Essay | The Eccentricity of Lydia Davis’s ‘Essays’ by Eliza Haughton-Shaw

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Eliza Haughton-Shaw


The Eccentricity of Lydia Davis’s Essays


Ironic, self-conscious and full of weird humour, in Lydia Davis’s hands the short story is economical to the point of obsession. Having published short fiction as well as translations for many years, she came to widespread attention with the publication of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in 2007, for which she won the International Man Booker in 2013. While Davis remains less well-known outside the United States, for readers familiar with her writing, her style is unmistakable. Her most recent book, Essays (Hamish Hamilton, 2019) encompasses Davis’s meditations on style, the writing process, and the literary forms which have influenced her own eccentric brand of writing.

Davis’s Collected Stories fits with a recent movement away from ‘epiphany’ writing in short fiction, largely out of vogue in contemporary collections. Among her core influences, Davis cites Kafka in particular, whose writing she admires for its sparseness, humility and bizarre imagination. (Essays notes, by way of example: ‘He was interested in the possibility of two hands suddenly alien to each other’.) Rather than writing narratives with hackneyed call-backs and specious twists, Davis’s stories disturb essential relationships between observation and invention, and often unfold around seemingly unremarkable experiences, like eating alone, or of absentmindedly letting a cat into the house; or trivial dilemmas such as whether one is interesting to one’s friends, or when to check one’s answer phone.  

The first volume of Essays is collected from pieces written over several decades, divided between reflections on writers and artists and two sections entitled ‘The Practice of Writing’. It combines accounts of other minimalist forms with meditations on the development of the writer’s own. Taken together, the volume amounts to a paradoxically lengthy defence of brevity. It both parodies and adopts the form of a self-help guide (one subheading reads ‘Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits’) and exhibits the essayist’s essential lack of embarrassment about the solipsism implied by the act of writing: even more so, by writing about the act of writing. While the cultural perception of creative writing is sometimes reliant on mystification, Essays suggests that good writing emerges through resisting the urge to inflate one’s thoughts. Davis recommends notebooks as spaces in which ideas to take shape by accident, or without ‘inspiration’ (the kind of transcendental word that Davis would certainly never use).

Essays demystifies creativity. Davis takes a no-nonsense attitude to learning to write well, recommending — in place of mercurial inspiration or positive thinking — a combination of practical application (look up words in the Dictionary, own Encyclopaedias, take apart other writers’ sentences) and unabashed self-curiosity. In one instance, she transcribes and assesses the edits she has made to a single sentence in her notebook; thankfully, this is far more interesting than it sounds. Here, as in her short stories, she is unafraid to begin with a cliché or a naïve-sounding idea. Clichéd language is a preoccupation in her close readings. Also: writing that ‘defies assimilation’ (what we miss, cannot summarise, or do not notice); humour and ‘awkwardness’ in prose; the behaviour of abstract words; the relation between writers and their (physical) notebooks, as eccentric fragments of their inner life.

In its reflection on form, Essays invents a genealogy for Davis’s brand of eccentric brevity. The word ‘eccentric’ crops up on several occasions where — surprisingly, given the usual glib devaluation it implies — it is always used appreciatively, of those writers she treats as models for her own formal minimalism. ‘Eccentric’ crops up first in relation to Samuel Beckett, who teaches Davis that writing can treat any kind of experience at all: ‘[Of Malone Dies:] Now here was a book in which the narrator spent a page describing his pencil, and the first plot development was that he had dropped his pencil. I had never imagined anything like it.’ After this, she groups together what she calls ‘eccentric autobiographical works’ including Stendhal’s Life of Henry Brulard, J.R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday, and Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; and again, noting ‘another eccentricity of punctuation’ in the work of Osama Alomar Davis. Anselm Hollo writes ‘eccentric, rebellious poems’. Michael Leiris’ Glossaire: J’y serre mes gloses is defined as ‘an eccentric dictionary of personal definitions evolving from wordplay and personal associations’.

This is worth noticing precisely because ‘eccentric’ is a word that carries reproach. An eccentric is an acceptable outcast; a figure who exists on the edge of society and yet is tolerated rather than extradited. Implicitly, the eccentric is either too benign or too unimportant to present a real threat. They are unlikely to form a majority: the modest sponsor for a neoliberalism in which individual differences or ‘oddities’ cease to be a problem.

