Archives for posts with tag: Lydia Davis

The Cows book cover, EM Keeler, Bookside Table

“‘They come out from behind the barn as though something is going to happen, and then nothing happens.”

What can I possibly say about Lydia Davis’ The Cows?

A while ago my main squeeze treated me to an excellent dinner at a relatively fancy restaurant. The meal was long and luxurious, and we were patiently attended to, and each plate was an exercise in elegant restraint, the food alienated from the edges, a generous helping of white space. My favourite course was the dessert for its familiar and simple flavours: chocolate ganache droplets on a butchers block, with tiny almond butter cake cubes, and concord grapes. That dish, the small serving size, the serious consideration of humble ingredients, and above all the emphasis on deliberate spatial isolation, is a perhaps labourious but still apt metaphor for The Cows. And I loved them both.

The Cows is a meditation on stillness, perception, and the seasons. Davis writes koan-like sentences about three neighboring cows. Simple and humble, (like grapes, almonds and chocolate) these cows become even more than they are through Davis’ masterful command of her medium. Delightfully, these beasts never cross over into the realm of allegory; Davis refuses to anthropomorphize them. They remain cows, broad and black, gentle and heavy. It seems like the project of exploring the significance of these cows is a way for Davis to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of life, of the years passing. But it’s also a meditation on the quiet and joyous riddle of subjectivity: “After staying with the others in a tight clump for some time, one walks away by herself into the far corner of the field: at this moment, she does seem to have a mind of her own.” The spare beauty of these cows, of my desert, of Davis’ prose, relies on such quiet celebrations of mindfulness, or of subjective presence. The Cows is a pure and simple delight, an open ended riddle on the joy of moving forward by standing still.

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I’m almost there. Three quarters of the way to having read and written about 50 books this year. Where did the time go?

Instead of updating the top 5, like I have for previous milestones, I decided to acquiesce to my pal Janice‘s request that I list the books I’m most looking forward to re-reading, once this project is through. As you know, ranking books is not my strong suit. Like the liberal arts narcissist I went to university to become, I always want to reflect backwards from the text itself, and give primacy to my experiences reading the book. After all, that’s what I know the most about. But because this is a reflexive practice, reconstituted by remembering and rereading and rewriting, my thoughts about each of the books listed below are subject to change.

In no particular order, the 5 books I’m really looking forward to re-reading:

5. Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

I got a lot out of this one the first time around, but something about it tore me up. Even as I was reading it I was doing that childish thing where I was fantasizing about having already read through it once, so that I could spend more energy on really seeing the prose rather than desperately trying to make the events described cohere into something solid enough to hold on to. I want to go back and get to know Jenny and The Doctor a lot better in particular. From what I remember, there was a lot of strange beauty in the images that Barnes used to evoke her characters, but Jenny and the Doctor were so slippery, never quite settling into their similes, dodging metaphors left and right. I’m really looking forward to going back into Nightwood to try to parse them out.

4. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

I really fell in love with Nanapush, one of the novel’s narrators. I want to visit him again. Erdrich’s use of language is stunningly effective, though never ostentatious,  and I feel like I need to have her voice in my head. I think this will be the first one I re-read, actually, because it’s a wonderful winter book, so full of small rooms and snow.

3. Madam Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

I’m not quite sure that this counts as a re-read, as I’m planning to read a different translation. The Lydia Davis translation made for a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I want to see what Elenore Marx can do for the text. The thing about Flaubert in general, or so I’ve read, is that he was apparently obsessive over his use of the French language in his writing, and he himself thought that to read in translation was pointless, that the loss of value was far too great. I obviously do not hold this view. Literature requires the cross pollination that translation allows for. That said, it is probably my secret hope that by reading and comparing the different translations of this book I’ll be able to make a mental composite, to average the readings, into some kernel of authentic Flaubert. Turns out  I believe many contradictory things about literature.

2. The Obituary, by Gail Scott

The Obituary is a story that braids many different threads together. There are different perspectives, different histories, continuously displacing one another, and I’d like to go back into it and see what new strands I can pick out. Also, Gail Scott’s playful and experimental use of language is just really exciting! She uses sound and allusion and strange little tricks with letters, and there is a lot of formal innovation going on. I think that Scott and  César Aira are two of the most exhilarating writers I’ve read, and not just this year.  I want to keep being exhilarated.

