Essays One, by Lydia Davis
There is always something intriguing about reading the essays of someone whose other works one is entirely unfamiliar with. Since one comes in with no expectations, one is free to examine the author’s small works for what he or she thinks is of particular importance. To be fair, most of these essays are not particularly outstanding examples of writing, and for the most part the author shows herself (like many essayists) to be somewhat self-centered. In many ways this is an inevitable result of having chosen a genre of writing that depends on one’s personal insights and thinking process to supply the inspiration as well as the structure of one’s writings, but the end result is that one frequently depends on a certain level of respect or interest in the writings and thinking of someone before one will appreciate their essays. In this case the author is worthy of considerable interest–if one has a fondness for French literature as well as somewhat obscure literary fiction, but the author has some painfully limited thinking when it comes to matters of faith and religion which limit her ability to provide insight to the reader. After all, to the extent that an author is able to give insight beyond one’s understanding, that insight is likely not to rebound with credit to the author.
This book is about 500 pages long and is divided into numerous sections and various smaller essays within them. The author begins with a discussion on the practice of writing, which leads her to talk about the forms and influences of her writing in two essays, as well as a commentary on one of her short stories and a note on the origins of the word gubernatorial. After that the author discusses Joan Mitchell’s Les Bluets. The author then collects various writings about other writers, namely John Ashbery’s translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, young Pyncheon, Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women, a look at two books by Re Armantrout, and five favorite short stories. A short section on the work of Joseph Cornell is followed by more discussion of the practice of writing, including two more discussions of forms and influences as well as the revision of one sentence, a discussion of fragmentary and unfinished works, as well as thirty recommendations for good writing habits. Another short section on visual art, this one on Alan Cote’s recent paintings, precedes another discussion of writers, most notably Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as well as a great many more obscure works. Another visual artist discussion then follows concerning early 20th century Dutch tourist photographs, before the author discusses writers again, such as the third volume of Michael Leiris’ The Rules Of The Game and the absence of Maurice Blanchot as well as a farewell to Michel Butor and the problem of plot summary in Blanchot’s fiction. Finally, the book ends with some thoughts on the author about the Bible, memory, and the passage of time, which includes a discussion of the memory of a family encounter with Abraham Lincoln, the author’s misguided praise of the Jesus Seminar, and some thoughts on the 23rd Psalm.
If this is not a book of essays that I can thoroughly recommend to the reader, since I cannot assume that their reading will be as broad or that they will be as interested in probing the thinking process of someone with whom one can have limited sympathy and agreement, it was a book that I thought was worthwhile to read. Essays in the contemporary world tend to be collected into books like this one once a writer has acquired sufficient reputation in another field (be it novel-writing or screenwriting or poetry or something of that nature) that a publisher is willing to risk money to appeal to someone with a sufficiently broad level of interest from the reading public as a whole. in this case, Lydia Davis is probably not quite famous with the general public but I can see her being popular enough with a certain set of cultural elites that this book’s existence is not too puzzling. As is frequently the case, though, reading this book is generally something that will only be enjoyed to the extent that one can tolerate the author’s sermonizing tendencies as well as frequent discussions of her craft and inspirations, which is not something to be taken lightly.