rolling wheels, hoofbeats, again, walking or trotting, the creaking leather of the carriage or harness or saddle, the crack of a whip; the regular swish of scythes through wheat or hay; church bells tolling in the distance….
This continues for paragraphs before Davis moves on to sorting the sounds by their rhythms. For instance, “cooking sounds…tend to have the rhythm one-one-one-one at equal intervals: mixing with a wooden spoon, pounding a chicken cutlet.” Beats of three can be found in “certain repeating birdsongs.” Beats of two were heard regularly:
A horse trotting before a carriage would have a brisk one-two-one-two rhythm. This is presumably a sound Proust would have heard a great deal throughout his youth and on into adulthood, when he lamented the coming of the automobile.
As it gets longer, the catalog of fin de siècle sounds acquires the solidity of a small work of art. If you read it closely and imagine each sound, you might be struck by an unexpected, senseless pastoral longing.
It seems safe to infer a deep engagement on Davis’s part with the sensory world of the late nineteenth century. One of the “translation” projects she writes of is the conversion of an ancestor’s nineteenth-century memoir of New England village life from prose to poetry. Sidney Brooks was her great-great-grandmother’s younger brother—a devout Christian, an abolitionist, and an educator who was born in 1813 and lived most of his life in the Cape Cod town of Harwich. When he died in 1887 Brooks left behind an unpublished memoir describing life in the small town where he’d lived nearly all his years. It filled “three handwritten school copybooks” that were later transcribed and published by the Harwich Historical Society. Davis began to read it out of interest in her ancestor, as well as
to learn more generally about how people lived in the nineteenth century, something that has always interested me, partly out of plain curiosity and partly out of an idealism that causes me to consider certain earlier customs and habits as possibly more wholesome, useful, and sustainable than some of our own.
She came to love Brooks’s character and sensibility, and decided to turn parts of the memoir into a long narrative poem, so that “the memoir would be read at a different pace and its words and images absorbed in greater isolation.”
Davis quotes a passage of his—in her verse form—about the village during his childhood days, when, he writes, “people were not as busy as they now are and far more social”:
The profound Sabbath-day quiet of those times
can hardly be conceived.
No church bell was within hearing,
for there was none on our houses of worship.
No carriages were in the streets,
for the only transportation then
was mostly by ox-cart, and the oxen too
claimed their day of rest.
The sounds Brooks records not hearing on Sundays are very close to the sounds that, by Davis’s reckoning, Proust would have heard daily in his own youth. It’s not surprising, of course, that the two men would have been surrounded by many of the same sounds, even if about sixty years and an ocean separate their nineteenth-century childhoods. What’s striking is the way Davis holds them up within this collection, like the positive and negative space of a figure, Proust’s sounds and Brooks’s silence.
The life of the village is important in Davis’s own stories. Many of her narrators, especially in her last four collections—Almost No Memory, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, Varieties of Disturbance, and Can’t and Won’t—live in small, unidentified towns. It’s not necessarily always the same town, but just as her stories have a kind of cumulative, collective narrator, they also have a cumulative setting: a place where a paperboy delivers the newspaper, where a meadow lies within walking distance of the narrator’s house, where the community holds a charity yard sale on the front lawn of the parish house. The town seems neither prosperous nor depressed nor particularly quaint. The affairs of the world are only occasionally and obliquely visible, as when one of Davis’s narrators takes a list of endangered fish with her to a restaurant so that she doesn’t accidentally contribute to the loss of species.
Her narrators don’t extol small-town life, they just live it. One who recently moved from the city says:
There is not much to look at in this town of bare and plain houses and yards, so I look hard at what there is, lawns, ornamental trees and foundation plantings, sometimes a very modest and carefully limited flower bed.
Another narrator has a view from her window of cows grazing in a field: “Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play.”
It wouldn’t be quite right to describe the village as “background,” since Davis’s narrators often speak of what is directly before them in their line of sight. There’s not much to look at, so I look hard at what there is. If a narrator pulls back her curtain and sees cows, fifteen pages of observations about cows it will be. Which is not to suggest that Davis makes no selections, of course, but that she gives the impression of working happily with found material. One story—here in its entirety—is called “Contingency (vs. Necessity)”:
He could be our dog.
But he is not our dog.
