Davis, Lydia 1947-
Davis, Lydia 1947-
Born 1947, in Northampton, MA; married Paul Auster (a writer; divorced); married Alan Cote (an artist); children: (first marriage) a son; (second marriage) a son. Education: Barnard College, graduated 1970.
Home—East Nassau, NY.
Translator and author. Milton Avery Graduate School, Bard College, adjunct professor; State University of New York (SUNY), Albany, NY, professor.
Whiting Writer's Award, 1988; Fund for Poetry award, 1992; French-American Foundation translation award, 1993; Guggenheim fellowship; Lannan Literary Award; French Chevaler of the Order of Arts and Letters; Ingram Merrill Foundation grant for fiction; National Endowment for the Arts grants for fiction translation; MacArthur Fellowship, 2003.
The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories, Living Hand (Berkeley, CA), 1976.
Sketches for a Life of Wassilly (stories), Station Hill Press (Barrytown, NY), 1981.
Story and Other Stories, The Figures (Berkeley, CA), 1983.
In a House Besieged, Dog Hair Press (West Branch, IA), 1984.
Break It Down (stories), Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1986.
The End of the Story (novel), Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1995.
Almost No Memory (stories), Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1997.
Blind Date, Chax Press (Tucson, AZ), 1998.
Varieties of Disturbance: Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals, including Conjunctions, Harper's, Hambone, Antaeus, McSweeney's, Paris Review, Bomb, Grand Street, Sulfur, and Doubletake; work represented in collections, including Best American Short Stories of 1997.
(With Paul Auster) Saul Friedländer and Jean Lacouture, Arabs and Israelis, Holmes and Meier (London, England), 1975.
(With Paul Auster) Jean Chesneaux, Jean and Marie-Claire Bergère, China From the 1911 Revolution to Liberation, Harvester Press (Hassocks, England), 1977.
Attilio Colombo and others, Fantastic Photographs, Gordon Fraser Gallery (London, England), 1979.
Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays, edited with an afterword by P. Adams Sitney, Station Hill (Barrytown, NY), 1982.
Maurice Blanchot, The Madness of the Day (fiction), Station Hill (Barrytown, NY), 1982.
Maurice Blanchot, Death Sentence (fiction; original title, L'Arrêt de Mort), Station Hill (Barrytown, NY), 1982.
Maurice Blanchot, When the Time Comes (fiction), Station Hill (Barrytown, NY), 1986.
Françoise Giroud, Marie Curie: A Life (biography), Holmes and Meier (London, England), 1986.
Conrad Detrez, Zone of Fire (fiction), Harcourt Brace (New York, NY), 1986.
Michel Butor, The Spirit of Mediterranean Places (nonfiction), Marlboro Press/Northwestern University (Evanston, IL), 1986.
Maurice Blanchot, The Last Man (fiction), Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1987.
(With Robert Hemenway) Andre Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1988.
Daniele Sallenave, Phantom Life, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1989.
Emmanuel Hocquard, Aerea in the Forests of Manhattan, Marlboro Press/Northwestern University (Evanston, IL), 1992.
Pierre Jean Jouve, Helene, Marlboro Press/Northwestern University (Evanston, IL), 1995.
Pierre Jean Jouve, The Desert World, Marlboro Press/Northwestern University (Evanston, IL), 1996.
Michel Leiris, Scratches, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1997.
Michel Leiris, Scraps, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1997.
Justine Lévy, The Rendezvous: A Novel, Scribner (New York, NY), 1997.
Pierre Jean Jouve, Hecate: The Adventures of Catherine Crachat: I, Marlboro Press/Northwestern University (Evanston, IL), 1997.
Pierre Jean Jouve, Vagadu, Marlboro Press/Northwestern University (Evanston, IL), 1997.
Marquis de Sade, Florville and Courval, Libertine Reader (New York, NY), 1997.
Vivant Denon, No Tomorrow, Libertine Reader (New York, NY), 1997.
