31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 20: “The Seals” by Lydia Davis

May 20, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

From Can’t and Won’t

Can't_and_Won't_Lydia_DavisAt twenty-five pages, “The Seals” is one of the longest stories in Can’t and Won’t, the latest collection by the great Lydia Davis. Best known as an almost anti-narrative author, a typical Davis story is more likely to run only a few lines and not to offer much in the way of context, plot, or character development. Here, for example, in its entirety, is the concluding story from Can’t and Won’t, entitled “Ph.D.”:

All these years I thought I had a Ph.D.

But I do not have a Ph.D.

There are those who would argue that this is not a story at all: it doesn’t do what a story is supposed to do (whatever that might be); it doesn’t adhere to a conventional three-act structure; it doesn’t follow Freytag’s pyramid of rising action, climax, and falling action; it doesn’t have any discernible characters. The final statement, at least, is demonstrably false. The character in the story is the first-person narrator, the “I” who thought “all these years” that (s)he had a Ph.D. There is also movement in the story, although it is a psychological progression rather than a physical one. The story climaxes in a realization (or an epiphany – one of the most conventional story moments around) rather than an action, and it does not place the character in any kind of context, so the implications of acknowledging the lack of a Ph.D. are ultimately withheld from us.

For all this, I would argue that “Ph.D.” is a story – even a story with certain recognizable elements. One simply has to expand one’s perception as to what constitutes a story, of what a story can be, or do.

But even those who find themselves put off by Davis’s more expressionistic forays into the outer reaches of the short-fiction form should feel comfortable with “The Seals.” The story unfolds in a linear fashion, features a first-person narration, and deals with identifiable characters and situations in sufficient context to ground a reader. While it also avoids a traditional structure – there is no closure to speak of – “The Seals” nevertheless offers its reader an emotionally cathartic experience that is immediate and relatable.

The story’s narrative trajectory (it doesn’t really have a plot) is quite simple: a woman is taking a train to work over Christmas, and on her trip she ponders the memory of her father and older sister, both of whom died in close succession over the course of a single summer. Although it is fiction, “The Seals” takes the form of memoir or personal reminiscence; it has a free-flowing, almost stream-of-consciousness aspect that belies the care with which it has been put together.

The sections describing the view from the train’s windows provide an anchor for the story, preventing the pieces from shooting off untethered in different directions. They also provide a corollary to the narrator’s emotional musings, as when she comments on the trompe l’oeil of stationary objects beyond the glass, which “flash by so fast” they occasionally seem to be moving forward, even as they speed backward past the window:

Actually, even though things in the far distance seem to be staying still, or even moving forward a little, they are moving back very slowly. Those treetops on a hill in the far distance were even with us for a while, but when I looked again, they were behind us, though not far behind.

Likewise, the narrator’s sister and father are in her past, “though not far behind”: still in memory, especially on holidays. “The first New Year after they died felt like another betrayal,” the narrator thinks. “[We] were leaving behind the last year in which they had lived, a year they had known, and starting on a year that they would never experience.” The casting of blame here is a psychological defence mechanism, obviously, but it also foregrounds the “confusion” the narrator admits to feeling, much like the ocular confusion created by the scenery flashing past the train window. “Suddenly the choice wasn’t so simple: either alive or not alive. It was as though not being alive did not have to mean she was dead, as though there were some third possibility.”

The feeling of betrayal and confusion surrounding the fate of the narrator’s sister after death – “Where was she going now? I sensed very strongly that she was going somewhere or had gone somewhere, not that she had simply stopped existing” – is an offshoot of similar feelings in the days and weeks prior to the older sibling’s final moments, when the narrator is consumed with questions about what is happening on a psychological, physiological, and spiritual level. The sister’s reflexes degrade to the point that she can no longer move away from a pinch or a prick; instead she moves into them. “I thought that meant her body wanted the pain, that she wanted to feel something. I thought it meant she wanted to stay alive.”

After her sister dies, the narrator struggles with the question of whether it is kinder to tell her ailing father, or to let him remain ignorant. “Should his last days be filled with this distress and grief?” she wonders, reasonably. “But the alternative seemed wrong, too – that he should end his life not knowing this important thing, that his daughter had died.” She also wonders whether her father, a lifelong loner, who would banish his helpful family members from the kitchen when they tried to assist with the after-dinner dishes, really wanted someone with him round the clock at his deathbed.

