Every four hours I tested my temperature. Sanity slips away on that threshold between high fever and very high fever; in the spaces I read. What else? Reading was a clear but dense broth; examined more closely: a complex refinement of Kafka’s and Lydia Davis’s short stories dusted with a little Calvino, known for its nutrient qualities. When the fever ended, the dreams remained, as did the stories of Joanna Walsh in Worlds From the Word’s End.
When the fever was over, I read these stories again and found them possessed by the spectral figures that I recognised from the fiction-induced vivid dreams of my high fever. Walsh lulls us calmly in with apparently simple wordplay but there are horrors here you may not want to possess your waking and sleeping thoughts: that demon who has read all those neglected books on your bookshelves, or that wonder-awful-place where words go out of fashion.
Like a film director or a painter, for these are stories with high visual depth, Walsh invites us to escape reality for a few hours, or at least acknowledge the possibility that reality is not as we may perceive. On both readings, I found it important to give these stories room to space their shapes, colours and textures, to balance philosophical tendencies, to develop often banal situations. What excited me most were the ideas that exhibit a fine, skilful query into the nature of being in the world.
Rachel Cusk knows how to look at things. In Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, her forensic sense of empathy is clear whether describing a local florist or her profound alienation after her marriage of ten years came to an end.
What happens when the texture of our world shatters into pieces? If we are no longer able to see the form that provides a sense of structure to our world? Cusk seeks to give form to her world through language, giving shape to chaos through writing Aftermath. As David Winters writes of Lydia Davis’s novel, “she tries to imprint an order upon her experience.”
Cusk’s Aftermath is a work of originality.. An striking opening leads to a startling, clever ending, but along the way she looks at the fragility of most unions whose pieces rarely fit tidily together, and like a jigsaw only looks complete from far away.
I intend to explore Cusk’s backlist further but the call back to Dostoyevsky is stronger.
Dilettante reader that I am, I abandon books without regret, often after fifty pages, bored by their banality, loquacity, or simply tired of their particular contrivance. But with Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story I persisted despite resistance to its flat, controlled prose. Davis’s recounting of obsession is the antithesis of Chris Kraus’s bitter I Love Dick or Ferrante’s woozy The Days of Abandonment.
Something more interesting is going on in The End of the Story, less lamentation and more microscopic scrutiny of obsession from within the possessed mind of the narrator. Davis unearths the powers of images which shape and order a particular type of madness. After about a hundred and twenty pages, I found the particular rhythm of Davis’s dispassionate prose. As in trauma, numbness is not the absence of a reaction; the numbness is the reaction.
Understanding this enabled me to better make sense of Davis’s description of the shaping of an obsession. It is concerned with this imaginary landscape from which we view our relationships with the other, particularly those complicated by eroticism. The narrator’s insistence to persevere with a novel about her obsession recalls Bataille’s announcement in his Nietzsche book: “Motivating this writing-as I see it-is a fear of going crazy.”
What did boredom mean then? That nothing more would happen with him. It wasn’t that he was boring, it was that I no longer had any expectations for this companionship with him. There had been expectations, and they had died.
And why did that boredom make me so uncomfortable? Because of the emptiness of it, the empty spaces opening up between him and me, around us. I was imprisoned with this person and this feeling. Emptiness, but also disappointment: what had once been so complete was now so incomplete.
Lydia Davis, The End of the Story, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995
It was during this translation [of Blanchot’s work] that I experienced another strange struggle with meaning: when in a simpler paragraph I found I could follow the thread of M. Blanchot’s argument from one sentence to the next, and that it made sense to me, I could not summarise at the end of the page or even at the end of the paragraph, what I had just read. I thought that this was my own weakness; then when I described this difficulty to others I found that it was true for them as well: it was in the nature of the argument to resist summary. Resisting summary did not mean resisting understanding. Somehow the experience of reading had to take place moment to moment; one had to remain in the moment and not look back on the whole; or dwell inside the moment and not stand back from it; one’s understanding proceeded like the guide’s flashlight illuminating one by one the animals painted on the wall of the ancient cave.
Lydia Davis, For Maurice Blanchot. Nowhere Without No, Vagabond Press, 2003
This corking issue of the Paris Review features not only the Geoff Dyer excerpt of his next book on Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but also a brilliant essay by Lydia Davis, Some Notes on Translation and on Madame Bovary.
Essential reading for anyone with an interest in translation, Davis discusses, in a wide-ranging essay, the evolution of her translation of Madame Bovary between hardback and paperback, and in later editions. Digressing into other languages Davis comes to the pleasures of the German language:
The concreteness of their word for (our Latinate) multiplication: Einmaleins (=”one-times-one”).
The economy or condensation of their Wildbachbrücke (=’wild-brook’bridge”) = bridge over a mountain stream).
One of my favourites is a word I remember from a Peter Handke novel but cannot now find in it, search as I may. I find it elsewhere, though, in an article about a 5,300-year-old corpse preserved by a glacier and discovered in the Alps by a Bersteigerhepaar (=”mountain-climbing-married-couple”).
This is Google translated more concisely as “climber couple”; the corpse is described in English by the translation machine as “freeze-dried.”