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‘Further confusing such already confusing words’: Lydia Davis’ footnotes to Beckett

7 December 2020

James Baxter, Independent Scholar

This article will consider Lydia Davis’ (1947-) response to the work of Samuel Beckett, revealing her indebtedness to twentieth-century formal innovations, while gently critiquing the (occasionally ponderous) weight of modernist legacies. Deceptively little sustained criticism exists on Davis’ writing; prior to the 2009 release of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (a critically acclaimed compendium of Davis’ short fiction that would go on to be awarded the 2013 Man Booker International Prize), Davis’ reputation as a translator would arguably supersede the attention devoted to her highly singular body of creative work.[1] As Jonathan Evans argues in the only full-length monograph to be published on Davis’ work, The Many Voices of Lydia Davis: Translation, Rewriting, Intertextuality (2016), writing and translation have always co-existed for Davis; in this fashion, Davis challenges ‘the separation between writing and translating,’ unsettling ‘the division between her roles as a writer and as a translator and the separation between the two modes of creativity.’[2] This overlap dates back to the publication of her first short story collection in 1976, The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories, released a year after her first substantial translation.[3] As we will see, these two modes of production are obscured further in Davis’ comic pastiche of Beckett in the 2007 story ‘Southward Bound Reads Worstward Ho’—with Davis’ text featuring numerous quotations from Beckett’s late novella. At a curious intersection between American minimalism and ludic postmodern narrative, Davis’ work continues to serve as a launchpad onto a distinctly European lineage—invoking, as Larry McCaffery states, the ‘pervasive sense of betrayal, worthless, and loss evoked in Kafka and Beckett.’[4]

While Davis has pointed to Beckett’s influence in a number of interviews and essays, arguably the most sustained account is featured in the recently published non-fiction volume Essays One (2019). In the essay ‘A Beloved Duck Gets Cooked,’ Davis (with a certain degree of wry humour) recalls being ‘startled’ by Beckett’s writing at the early age of 13, ‘having come to it from books that included the steamy novels of Mazo de la Roche […] and the more classic romances of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.[5] Davis continues: ‘Now here was a book—Malone Dies—in which the narrator spent a page describing a pencil, and the first plot development was that he had dropped his pencil. I had never imagined anything like it.’[6] In her revealing commentary, Davis goes on to foreground the idiosyncratic grammar at work in Beckett’s sentences: drawing select quotations from Watt (1953), Company (1979), and Ill Seen Ill Said (1981). Developing a scholarly interest in Beckett’s grammar in her early twenties, Davis echoes this point in other outlets, going as far as to copy out favourite sentences from Beckett’s writing.[7] Despite finding the Beckettian worldview ‘personally disturbing,’[8] Davis avers that ‘Beckett amazes me stylistically […] the amazing things he could do within legitimately structured sentences […] he stands on his head but still keeps a nameable grammatical form.’[9]

Despite having never translated Beckett’s French, there are numerous compositional echoes in Davis’ short fiction that reflect a profound investment in Beckett’s production. In an interview with Francine Pose, Davis points to a shared tendency towards involuted, and self-conscious narration—exemplified in Beckett’s mid-century Trilogy (not to mention Malone’s clumsy antics with the pencil). This sensibility is apparent in the highly self-reflexive narration of The End of the Story (1995) (Davis’ only published novel). Commenting on the difficulty of the narrative she is trying to assemble, Davis’ narrator complains of an ‘inefficiency’ that ‘infects other things I try to do.’[10] Elsewhere, the clinical narrators of the 1986 collection Break it Down (see ‘Story,’ ‘A Few Thing Wrong With Me,’ and the aptly titled ‘Problem’), encounter the disjunction between their systems of organisation and the inconclusive nature of (often emotionally fraught) events.[11] Perhaps more strikingly, the story ‘Foucault and the Pencil’ (featured in the 1997 collection Almost No Memory) details a set of narrative impediments that closely align with Davis’ formative reading of Beckett. Following the protagonist’s translation of an unidentified volume of Foucault, the text comically illustrates the various interruptions to the translator’s progress:

Sat down to read Foucault with pencil in hand. Knocked over glass of water onto waiting-room floor. Put down Foucault and pencil, mopped up water, refilled glass. Sat down to read Foucault with pencil in hand. Stopped to write note in notebook. Took up Foucault with pencil in hand. (151)[12]

Positioned awkwardly between translation and original text, the repetitious structure of Davis’ writing mirrors the stalled narrative and deadpan humour of Beckett’s novel. Davis scholar Jonathan Evans perceptively highlights the complicated problems that such texts (thematising Davis’ self-conscious approach to translation) pose for the accepted unity of an authorial oeuvre. In doing so, Evans alludes to Michel Foucault’s famous conception of the textual ‘author,’ with Davis’ work unsettling the categorical border that would exclude such conventionally non-literary works as ‘notebooks, drafts, letters, shopping lists…’ In ‘Foucault and the Pencil,’ one finds a knowing extension of this thesis, mirroring the comedic impediments of Beckett, and accommodating the latter’s famous commitment towards the ‘unusable’ in literary writing.[13]

