If you want to pack the house, invite Lydia Davis. The prose poets claim her, the fictionists claim her, and the translators show up to give her a cold, admiring eye. Indeed, 150 people crowded into Room 510 last night for the New School’s first poetry forum of the fall 2008 season: Lydia Davis, moderated by David Lehman
David Lehman and Lydia Davis have known one another since
Lydia (who looked lovely in a pale blue scarf and librarian glasses) didn’t read anything from her most recent collection Varieties of Disturbance, a book that was nominated for the 2007 National Book Award. She read from works in progress, saying, “Maybe this will inspire you to write, because you’ll think ‘this isn’t so great, I can do better.’”
She read sections from something called “The Dreadful Mucomma” (I’m afraid I didn’t catch the word) about a family’s troubles in a foreign country. Afterward, she told us that she didn’t yet know what sequence to put the sections in. “The end could be the beginning and the beginning could be the end.” Later still, in conversation with David and in reference to a novel that she wants to write in form of a grammar book, she said, “I just have to think up a plot.”
This is what I mean by generous. Because, often enough, a student writer will hear an established writer say, “Oh, I always know how to start and end a piece, and I pretty much know what’s going to happen in between” and so for a MacArthur Fellow to tell us that for her it’s all fluid, and that ‘all it needs is a plot,’ truly is inspiring.
She read sections from a piece called “Cows” that comes from
her close observations of the variety of behaviors of the three cows that live
in the field across from where she lives in Upstate New York.
She read a piece wherein the narrator, suffering from a dislike of George Friedrich Handel, a composer that her husband and her friends adore, seeks help from a Handel therapist.
During the question and answer period between David and
a translation that will be finished at the end of the year. She said that when she first read Madam Bovary, she didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, why it was considered a masterpiece. It was only after reading it in French that she got it. The Norton critical edition, she said, is terrible, as is the Oxford. “Reviews of a translation that don’t compare the work to the original are useless,” she said.
Lydia told us when she was working a novel which she referred to as Novel One, she was simultaneously working on Novel Two, a novel about writing Novel One, and eventually Novels One and Two came together as The End of the Story, the novel she published in 1995.
At times, the Q & A sounded like a conversation between two friends, which I liberally paraphrase here:
ever happened to that modern translation you did of Laurence Sterne.
Lydia: I’d thought that if people read a modern English translation of Sterne that would inspire them to read the original, but I discovered that changing the English killed the charm.
David: There was an eccentric fellow at
Lydia: I’m not sure that would get people to read D.H. Lawrence.
David: They take the study of classics very seriously over there.
There’s that piece of yours “20 Sculptures in One Hour” —
Lydia: An hour is a long time, but if there are 20 sculptures that you have to look at within an hour, that’s 3 minutes per sculpture, which isn’t a long time at all. And yet, three minutes can end up feeling like a long time—
David: Sounds like Zeno’s Paradox.
Lydia: I love Zeno’s Paradox!
John Ashbery’s book, Other Traditions,
is really wonderful.
David: He wrote that book in the back seat of a car.
Early in the evening,
“For a long time I wasn’t interested in my dreams, because I would dream about things like scraping the burnt part off a cookie, which is just as tedious as actually scraping the burnt part off a cookie.”
This work, she said, came from not only her own dreams, but from the dreams of her friends, as well as dream-like experiences that occur in waking hours. Some of the things that appear in these pieces are: a peach tart, a monk, Jesus, and the pushing of a broken piano off a cliff.
In one of these dream pieces, called “The Young Man and the Sentence,” the dreamer spots an ungrammatical sentence in a trashcan and stops a young man from approaching the trashcan for fear that he will correct the sentence.
-- Angela Patrinos