A genius came to Brown on Thursday. Lydia Davis, recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius' fellowship and innovator of the very short story, gave a reading of her recent work in the McCormack Family Theater. Davis was invited by Visiting Lecturer of Literary Arts Joanna Howard as a part of the Writers on Writing series. Howard, whose own work has been influenced by Davis, said she "is masterful at paying heed to what other authors might see as inconsequential." Davis is queen of detail. In her work she investigates even the quietest moments, breaking them down to create intimate stories, ranging from the painful to the humorous.
The theater was so packed with students, faculty and Providence residents that Davis interrupted herself to request that the younger audience members give up their seats.
Davis began the reading with her latest works, which she said were about death, travel and dreams. The stories were very short, consisting of a few sentences that provide a glimpse into a scene or thought. The audience seemed to particularly enjoy "Waiting for Take Off," which describes frustrated passengers who stock up on candy bars long enough to be weapons in preparation for the never-ending, miserable wait on the tarmac. Another humorous piece was "Bad Novel," in which Davis describes her long-term struggle to read a stubbornly dreadful book. Davis warned the audience that this was the hazard of belonging to a book club.
The audience was most engaged during Davis' stories on dreams. Davis said she began writing these stories after observing that she could see experiences in her own life in terms of dreams, subtracting out the banal and infusing the fantastic. Audience members seemed to appreciate the ambiguity of the stories and the challenge of distinguishing between waking experiences and dreams.
In some stories, it was easy to separate the two, but other stories, such as "In the Train Station," were more ambiguous. In this story, the narrator shows a Tibetan monk "the way" by giving him directions to the train track he is looking for. The audience snickered at the irony of this situation to Davis' delight. "You're an alert crowd," she commented.
In another story, an old woman eats a bowl of cashews and in the process accidentally eats her hearing aid. She chews it for several hours before spitting it out and announcing, "this nut was a bad one."
Not all of the stories were amusing, though. A few dealt with death or dipped into other serious subjects such as family, marriage and aging.
These very short stories, which some may confuse with poems, but which Davis prefers to call "pieces," were followed by a collection of observations on the cows that live across the street from her. These observations will appear in a chapbook called "The Cows" some time this spring. Davis said she began writing about the cows almost four years ago, shortly after moving to the countryside.
Her observations are similar to her stories — succinct and simple, yet specifically focused. She studies how the cows migrate over their grazing field, sometimes in a "dark, irregular mass," sometimes separately and sometimes "(coupled) like the car of a railway train." She wonders about the cows' thoughts, desires and attitudes. Her descriptions are reminiscent of math word problems: There are three cows. If Cow A licks Cow B, what will Cow C do?
The descriptions of the cows' behavior was redundant at times, but Davis' attention to detail was impressive. She described how snow accumulates on cows just as it does on trees or mailboxes. It piles up on their backs and heads, and there is even a thin line of snow on each of the whiskers around their mouths. Davis said she recorded her observations on napkins, receipts or whatever happened to be around when she glimpsed the cows from her kitchen window.
In addition to writing fiction, Davis translates French literature and philosophy. She is well known for her translation of Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way," and she is in the midst of translating Flaubert's "Madame Bovary." As she was translating this book, Davis said she stumbled upon short stories that Flaubert composed while writing it. She also translated these stories, which she shared at the reading.
It was easy to see why Davis enjoyed translating the stories. Flaubert's attention to detail and ironic observations are similar to Davis' own style. Davis mentioned that she enjoys translating because she "can write in the style of another writer" and leave herself behind.
The reading was followed by a question and answer session, which gave Davis an opportunity to explain her writing process and how her writing has evolved. One student asked how Davis distinguishes poetry from prose and vice versa. Davis replied that she doesn't like to label her work, but she sees an "unbroken continuum" moving from traditional story to less traditional prose forms to poetry and finally, formal pieces of verse.
Another student asked Davis about how she crafts the endings of her stories. Davis said that she never leaves a weak ending. She always comes back.