So he barks at us.
We can likewise say of Davis, She could live in a city, but she lives in a village, so she writes about it.
Questions of social hierarchy, climbing, judgment, and snobbery—subjects in which Davis was immersed as translator of Swann’s Way—don’t much come into the picture. Davis Village is an Emersonian idyll where a resident is guided, for better or worse, by an idiosyncratic inner sense of whom and what to pay attention to. “My friend is interesting but he is not in his apartment,” begins the story “Interesting,” in which the narrator follows the turns of her unpredictable social curiosity. “Here is a woman I know coming up to me. She is very excited, but she is not an interesting woman,” ergo, “What excites her will not be interesting.” An agitated man talking rapidly about historic house restoration at a party doesn’t seem a likely object of interest, but “because he gives me so much information per minute, I do not get tired of listening to him.” On the other hand:
Here is a very handsome English traffic engineer. The fact that he is so handsome, and so animated, and has such a fine English accent makes it appear, each time he begins to speak, that he is about to say something interesting, but he is never interesting, and he is saying something, yet again, about traffic patterns.
Davis often draws on outmoded or homely forms of local communication: the church newsletter, the bulletin board stuck with postings. At the same time, she can make a phishing e-mail sound like it has come by horseback, train, and steamship from another village far away. Her verse adaptation of a spam solicitation—one of those purported come-ons from a lovelorn woman east of the Dnieper, which Davis actually found in her inbox—makes its shamming intimacy sound true. The oddly poignant “Hello Dear” begins:
do you remember
how we communicated with you?
Long ago you could not see,
but I am Marina—with Russia.
Do you remember me?
Davis’s stories sometimes take the form of a letter written by the narrator to a company or institution—a peppermint candy company, a frozen foods company, a university bookstore, a foundation that has awarded the narrator a major grant. The letter is often, though not always, a complaint. The tone is mild, the matter sometimes very small (the misspelling of “scrod” on a hotel restaurant menu) and sometimes slightly bigger (being overcharged for fancy peppermints).
Citizen-letter-writer: noble voice in the wilderness, or crackpot? The device lends itself to ironic uses. Some of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories take the form of letters. They allow Babel to show peasant-soldiers eagerly putting to paper the new language of the Communist Party. (“I went from the fields into the ranks of the imperialists…until Comrade Lenin, together with Comrade Trotsky, turned my beast of a bayonet to point it at new and better guts and paunches.”*) In Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Moses Herzog’s prolific, unsent letters (to The New York Times, to Eisenhower, to Heidegger, as well as to friends and lovers) are a sign of misdirected energy and midlife disarray, evidence of the stature he has failed to achieve in public life as a writer or professor. If the letter-writer sometimes articulates an important truth, he does so while providing a dose of comedy.
Davis’s letter-writer strays off-topic, offers more detail than strictly necessary, delivers criticism gently, offers praise where it is due. She leisurely sets the scene (“Last Christmas when my husband and I stopped in at an upscale country store that caters to weekenders as well as locals”), eventually arrives at the subject (“What I am writing to you about is not the taste or the difficulty of chewing the mints but the quantity of mints in the cannister”), and fleshes it out with another scene (“We decided to place bets on how many candies there were”). One suspenseful candy-counting contest and a lot of arithmetic later, she arrives at a carefully hedged conclusion: “They were delicious, but we are feeling shortchanged.”
We feel in the letters a kind of sidewinding energy. Digression and elaboration are ways to take up space on the page without introducing conflict. Even before Davis was on the scene, the letter-writer was already a comic-pathetic type—naive, idle, lonely, old, ineffectual. When the letter is conspicuously nice, an additional debased quality is added to the associative nexus: female.
But what seems dotty in a letter would seem normal in person. Davis’s writer hasn’t come to the peppermint company or the bookstore just to criticize—she has stopped by to chat. Getting straight to the point, after all, can seem rude. To be unhurried is a way of being friendly. The letter-writer seems determined to pull her addressee into the web of social ties and reciprocities that characterize village life—as if by playing the part of the familiar customer from down the road, she could induce her correspondent to play the part of kindly neighborhood shopkeeper.