These issues are complicated further in Davis’ most explicit reckoning of Beckett’s influence. Published in the 2007 volume Varieties of Disturbance, the short text ‘Southward BoundReads Worstward Ho,’ quotes freely from Beckett’s 1986 novella, constituting an ironic critique of the authoritative author (that Beckett would otherwise seem to deconstruct in his own works). Detailing the journey of an unnamed narrator, and their varied pleasures and displeasures reading Worstward Ho, the story begins with the protagonist waiting for their van ‘bound for south meeting plane from west.’ (571) The text is split between a primary narrative, and a series of more detailed footnotes, with the former relayed in a clipped, notational register reminiscent of Beckett’s late novella. Throughout, Davis details the protagonist’s reaction to Beckett with moments of bathetic humour: ‘The first words are: “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.” She is not very pleased with these words.’ (572) Shortly afterwards, the traveller reports that ‘some sentences are pleasing and some are not.’ These observations are frequently interrupted by the van’s meanderings, along with various distractions to the protagonist’s reading; the light is ‘flickering on the page of the book, illuminating but further confusing such already confusing words as “What when words gone? None for what then.”’

Unlike ‘Foucault and the Pencil’, which explicitly confronts the tiresome efforts of the translator, Evans states that ‘Southward Bound…’ embodies Davis’ tendency towards ‘translation as composition.’[14] And yet, it is worth acknowledging that Davis’ pastiche of the more painstaking elements of Beckett’s late-style also serve to make mild fun of the concomitant difficulties associated with Beckett’s writing. In spite of the titular promise to ‘read’ Worstward Ho, much of Davis’ deadpan humour comes from the protagonist’s marked lack of comprehension. ‘Does not read’ is repeated five times throughout the course of the story. By the end of the text, Davis’ traveller finds themselves in a similarly perplexed state of mind. ‘Although she has liked many of the words that came in between, its last words, “Said nohow on,” say as little to her as its first, “On. Say On. Be said on.” (574) While Beckettian tics decorate the unusual passage of the story, Davis nonetheless directs our attention to the more cumbersome qualities of modernist legacies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.


Sources:

[1]On top of a career-long affinity with the fiction and theoretical works of Maurice Blanchot, Davis has undertaken high-profile translations of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (2010), as well as the first volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (released in 2004 as Swann’s Way).

[2]Jonathan Evans, The Many Voices of Lydia Davis: Translation, Rewriting, Intertextuality, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), p. 2.

[3]Along with her then husband Paul Auster, Davis would undertake the co-translation of her first book-length translation Arabs and Israelis: A Dialogue, published in 1975.

[4]Larry McCaffery, ‘Deliberately, Terribly Neutral: An Interview with Lydia Davis,’ in Some Other Frequency: Interviews with Innovative American Authors, (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 1996), p. 62.

[5]Lydia Davis, ‘A Beloved Duck Gets Cooked: Forms and Influences I,’ in Essays (New York:Farrar, Stauss & Giroux, 2019), p. 5.

[6]Ibid. p. 6.

[7]‘I came to Beckett very early on and was startled by his pared-down style. As I practiced writing (in my early twenties), I actively studied his way of putting sentences together. I copied out favorite sentences of his. What I liked was the plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; the intelligence; the challenge to my intelligence; the humor that undercut what might have been a heavy message; and the self-consciousness about language.’ Sarah Manguso, ‘An Interview with Lydia Davis,’ The Believer, (January 1, 2008).

[8]Larry McCaffery, ‘Deliberately, Terribly Neutral: An Interview with Lydia Davis,’ in Some Other Frequency: Interviews with Innovative American Authors, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), p. 66.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Lydia Davis, The End of the Story, (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1995), p. 22.

[11]See Marjorie Perloff in ‘Fiction as Language Game: The Hermeneutic Parables of Lydia Davis and Maxine Chernoff,’ in Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, ed. Ellen G. Friedman, Miriam Fuchs,(New Jersey: Princeton Legacy Library, 1989)—‘Like Beckett, Davis presents us with a series of images and word clusters at once highly concrete, and yet indeterminate.’ p. 208.

[12]All references to Lydia Davis’ short stories are taken from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, (London: Penguin:, 2009).

[13]Evans, p. 10; in the famous lecture ‘What is an Author’ (1969), Foucault would also gesture towards Beckett, and the Texts for Nothing (What matter who’s speaking, someone said what matter who’s speaking’) as supplying a ‘direction’ for the tangled hierarchy between author and text; Israel Shenker, ‘An Interview with Beckett,’ in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, ed. Lawrence Graver, Raymond Federman, (London: Routledge, 1979), p. 148.

[14]Exemplifying the ‘citational nature’ of Davis writing, Evans states that ‘Southward Bound…’ also reads as a ‘sort of homage’ to Beckett’s influence: Evans, p. 137.

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