Essays Two by Lydia Davis - review by Stephen Romer

Stephen Romer

The Translator’s Way

Essays Two


Hamish Hamilton 592pp £20

In recent years Lydia Davis has emerged as one of the most original voices in American writing. I say ‘writing’, rather than fiction or poetry or memoir, since her work, as everyone has noted, is genre-defying. Credited with the invention of ‘flash fiction’, those apparently spontaneous, frequently offbeat notations, she has always been aware that, in writing, less is more. She started out as a disciple of masters of the elliptical and the oblique, such as Hemingway, Cheever and Carver, but she has honed even that art down. Here is the whole of a text entitled ‘Judgment’: ‘Into how small a space the word judgment can be compressed: it must fit inside the brain of a ladybug as she, before my eyes, makes a decision.’ It is witty, forensic and surprising, reminiscent of some of Henri Michaux’s discombobulating texts – ‘In an ant-hill, there is never any discussion concerning eagles.’ Davis frequently dips into the bizarre and the surreal. Her collection Can’t and Won’t (2013) contains many brief descriptions of dreams, such as this gnomic utterance, entitled ‘The Low Sun’: ‘I am a college girl. I tell a younger college girl, a dancer, the sun is very low in the sky now. Its light must be filling the caves by the sea.’

Davis, now seventy-four, has also produced one novel, The End of the Story (1994). Here again, the precise genre is hard to define. It is in part a novel about writing a novel, an exercise in metafiction, but there is nothing dry about it; it is an urgent piece of therapeutic writing. Indeed, because of the intensely personal nature of the reflections, it could be considered an example of life-writing. When Davis won the International Booker Prize in 2013, chair of the judges Sir Christopher Ricks put his finger on a twofold quality in her work: ‘Vigilance as how to realise things down to the very word or syllable; vigilance as to everyone’s impure motives and illusions of feeling’. Such vigilance is everywhere in this unrelentingly detailed, often irksome analysis of a love affair, its breakdown and aftermath. It is in my view a masterpiece. No one I have read, except perhaps Proust, describes the rituals of grief after loss or break-up quite as precisely as Davis.

It was no accident that I mentioned Proust, for Davis has emerged as one of the finest contemporary translators from French, notably of Proust and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In Essays Two, a new selection of her non-fiction writing (a first volume appeared in 2019), there are pages devoted

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