Abbé Prévost, The Story of a Modern Greek Woman, Libertine Reader (New York, NY), 1997.
Choderlos de Laclos, On the Education of Women, Libertine Reader (New York, NY), 1997.
Maurice Blanchot, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays, Station Hill/Barrytown, Ltd. (Barrytown, NY), 1999.
Maurice Blanchot, The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, Station Hill/Barrytown, Ltd. (Barrytown, NY), 1999.
Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (Volume 1 of In Search of Last Time), Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
Lydia Davis's 1986 collection of short stories, Break It Down, helped win her the Whiting Writer's Award in 1988. She has also had previous collections of short fiction published, including Sketches for a Life of Wassilly and Story, and Other Stories.
In addition to her work as an author, Davis has translated novels, biographies, and other scholarly works from French to English. Notable among her translation efforts are works by French author Maurice Blanchot. According to Walter Kendrick in the Voice Literary Supplement, Blanchot is a precursor of "all the pointmen in the continuing French invasion of American thought," including Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. And while critic Kendrick noted in his review that Blanchot's proto-deconstructionist texts are "opaque philosophical-literary discourse," he observed that Blanchot told Davis her English translation of his L'Arret de Mort is "really her book."
Other critics have praised Davis's translations as well. Edouard Roditi, examining the English version of Michel Butor's The Spirit of Mediterranean Places in the New York Times Book Review, declared that Davis "deserves to be congratulated on her success in reducing this affectation of French avant-gardism to relatively readable English." Davis has also translated French biographies of Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the famed nineteenth-century analysis of the United States, Democracy in America, and scientist Marie Curie, discoverer of radium. Other works she has rendered into English include Conrad Detrez's novel about the Nicaraguan revolution, Zone of Fire, and Daniele Sallenave's fictional account of the difficulties of adultery, Phantom Life.
Davis's Break It Down was the first of her own works to be published by a major firm. (Her previous short story collections had been printed by small presses.) The title piece concerns a man totaling up the monetary cost of a failed love affair in an effort to determine whether the experience was worth having. Some of the other stories in Break It Down, such as "Safe Love," "are no more than a page or a paragraph long," reported critic Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.
Commenting on Davis's novel The End of the Story in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Irving Malin wrote that Davis "deserves close reading (and readings)." A critic in Publishers Weekly called the tale, in which a nameless protagonist looks back upon a love affair with a man twelve years younger than she, an "absorbing and lucid first novel."
In reviewing the collection Almost No Memory, Liam Callanan wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "Lydia Davis's latest collection of short stories fascinates in the same way that miniature portraits do. The closer one looks, the more details emerge—and the more impressed one becomes with the skill it takes to fit so much into such a tiny space."
Albert Mobilio reviewed Samuel Johnson Is Indignant: Stories in the New York Times Book Review, commenting: "Remember minimalism—those terse, tidy dramas that aimed to say so much in so little? How's this for minimal? It's the short story ‘A Double Negative,’ in its entirety…. At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child." Yet Mobilio went on to assert that Davis "is no minimalist…. Not only has she never partaken of the commercial cachet that label bestowed, but her wry voice and elliptical technique have always been particularly hers—that is, instantly recognizable and emulated at the imitator's risk."
In a similar vein, the title story of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, which a commentator in Kirkus Reviews called "another fine collection of fifty-four wry, haunting pieces," consists simply of the words "Scotland has so few trees." Discussing the story with Dave Eggers for Interview, Davis remarked: "Oh, it was from a report by [Johnson biographer James] Boswell about a trip Johnson took to Scotland. I liked it and wrote it down, and then over the years I began to see that it could make a whole piece." Quipped Eggers to Davis, "I could see a breezy reviewer calling you a humorist. Or a postmodern humorist, or a meta-post-humor-modern-meta-person. You should know that that's how we're marketing the book. You were traveling in France, so we didn't have time to tell you." Davis published this collection with Eggers's McSweeney's Press, the readers of which provided her with a different type of audience.