These are all perfectly natural questions, and in presenting them honestly and unadorned by sentimentality or mawkishness, Davis creates a map of one woman’s grief. Its contours are a painful admixture of anger and confusion that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has lost a close family member or friend. “The Seals” is a story that has the power to move its reader immensely and put the lie to the notion that Davis is a purely intellectual writer devoid of empathy or pathos.

The view from here: Julian Barnes and the art of reading

November 15, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story. Julian Barnes; $19.95 paper 978-0-345-81300-8, 244 pp., Vintage Canada

Julian Barnes is a deeply serious reader. This is not to say he is joyless – far from it. The seventeen essays (and one story) in his new collection testify to the vivacity with which Barnes approaches the reading act, as well as the range of his interests. However, if you’re looking for discussions of recent bestsellers or the latest popcorn fantasy series for young adults, you won’t find them here. Instead, you’ll discover a triptych of essays devoted to the high modernist Ford Madox Ford, an appreciation of the 18th century French moralist Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort, and a short piece on Félix Fénéon, whose uncategorizable work Nouvelles en trois lignes (re-released by New York Review Books in 2007 as Novels in Three Lines) Barnes calls “the literary equivalent of a cocktail olive.”

France represents one focal point for Barnes’s sensibility as a reader, at least as evidenced by the pieces on offer here. Through the Window is roughly divided into three parts. The first deals with British writers; the second, central sequence of essays focuses on French writers; and the final part looks at a handful of Americans. These sections segue organically into one another. Kipling, the “demotic, pragmatic, self-educated celebrant of the British empire,” whose fascination with France was by no means uncomplicated, serves as the pivot between the first and second parts of the book, while a pair of American writers – Wharton and Hemingway – each of whom spent a considerable amount of time in France, form the bridge between the second and third parts.

Barnes is a classicist, and implies his disinterest in much current writing by largely ignoring it. The only living writers he deals with in this volume are Lorrie Moore, Michel Houellebecq, and Joyce Carol Oates (the last in a brief, and not altogether laudatory, consideration of her memoir A Widow’s Story). He does talk about Lydia Davis, but only in the context of her translation of Madame Bovary (a “linguistically careful version” that sometimes “takes us too far away from English, and makes us less aware of Flaubert’s prose than of Davis being aware of Flaubert’s prose”).

Collectively, the essays in the book paint a picture of Barnes as a thoughtful connoisseur, an enthusiast who never allows his enthusiasm to blind him to a work’s faults. Even at his most effusive, Barnes is rarely platitudinous. The one exception might be the opening essay on Penelope Fitzgerald, an author to whom Barnes makes no secret of being in thrall. This essay does offer some repudiation of the reputation Fitzgerald was afforded in the press, a reputation “attended by a marked level of male diminishment.” It also suggests that perhaps Fitzgerald won the Booker for the wrong work, “which would hardly be revolutionary in the history of the prize” (a truth Barnes should be intimately familiar with, one can’t help but remark).

As a careful reader, Barnes notices things many others might miss. Hemingway, Barnes is quick to point out, is often characterized as the apotheosis of machismo, when in fact he wrote more persistently and convincingly about cowardice and inaction. John Updike, “delineator of conventional, continuing America, is incessantly writing about flight.” Barnes shows himself to be an unapologetic advocate of Updike, claiming the Rabbit Angstrom quartet as “the greatest post-war American novel.” His piece on Updike (actually two pieces, published in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian shortly after the older writer’s death in 2009) also illustrates the ways in which Updike might have been one of the finest and most unsentimental literary examiners of aging and death, perhaps one reason (along with his precisely detailed, demanding prose style) he appears so off-putting to many younger readers.

Through the Window opens with a preface entitled “A Life with Books,” in which the author traces the roots of his bibliophilia and makes an impassioned case for the continuing relevance of books as objects. He quotes Updike (again), who late in life expressed despair about what he considered to be the dying art of printed literature. “I am more optimistic,” Barnes asserts, “both about reading and about books. There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers – there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art. Yet nothing can replace the exact, complicated, subtle communion between absent author and entranced, present reader.” In the essays that follow, Barnes proves himself a very good reader, indeed: one who elevates the skill to art. Taken together, his essays on writers and books he admires also illustrate a separate assertion from his preface, one that seeks to debunk a myth all too common in our modern mindset: “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.” Through the Window is an exuberant, intelligent plunge into life.