1. The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Shields.

There’s something about David Shields. Even if you’re not all about his collage manifesto, the man is really really good at what he does. The Thing About Life, which came out before his much discussed Reality Hunger, is partially a collage work, using textbook biology and the many ruminations on mortality that float in the historical ether. But what’s so strange about his method is this: Shields himself is a brilliant sentence maker! Using other peoples words, even advocating free play with plagiarism, okay sure, I see how that’s transformative and just plain cool. But the man can lay it down on his own!  Some anecdotal evidence: My partner and I sometimes play this game where we grab a book at random off the shelf and read a sentence or paragraph out loud. Sometimes we get each other to guess if it’s an ending line, or who the author is. He grabbed Enough About You and read a single sentence of maybe 25 words. Not only did I know it was Shields immediately, but the sentence itself was a tight little story all on it’s own. In fact, Shields may be too polished, too damn good, to read only once. His little book machines are so well constructed that they seem magical, and I think you need to keep coming back to really see just how much is going on underneath the hood.

Madam Bovary Book Cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

I couldn’t help it. It was so beautiful. I already have a copy of Madame Bovary. And I loved the Lydia Davis translation. And this isn’t even the Paul De Man translation that most people will have read. But it was just too lovely. How could I resist?

Madam Bovary Title Page, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

Even though I know that a good reader should be able to divorce the author’s, or in this case translator’s, biography from a work of literature, I can’t help but feel a vaguely histrionic urge to marry the fate that Eleanore Marx met  to her decision to spend significant time wrestling with this story of an unhappy woman in a man’s world. My own relationship with Davis’ Emma Bovary was, as I have already described, complicated. Actually,  I should say is complicated, because in fact I’m still thinking about her. I can’t help but imagine the influence that Flaubert’s Emma might have had over the way that Marx lived, and ended, her own life.

I’m excited to compare the translations. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bedside Table Books To Date

I’ve read 13 books so far this year, which is slightly more than 1/4 of the way to the 50 I’ve set as my resolution. I wanted to take a little minute here to go over some observations about what I’ve read so far:

  • five outta thirteen are authored by women, and maybe a half, if you count Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary.
  • Four of these are translated books: Three from French, one from Italian. None of the translated works were originally written by women.
  • Four of these books are autobiographical or memoir, as opposed to novels.  I think it’s fair to count How Should A Person Be? in this category.
  • Three, actually call it three and a half,  of these include main plots or subplots that feature characters dealing with their own identities as Jews  in American, Canadian, and European contexts. (The half refers to Tassie Keltjin’s fascination with her Jewish mother and goyish secular father in A Gate at the Stairs.)
  • Of the thirteen books, I only read two that I wouldn’t gladly read again (American Pastoral and My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist).
  • One of these books was about the reproductive system of a dog.

My top five so far, in order of first remembrance:

1. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

2. How Should A Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

3.The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Boullier

4. The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker

5. Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi

Although honestly I really want to put Madame Bovary and A Gate at the Stairs, and To the Lighthouse and My Dog Tulip on that list. I guess that’s ’cause I’m not really one for playing favorites. Plus, I’ve been lucky enough to have chosen, for the most part, pretty damn good books so far.

I’m always on the lookout for good books.

If you’ve got any rad recomendations, drop me a line in the comments, or even send me an e-mail at see.emily.read[at]gmail.com.

Lydia Davis Translation, Madame Bovary, Book Cover, 2010

I totally cried.

Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was beautiful, clear, and her ability to perfectly translate the tone of the work is astounding. For a taste of what she can do, The Paris Review published a handful of Davis’ short stories that were modeled on Flaubert, and you can read them here.

Because this is a well known story that has permeated literary culture, I already knew what was going to happen.  And honestly, I decided to read this version because I like Lydia Davis’ writing; if she specifically hadn’t translated Flaubert, I may never have read this book. I mean, everyone knows the story anyway: A stupid but good looking woman marries without love, and then seeks passion elsewhere, and tragedy ensues. I was so prepared to hate the heroine in this book, so ready to be dismayed by another old story about a woman torn by the choice between two men, so anxious to feel the sting of a character built from the sexist archetype of beauty without brains.

Yet when I was actually reading this book I was really surprised by how much I liked Emma, how I recognized in her the anxieties and fits of naivete I have seen in myself and other people I know. And she wasn’t so dumb, really. She was callous, selfish, brutally unkind at times, and a wretched mother and careless wife. But somehow I felt for her, y’know? It seemed like the little fictional village in Normandy that Flaubert sets this drama in was built up of insidious illusions and untruths, that there were lies in the newspapers, and that the shop keepers and notaries were disingenuous at best. In that light, Emma isn’t a sexist archetype, just a player in a larger game. Her ideas about passion and love and being head over heels and having cosmically and improbably hot monkey sex are still ideas that circulate in the cultural landscape of right now. The lurid romance novels and poems that turn Emma on to impossible love are old time versions of pop songs and rom coms. We’re still looking for that spark, that special person that breathes fire and incinerates the desire for everything but love.