Davis has continued to turn out a wide array of translated works by French authors that include the Marquis de Sade. Her two careers necessarily impinge on one another, as she revealed in an interview with Kate Moses for the Salon.com Web site: "I have plans for a very long book which will be a novel in the form of a French Grammar, I think. And it's going to be long and have many parts to it like a grammar book. I tend to work on it while I'm translating. I take little notes—again, of things that occur to me. I usually let things come to me instead of me going to them." Summing up the dual nature of Davis's work, Regan McMahon observed in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Here's the long and the short of it: Lydia Davis can translate Marcel Proust's convoluted tapestry of clauses and asides in sentences that run more than a page. Or, in her own fiction, she can capture a scene, a relationship, an existential dilemma or a philosophical conundrum in a story the size of a paragraph. It depends on the day."
Proust's unfinished In Search of Last Time was translated and published in seven volumes in England and then released, one volume at a time in the United States. Davis is translator of Swann's Way, the first volume of this semiautobiographical memoir by a narrator who is at first unnamed and later called "Marcel." In the first volume the narrator recalls his childhood memories of Combray, his beautiful mother, his grandmother, and intemperate housekeeper. The family's neighbors included the Verdurin and Guermantes families, as well as composer Vinteuil and writer Bergotte, who Kirkus Reviews contributor Bruce Allen noted, are the narrator's partial egos. Neighbor Swann held elegant Parisian dinner parties. Allen pointed out "Davis's lucid renderings of Proust's serpentine sentences." In her foreword Davis notes that she followed Proust's sentence structure as closely as was possible, "in its every aspect," which included word choice and order.
Amy Boaz, who interviewed Davis for Publishers Weekly, wrote: "It is a herculean task to rewrite a 20th-century classic, but having done notable translations of such French stylists as Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris and Pierre Jean Jouve, Davis is used to putting aside her own voice for the long, painstaking effort…. She is also a master of syntax, as readers of her carefully wrought, minimalist stories know. Hewing closely to Proust's style meant following religiously his punctuation, and on this point Davis grows animated: ‘I hadn't even thought about punctuation in all my years of translating; I just simply wrote the sentence in English the best I could. But when I came to Proust, suddenly I realized, because of the rhythms of his sentences and the fact that he'll not have commas where I think he should, I realized, oh, there is something else going on here I should be paying attention to.’"
Varieties of Disturbance: Stories is a collection that includes one-sentence and one-paragraph stories and poems, as well as the traditional short story. Asali Solomon reviewed the volume for Paste Online, writing that the "longer pieces challenge reader expectations and attention spans in lengthy narratives presented as case studies, pseudo-scientific journals and instructional manuals."
Commenting on several of the entries for the Believer Online, Michael Miller wrote that "abstract yet accessible moments … point to what makes Davis's work great. No topic that falls under her characters' gaze sits still, because they can see through almost anything, even themselves. But that doesn't make their fascinations—with subjectivity, conflict, the fallibility of scientific assessment—irrelevant. Rather, hard-to-pin-down topics demand zigzagging eloquence."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 1995, Alice Joyce, review of The End of the Story, p. 799; May 1, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of Almost No Memory, p. 1479.
Contemporary Literature, winter, 1999, Christopher J. Knight, "An Interview with Lydia Davis," p. 524.
Interview, September, 2001, Dave Eggers, "Lydia Davis" (interview), p. 136.
Kenyon Review, spring, 1999, Patricia Vigderman, reviews of Almost No Memory, Break It Down, and The End of the Story, pp. 152-159.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1994, review of The End of the Story, p. 1559; April 1, 1997, review of Almost No Memory, p. 482; October 15, 2001, review of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant: Stories, p. 1453; January 1, 2004, Bruce Allen, review of Swann's Way, p. 2.