In artistic terms, to be eccentric is to occupy a minor role in the canon – at best, to pave way for the great writers of the future. In her essay ‘Impassioned Prose’, Virginia Woolf gives the term a self-sacrificial connotation, to describe those writers who ‘refuse to go in with the herd’ but who forsake a personal legacy in the name of ‘stand[ing] obstinately at the boundary lines’. Such writers ‘do a greater service by enlarging and fertilizing and influencing than by their actual achievement, which, indeed, is often too eccentric to be satisfactory.’ In other words, the eccentric expands the repertoire of possibilities for future writers but at the cost of renouncing greatness themselves.

Without mentioning gender, Woolf suggests that eccentricity might contain an especial reproach for women writers. In the 1900s, the word ‘eccentric’ must have seemed like an especially insidious way to stamp out female writers from a male dominated tradition (and where ‘fertilizing’ the literary field for a future crop seems slim compensation for the literary labour of writing). The word also contains an implied sexual slight, suggesting a writer uncoupled from ordinary social and marital conventions.

There are certain woman writers of whom the word is often used; among them, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Stevie Smith and, yes, Lydia Davis. Seamus Heaney writes, with a kind of gentlemanly regret toward the end of his review of Smith’s Collected Poems, ‘I suppose in the end the adjective has to be ‘eccentric’’. To be eccentric is to flirt with oddity, smallness, marginality; the above writers might be described as sharing an aesthetic or literary sensibility of some kind, advertising the virtue of diminishment – operating on a small scale or about ‘minor’ questions. Davis, for instance, describes her short stories as beginning with a challenge to herself: ‘I wanted to see just how brief I could make a piece of writing and still have it mean something.’

Unlike Davis, most writers, then, tend to shy away from being described as ‘eccentric’ for its alienable or alienating qualities. Eccentricity hints at a singularity which cannot be transformed into cultural influence (as opposed to ‘genius’, a term historically applied to men, and suggesting a singularity with the power to transform). The word typically confers upon the writer or text a minor or specialist importance. Part of the reproach attached to eccentricity pertains to its implied mannerism: the eccentric mind may differ awkwardly and sometimes embarrassingly from our own; eccentrics place ‘common sense’ under scrutiny, but perhaps in a pedantic rather than a transformative manner.

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In an article of 1919, ‘The Eccentrics’, published in The Athenaeum, Woolf reflects with less surety than Davis on the value of being eccentric, aligning eccentricity with the minimal legacy of the footnote:

That the efforts and aims of your life, your virtues, learning, and devotion, should be summed up once and for all, briefly and comprehensively as those of an eccentric does not perhaps seem to you a fitting reward, nor an epitaph to be pointed at with pride by your descendants.

The eccentric, for Woolf, appears only ‘as if by accident’ in the lives and letters of more distinguished persons: ‘like a weed picked by mistake with the roses’.

Woolf’s mixed feelings about eccentricity remained unresolved. In ‘How It Strikes a Contemporary’, an essay of 1923, she is preoccupied by hers as an age where ‘a few stanzas, a few pages, a chapter here and there, the beginning of this novel, the end of that, are equal to the best of any age or author.’  We might see this as laying the ground for the fragments, vignettes, opuscules, and miniature epitomes of Lydia Davis. Yet for Woolf, these fragments will not be kept not for their own merits, but because other students will generate ‘from the notebooks of the present the masterpieces of the future’.

The notebook for Woolf is an index of limitation. Its value is circumscribed by its provision for great literary buildings to come. However, for Davis, ‘notebooks’ are masterpieces of themselves: the same brevity that Woolf regards as a sign of hampered ambition or relative failing is transformed by Essays into a highly formidable and autonomous art.

Among the forms admired in Davis’s Essays are the fait divers of Félix Fenelon, author of Novels in 3 Lines (2000): 1200 brief accounts of crimes or accidents composed for newspapers and compiled, after the writer’s death, by his mistress. Elsewhere Davis describes translating the ‘little stories’ from Flaubert’s letters to his lover into standalone pieces of writing, where they will be less ‘lost, or wasted’. Her interest in these and other texts is analogous to her interest in writers’ notebooks, as collected materials which were not originally designed to function autonomously: ‘A more general definition — what I mean — what I finally see that I mean when I think of the fragment, old or new, is a text that…suggest[s] that something is missing, but that has the effect of a complete experience’.

