She writes as a craftsperson, and generously so, at times even chattily but with such a thorough grounding and interest in narrative logic, grammar and sentence-making that following her steps towards the clear execution of her intention has a deliciously bracing effect.

Essays by Lydia Davis.

Essays by Lydia Davis. Credit:

Take, for instance, her love of brevity, which was in part seeded by the extended period in her life when she was translating the labyrinthine cadences of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. Not wanting to stop her own writing while she completed the exacting task, she began experimenting herself with something of an inverse style, a type of hyper-concision.

“I wanted to see just how brief I could make a piece of writing and still have it mean something,” she explains. With this in mind she set sail into what has, over the years, developed into a literary genre of its own: the “very short story”. This is a tradition Davis helps to outline in this collection, particularly in her essay on the Syrian emigre Osama Alomar, who is himself an inheritor of a Middle Eastern heritage of narrative brevity and surreal wit.

Davis herself, though, is both a miniaturist and a lot more besides. Her brick-length Collected Stories, published in 2010, exhibits her range to great effect, and now we have this equally substantial collection, in which she spells out, in a slow, fastidious manner, the provenance and motivation of her stylistic techniques, her literary attitudes and formative influences. Specifically, it outlines her enthusiasm for other makers, ranging from almost forgotten writers such as the decidedly un-woke but nevertheless brilliant Edward Dahlberg, to the much celebrated obliquities of poet John Ashbery, and the 3D fictive assemblages of Joseph Cornell.

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Davis is also known for her experiments with “found narratives”, an example of which is a sequence of anecdotal stories she has repurposed from Flaubert. While translating Madame Bovary and reading Flaubert’s compelling correspondence, Davis became charmed by the way he would often break off his pained descriptions of the torture of composition to recount an anecdote or incident he had observed or been involved in during the day.

She began to excise these interludes, to reframe and reorder them, displaying her own talent for assemblage. Like Cornell she places found material in arrangements where each element recontextualises and reflects off the other, to reveal new patterns of the world.

Indeed there is a sense that Davis, like Ashbery or that poet-provocateur of “uncreative writing” Kenneth Goldsmith, is a writer refreshingly open to the conceptualism of visual art, which, perhaps due to the physical nature of materials and the plasticity of mind they allow, is often so far ahead of the literary world. As Davis writes – and this applies to the Flaubert anecdotes as much as to the symbolic objects in Cornell’s famous Grand Hotel assemblages – “the value is in their being what they are, not in their meaning”.

One of the pleasures of these essays is the amount of stimuli they offer to the active and self-reflexive reader. Those addicted to the plot momentum of crime fiction for instance might want to look elsewhere. In Davis the momentum comes from the nuances of language itself. “I am interested in writing that is eloquent yet awkward,” she writes at one point, “the awkwardness implying that the writer was too moved to be more elegant.”

This tells you something of her sensitivity to the process behind the lines and sentences that move us, as does her explanation of how when revising a sentence you are “revising not only the words of the sentence but also the thought in the sentence”.

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This is an important distinction to make, one rooted perhaps in her translations of Proust and also the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot. Davis eschews the risk-averse modes of generic templates in favour of a more necessary type of writing, in which the pages of a book cannot ever be cleaved from the gravitational and messy realities of the earth, nor from the silkenness of air or the brilliance of water.

Throughout the volume Davis time and again returns to ruminations on the nature of memory and the role it plays in our perception and reception of both the world and its books. The collection ends fittingly therefore with Remember The Van Wagenens, a meditation on the nature of misremembering. This piece is both a searching variation on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and a deeply sonorous piece of emotionally charged writing. It is Davis at her very best –  humorous, inventive, inquisitive and informative, and just a little sad, for all that has been and will be no more.

In the richness of passing pages such as these we have the profound sense of our lives being always undercut by a mysteriously silent language sitting patiently beneath the words. This is the deeper grammar of our mortality, of course, and like all the best writers Davis conducts this language as well as the one she sounds out on the page. It’s perhaps only via a combination of the two that we can recognise the pathos and enigma of all our precious, but lost, time.

Gregory Day’s novel The Sand Archive (Picador) was shortlisted for last year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

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