That she could not possibly succeed in creating a sense of mutual obligation is as much a source of unease as of humor. Why doesn’t the narrator seem to understand her addressee? Why can’t she sharpen her criticism? Why is she rambling? Is there going to be a punch line? Davis doesn’t often release her reader into laughter. Checked in our laughter, we cringe a little.
One of the most often cited Davis stories is “Letter to a Funeral Parlor.” The letter-writer’s father has recently died. She writes to complain about the way the funeral director referred to his ashes in a meeting with her and her mother: “What startled and disturbed us was the word cremains. You in the business must have invented this word and you are used to it. We the public do not hear it very often.”
She goes on to write:
We noticed that before the death of my father you and your representative used the words loved one to refer to him. That was comfortable for us, even if the ways in which we loved him were complicated.
Then we were sitting there in our chairs in the living room trying not to weep in front of your representative…and we were very tired first from sitting up with my father, and then from worrying about whether he was comfortable as he was dying, and then from worrying about where he might be now that he was dead, and your representative referred to him as “the cremains.”
Here every detail and seeming digression is actually building the writer’s case. That she and her mother were holding back tears, had spent days and sleepless nights with her dying father, had doubts about the possibility of an afterlife—all are relevant to why hearing the word “cremains” brought them up short.
As one who works with words for a living, I must say that any invented word, like Porta Potti or pooper-scooper, has a cheerful or even jovial ring to it that I don’t think you really intended when you invented the word cremains. In fact, my father himself, who was a professor of English and is now being called the cremains, would have pointed out to you the alliteration in Porta Potti and the rhyme in pooper-scooper. Then he would have told you that cremains falls into the same category as brunch and is known as a portmanteau word.
There is nothing wrong with inventing words, especially in a business. But a grieving family is not prepared for this one.
Though the narrator is someone who knows the fine difference between cheerful and jovial and can put them in relation to each other on a scale of intensity, she doesn’t use the tools of her profession for a dazzling rhetorical attack. She has the ducking politeness of the other letter-writers. She gives the benefit of the doubt (“I don’t think you really intended…”). She does not say that she and her mother feel insulted, only “upset” and “not prepared.” She doesn’t say that her father would have disapproved of the word, only that he would have understood and explained its linguistic classification back to the user. She concludes with a modest suggestion: “You could very well continue to employ the term ashes. We are used to it from the Bible, and are even comforted by it.”
This story draws its emotional power from the way it marries Davis’s ardent attention to grammar, etymology, and usage—so important across all her work—to a moral claim. The grammarian risks being a curmudgeon and a scold; the exacting translator might seem to have abandoned the world for her dictionaries. But here the narrator brings her knowledge to bear on an ordinary difficult situation in which the choice of synonym has moral weight; the substitute of a neologism for a familiar word means no less than the difference between insult and respect. She speaks not only to the funeral director but also, implicitly, to the purveyors of the many patronizing corporate euphemisms and slogans that belittle us daily.
Possibly my favorite part of the story is that Davis registers the phrase “loved one” as a neologism as well. You could argue that the over-friendly yet impersonal “loved one,” with its treacly insistence that all our relatives must be beloved, is as insulting a term in its own way as “cremains.” But Davis’s narrator doesn’t. She marks it for her reader’s consideration but lets it pass.
Davis is right that there’s nothing wrong with inventing words for business; the specialized terms of various trades enrich our supply of metaphor, and if you value the esoteric glossaries of shepherds or sailors you couldn’t reasonably argue that we should dismiss commercial neologisms tout court. It’s easier to make a moral case for why some language—derogatory terms, the universal “he”—should change than it is to make a moral case for language staying the same.
Yet Davis’s narrator makes an essentially conservative case—a defense of tradition—on behalf of the vulnerable (in this case, the bereaved and their dead). It’s a distant cousin to arguments for the preservation of certain preindustrial technologies and crafts, traditional farming methods, vanishing languages, endangered species of fish—arguments against heedless progress, as it’s called. Davis’s case is narrowly bounded, local, and specific: here is one bad new word that shouldn’t displace a good one. Someone who makes literature from a dating scam e-mail could hardly take a general stand against the encroachment of the new, in language or otherwise. She can only offer a suggestive example, hope to nudge the development of the language in directions that are useful rather than destructive, and be prepared to fail.
December 2, 2021
‘And I One of Them’