Davis revisits the unnoticed corners of other writers’ work, places where they have been free to compose without having ‘an idea’; practising, tinkering, or not seeking to do something monumental. She is interested in the peculiarity of the normal, for instance, in misspelled emails or ‘awkward nonprofessional writing’ which unearths ‘unexpected combinations that simply wouldn’t be produced by the brain of a practised writer of English — such as “wish so much full heartily” — or if attempted, might not be as good.’ The challenge for Davis is often to invent as little as possible: to produce a technical surprise around an entirely unsurprising experience, such as a fly locked inside the toilet at the back of a bus. This feels ‘eccentric’ precisely because it often turns up distinctions between deliberate and accidental materials. Some of the forms she most admires use constraints in place of ideas: from Perec’s La Disparition – a novel which omits the letter ‘e’ – to the work of diarists like the Catalan writer Joseph Pla, who, after writing a diary between 1918 and 1919, returned repeatedly to edit the pages over the next forty years.

Journals, letters and notebooks are celebrated as places where writers are thinking less hard but where ordinariness gives invention space to flourish: Davis calls the dream pieces in her Collected Stories (a mixture of her own and other people’s dreams), ‘modified found material’, which reflects the impression the stories give of not being ‘created’ but lighted upon, trouvailles rather than original artefacts.

Her reflections on writers’ notebooks are especially moving: the notebook being the vehicle which cured Davis of writer’s block and where all her stories first take shape. The notebook is another form which is both fragment and whole: it offers the freedom to create without ‘feel[ing] cornered’; it becomes a place to ‘get rid of’ things, ‘and the more completely I put it down the more completely I get rid of it’. The un-ambition of the notebook is its highest recommendation, allowing the writer to follow impulses ‘without asking whether what I am doing is sensible, efficient, even moral, etc. I do it because I like to or want to — which is where everything in writing should begin anyway.’ The minimal pressures of the notebook allow invention to follow from the practice of merely externalising something formally. The externalising impulse is a source of repeated fascination, perceptible in Davis’s fictional reflections on the difference between the internal self and the self that everyone else encounters: as a sister, or mother, or lover, or doctor, or as the person at the next table of a restaurant. How odd, she invites us to realise anew, to be an ‘other’ to everybody else.

Although first and third person are terms that we take for granted, Essays invites us to see how many kinds of person are implied by this ‘first’ or may be tested by the practice of reflecting on one’s own experience. The most sophisticated inventions may begin here.

Although Davis predominantly draws on her own experience, her stories are rigorously anticonfessional, revealing almost nothing about the life they belong to, or making that life eccentric to itself. In ‘Almost No Memory’, the narrator reads her old notebooks and wonders ‘how much they were of her and how much they were outside of her’. Being ‘inside’ and being ‘outside’ become less definable experiences, like the estranged hands that Davis admires in Kafka.

What does her writing have to teach us? It allows us to become unfamiliar to ourselves in our most ordinary moments; when we wonder whether an experience was worth it, what kind of calculation are we making? It transforms an unexamined figure of speech into an act of self-examination.

Being or looking from the outside brings us back to the idea of the eccentric, which also suggests being off-centre or to the side of things. While ‘eccentric’ sometimes implies ‘pedantic’, or over-focused upon details, Davis trusts that the formal details will lead her toward important affective territory. A proper grammarian, she is interested in the formal life of things, however small. Though always technical, her prose remains closely connected with the everyday world. Davis is especially good at assessing the force of abstract words, suggesting that writers look up the meaning to recover the concrete thing which usually hides at its origin: ‘For instance, if you describe a man’s clothes as being “dilapidated”, this choice will be in conflict with the metaphorical origin of the word, which contains lapis, or “stone.”’ Words are the story as well as its materials.  In an essay on Blanchot’s fiction, she describes ‘a mysterious level where abstractions like immobility and light become strong concrete presences interacting and effecting emotional changes in the narrator’. Many of her own stories work in the same way, paring an emotional event into a highly abstract form, yet somehow also transforming the abstract in turn into a ‘concrete presence’. The most powerful of the Essays use technical questions to unearth surprising affective ground, and often to unpick the strange life of words which cannot be separated, for Davis, from the lives of people and of bodies.  

