literary journalism

‘Essays’ by Lydia Davis

A master class on the pursuit of the perfect word, from a doyenne of the craft

If a short story is a love affair and a novel is a marriage, as Lorrie Moore has said, then the short-short stories of Lydia Davis — sometimes just a single sentence — are more like a one-night stand. What a pleasure, then, to linger longer within the mechanisms of Davis’s mind in this collection of her non-fiction work.

Spanning more than 30 years, Essays, the first of two volumes, compiles pieces that have appeared in publications including The Atlantic and The Paris Review — as well as in lectures, books and, in one case, an obituary. In the vein of John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, Davis offers a peek behind the curtain of her creative process — from the genesis of ideas to line-by-line revisions. She cracks open her notebooks to walk us through the editing of several of her published pieces, including “found material” tweaking everything from scam emails to the letters of Flaubert.

We learn of Davis’s influences, among whom she counts Kafka and Beckett; Borges and Babel; Paley and Poe. She also tips a hat to lesser-known authors, including AL Snijders and Peter Bichsel, both of whose “very brief” stories she has translated. Davis favours variations on familiar forms (such as flash fiction) and “intergeneric” writing — straddling poetry and prose, for example. Her tastes are broad: the literary criticism in Essays considers the work of Language poet Rae Armantrout and Syrian writer Osama Alomar alongside that of Stendhal and Rimbaud.

With words used so sparingly in her stories, each one matters all the more, and her delight in the dictionary is infectious. Like Beckett, Davis prefers the plainness and percussion of Anglo-Saxon words — “bread, milk, love, war, peace, cow, dog” — to more flowery Latinate language….

Read the full article online in the Financial Times

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