Library Journal, September 1, 1993, Ann Irvine, review of Helene, pp. 221-222; January, 1995, Kimberly G. Allen, review of The End of the Story, p. 136; October 1, 1995, review of The End of the Story, p. 144; October 1, 1996, Paul Hutchison, review of The Desert World, p. 127; April 1, 1997, Ann Irvine, review of Almost No Memory, p. 132; April 15, 2007, Caroline M. Hallsworth, review of Varieties of Disturbance: Stories, p. 80.
London Review of Books, October 31, 1996, reviews of Break It Down and The End of the Story, p. 6.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 27, 1997, review of Almost No Memory, p. 7; December 14, 1997, Benjamin Weissman, review of Almost No Memory, p. 4.
New Yorker, June 12, 1995, review of The End of the Story, p. 104; June 25, 2007, review of Varieties of Disturbance, p. 93.
New York Times, August 13, 1986, Michiko Kakutani, review of Break It Down, p. 21N.
New York Times Book Review, August 31, 1986, Edouard Roditi, review of The Spirit of Mediterranean Places, p. 10; March 19, 1995, Charlotte Innes, review of The End of the Story, p. 22; May 12, 1996, reviews of The End of the Story and Break It Down, p. 28; January 12, 1997, David Guy, review of The Desert World, p. 21; September 14, 1997, Liam Callanan, review of Almost No Memory, p. 26; September 28, 1997, Barbara Fisher, review of The Rendezvous: A Novel, p. 22; November 8, 1998, review of Almost No Memory, p. 36; December 16, 2001, Albert Mobilio, review of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant; December 23, 2001, review of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, p. 14; May 27, 2007, Siddhartha Deb, review of Varieties of Disturbance, p. 25L.
Publishers Weekly, August 2, 1993, review of Helene, p. 64; December 5, 1994, review of The End of the Story, pp. 64-65; April 8, 1996, review of The End of the Story, p. 66; September 2, 1996, review of The Desert World, p. 114; April 14, 1997, review of Almost No Memory, p. 52; June 16, 1997, review of The Rendezvous, p. 45; September 15, 1997, reviews of Hecate: The Adventures of Catherine Crachat: I and Vagadu, p. 53; October 1, 2001, review of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, p. 36; July 14, 2003, review of Swann's Way, p. 53; September 29, 2003, Amy Boaz, "Another Look at M. Swann: Lydia Davis" (interview), p. 38; February 19, 2007, review of Varieties of Disturbance, p. 146.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1993, Jeff Sorensen, review of Aerea in the Forests of Manhattan, pp. 262-263; fall, 1994, Steve Dickinson, review of The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, p. 214; spring, 1996, Irving Malin, review of The End of the Story, p. 152.
San Francisco Chronicle, December 9, 2001, Regan McMahon, "Q&A: Lydia Davis; Precision with Words: The Author and Translator Talks about Fiction, Teaching, and Proust," p. 2.
Time, November 19, 2001, Ben Marcus, review of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, p. 143.
Times Literary Supplement, November 8, 1996, reviews of Break It Down and The End of the Story, p. 28.
Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1982, Walter Kendrick, review of Death Sentence, p. 8; summer, 1997, review of Almost No Memory, p. 22.
Washington Post Book World, June 4, 1995, review of The End of the Story, p. 10; September 14, 1997, review of Almost No Memory, p. 8.
Women's Review of Books, July, 1997, Lisa Shea, review of Almost No Memory, pp. 38-39.
Believer Online,http://www.believermag.com/ (August 21, 2007), Michael Miller, review of Varieties of Disturbance.
Bomb Online,http://www.bombsite.com/ (August 21, 2007), Francine Prose, interview with Davis.
Paste Online,http://www.pastemagazine.com/ (May 30, 2007), Asali Solomon, review of Varieties of Disturbance.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (June 20, 1997), Kate Moses, "Not Tired of Thinking Yet: An Interview with Lydia Davis."
Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency,http://www.mcsweeneys.net/ (October 23, 2001), Timothy McSweeney, "Lydia Davis Week."