Davis is ‘pure Alice’ (as Auden once described Marianne Moore), and her pleasure in linguistic quirks and intrusions mirrors some of the strategies in Nonsense writing, as in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Her attentiveness to highly linguistic forms also scrutinizes the strangeness of received wisdom about order and disorder, often against a background of irreverence or odd humour. George Orwell admires Edward Lear’s Nonsense limericks for what he calls their ‘impression of ineffectuality, which might be spoiled if there were some very striking surprise’. Lear’s self-rhymed poems share with Davis’s prose a resistance to dramatic effect: a flirtation with nonconformity and with putting words to bad use, and an interest in how bad uses may thwart our expectations in pleasurable ways.

In her book on the subject, Elizabeth Sewell finds little dreaminess in Nonsense writing, suggesting that its associations effectively ‘inhibit’ the tendency toward sublimity. Davis is drawn to similarly dreamlike topics, deriving almost thirty pieces in Collected Stories from dreams. Too fastidious to be disruptive (dreams often take us further down the rabbit hole), Davis’s dream pieces are just as unrevealing as Carroll’s private diaries, which include nothing of his subjective thoughts or feelings and only mark the author’s most cherished days with ‘a white stone’, a symbol of the inner life which the diary itself occludes.  In one of her cut-down dream pieces called ‘PH.D’, Davis simply writes:

All these years I thought I had a PH.D.
But I do not have a PH.D.

Davis is not interested in assessing the importance of her own material against the space it occupies on a page. She takes for granted the value of recording her own experience clearly: revising the form of a sentence is also revising the thought in that sentence, she contends; sharpening one’s capacity to arrest experience in its clearest form, or to clarify the nature of its original unclearness. Just as the disruptive linguistic world in Alice in Wonderland prohibits reflection, Davis’s stories are determined by her interest in the formal properties of dream narration, rather than in translating latent desires of the mind. Concentrating on the formal properties of an experience is not a means of avoiding the important questions, Davis suggests – not an eccentricity in the diminished sense – but another means of accessing these questions, and the sharp or dull quality that characterises mental events.

Generalities have little hold over Davis’s essays, which agilely leap from one observation to the next without any attempt to develop or elaborate their piecemeal convictions. Her prose teaches us how eccentric we are to ourselves, how our ‘selves’ are not really fixed internal qualities but forces which depend upon constant forms of ‘outward movement’ and mirror the relationships we have with external things such as stones or letters or other persons. Pieces of writing amassed over time function as a metaphor for the displaced parts of a self which is also under construction: when one writes something down to remember it later, one has the ‘piece of paper…in all sorts of pockets and bags with things written on them that you…either do not have in your mind also or do have in your mind also’.

Whereas Woolf imagines the vanishing legacy of the eccentric, Davis eccentrically celebrates the elusiveness of the writer’s personal contribution, redrawing the boundaries of life-writing to foreground what is impersonal in the personal anecdote: the self who is having the feelings exorcised, while the form of the feeling remains. Writing on free association, the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas describes the possibility of an analyst catching the ‘idiom’ of the patient by listening to he or she speak about anything at all, whether or not the anecdote reveals anything personal: ‘we enact the idiom of our being through the way we shape the object world’, Bollas contends. Davis’s essays and stories read like miniature investigations into the relationship between idiom and being.

By talking about other things or objects – in Davis’s essay, ‘[the] stones, the grammar book, the official document, the personal letter, the voice of a person who [has] been “lost”’ – we reveal the ‘form’ our being takes. This idiom, which Bollas compares to the structure of a poem or artwork or musical composition, is an attribute of self which cannot otherwise be translated or put into words, because it operates in ‘the register of form, not of content’. It is such a model of character that Davis’s prose inducts us to, and which Essays seeks to capture in the work of other writers: the idiom through which a given text or writer shapes the world, which is different from their ‘revealing’ anything personal about themselves.

The relation of parts to wholes offers something like a theme for Essays — itself the product of several decades and both a mnemonic of different (past, fragmentary) selves and something now understood as complete. It avoids the compulsion to make different experiences or selves ‘add up’: to erect a whole building or thesis. Parts matter as much as wholes. Instead, the forms discussed in Essays capture Davis’s dislike of writing that can be ‘assimilated’, in preference to prose which momentarily disrupts our reception of an accepted idiom – the expected order between items in a list, or between a person and some part of their body – and reawakens us to the strangeness of the ordinary patterns which shape experience.

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             Eliza Haughton-Shaw is a writer and academic. She is currently writing up a PhD on literature and eccentricity at the University of Cambridge.

For more information and to buy Essays by Lydia Davis and her Collected Stories, visit Penguin’s website. 


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