I shouldn’t have started these red wool mittens


I shouldn’t have started these red wool mittens

LOUIS GAIGHER considers a new volume by an author who, in addition to thoughtful, literary and refined expressions of language, uses throwaway phrases, eavesdropped conversations, jargon and unwieldy language.


IN “A Person Asked Me About Lichens", from Lydia Davis's new volume, Our Strangers, an unidentified interlocutor asks the narrator if she has written about moss or whether she might be engaged in a moss-related project. She's the type of person who's interested in moss and probably likes to think about it. According to the narrator, the interlocutor knows that she looks at things intently, including trifles, and is interested in plants, ecology and gardening. Or, at least, the narrator thinks he thinks he knows this about her.

Across seven pages (in detail versus numerous Davis stories of a few lines) the reader follows a searching and free-spirited consciousness that elaborates on mushrooms, others' moss experiences and her own moss inattention. The interlocutor's assumption and question pique her interest and challenge her to future investigation: “And by this time next year, if someone asks me if I am a lichen-curious person, and, even better, engaged on a lichen-related project, I will be able to say, truthfully, that I am."

In “A Theory", a story that spans only three-quarters of a page, the narrator speculates on the function of mysterious wire cables extending out from a river bank and joining together 4.5 metres above the water's surface in thin metal bollards. She believes the wires may have conducted a current derived from lightning. Unlikely because “there are rarely any thunderstorms here, when I come to think of it, perhaps seven or eight every August and one in July".

Freely chosen interests, carefully observed and articulated by a consciousness in full swing, are the framework of Davis's stories. An author needs to write from her own interests, according to her “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits" in Essays (ten of the tips can be read here). An interest may also be obscure: “Any piece of writing, after all, has only a particular, and limited, audience or readership. It is not necessary to appeal to everyone or even to explain oneself.”

In fact, according to Davis, it is an ethical imperative to develop your character and understanding by actively exploring interests and nurturing curiosity. And to leave room in your thoughts for speculation, such as about the function of mysterious wire cables.

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Detached gaze

In her stories, Davis mostly adopts a recognisable narrator voice that is close to her own but doesn't necessarily share demographic markers, such as gender and age, with her. Not being at home in these categories is sometimes precisely the point. This narrative instance is telling when Davis clearly uses biographical material as a source, as she often does. The juxtaposition of a slightly lofty yet amicable tone, meticulousness of expression, extremely analytical questioning, a strong moral code and a detached gaze are often funny and/or arouse pathos. Often Davis challenges herself to hyper-concentrated prose-like texts, devoid of context and development, which still meaningfully convey meaning and have to be able to move, surprise or entertain a reader repeatedly.

The standalone and meticulously polished stories and essays gain even more expressive power through accumulation and juxtaposition in a remarkable oeuvre that has taken shape over nearly 50 years. Texts engage with each other — a cadence here and a touch of complement or contradiction there — and concerns and interests shift or are revisited.

Davis's original writing (she also publishes translations from French, German, Dutch and older English) is bundled into three doorsteps with a clean typographic cover design: The Collected Stories (2009), Essays (2019) and Essays Two (2021). She has also published a novel, The End of the Story, and two standalone story collections.

When exploring her writing, the reader is immersed in an entertaining, intelligent and perceptive consciousness that, despite self-deprecation and generosity, remains elusive and unknowable. Perhaps it is this enigma, and the simplicity amid accumulation, that has captivated me endlessly for the past 15 years, prompting me to continuously read and reread all of Davis's work with great pleasure.

Throwaway phrases

Davis's translation work is not detached from her original writing. Writing well in a target language is also the primary requirement that a translator must meet and her writing and translation impulse are similar: “Just as I want to capture something outside myself in a piece of original writing, when I want to translate something, I also want to capture it, in this case to reproduce it in English." (“Forms and Influences III" from Essays).

As a translator of Proust and Flaubert, among others, she is also generous: to contribute to English-language and world literature, she sets herself the task of translating a short text from every language into which her work has been translated into English. She also encourages us, in “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits", to learn and translate into another language, thus refining our knowledge of and writing ability in our own language.

For her stories, Davis draws not only from thoughtful, literary and refined expressions of language but also from throwaway phrases, eavesdropped conversations, jargon and inept language. In Our Strangers, as in her earlier volumes, we find found adapted material and imitations. “Egg" opens with a pseudo-academic discussion of the translation of the word “egg". The narrative that follows, taken from her notebook and biographical, involves two babies who were forced to learn English long ago because they were American. A round, white object caught their attention and they staggered towards it. “Eck?" says one and “Ack" the other. The object is a ping pong ball. “In time, they will learn this too." Whether the loaded concept of the egg is as easy to master as the prototypical form, let alone life itself, is uncertain.

In terms of content, in Our Strangers there is a shift to other concerns and a more wintry tone. Earlier in Davis's work, heated quarrels, divorces, obsessive love, drinking and the demands made by a young family were on display. Now she most often looks at an everyday reality and takes the big questions to the domestic level: mortality and the challenges of cohabitation with each other and other life forms, such as ants and bees, in a household, community and ecosystem. “I know this isn't too fascinating, but it's our life," a narrator notes.

To the grave with better German

Conversation and language easily deteriorate into argument or misunderstanding. In “The Other She", the narrator's partner continues to converse with her even though she's in another part of the house: “And for the moment, then, she feels there is another she, with him, maybe even a better she, and she herself is a spurned she, a scorned she, there at the end of the hall far away from the room where they have something nice going on together." The cadence echoes in “In a House Besieged", a story with more dramatic elements and looming danger from 1986: “The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged."

A variation on a found Finnish folk poem, a text on Davis's noticeboard, gives relief to the focus shifts of this volume. The Finnish poem reads in Anselm Hollo's translation: “I shouldn't have started these red wool mittens./they're done now,/but my life is over."

Humour underlies the disproportionality of the monumental glove project and death. The gloves are also possibly a fictitious element but impending death, the fate that each of us meets alone, is the real truth. Davis's rewriting of it — detached, unquestioning and wryly humorous — in a story titled “Improving My German", reads:

All of my life I have been trying to improve my German.
At last my German is better!
But now I am old and ill.
I will die soon.
But when they take me to my grave,
I will have,
somewhere in my brain,
better German.

Our Strangers, published by Canongate, is not available through Amazon. Out of solidarity with independent booksellers, and because Lydia Davis values and wants to promote a diverse publishing ecosystem, it is available at bookstores such as Love Books in Johannesburg and The Book Lounge in Cape Town at about R550.

♦ VWB ♦

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