Sunday, March 25, 2007

Ben Marcus on Lydia Davis

So our friend Jeffrey Frank, apropos of nothing, suddenly got us a gift subscription to Bookforum...thanks dude! Bookforum is an arm of the art magazine Artforum, and judging by this one issue, I don't think it's quite as satisfying as its seems to be striving, on one hand, for a New York Review of Books feel, but can't resist throwing in a little dash of Entertainment Weekly here and there, as in the very silly Literary Calendar column, with its fey segues and disembodied floating head graphics, or in the dorkily punning article titles. But overall it's a solid mag and a fine addition to the coffee table.

The current issue has a review of the new Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance. I'm glad to see this, because Davis is one of our favorite fiction writers ever, and her recent Proust translation pretty much kills every other one on the planet. Ben Marcus, the reviewer, likes the book, and I'm glad; and I'm glad to see Marcus writing about it, because I think Marcus's nonfiction is excellent.

But he says something weird at one point, before quoting a highly restrained passage from one of Davis's stories:

The remarkably bullheaded story "Jane And The Cane" doesn't give an inch toward the acknowledgement of emotion...

B-b-b-but it does, it totally does! Here's part of the passage:

Mother could not find her cane. She had a cane, but she could not find her special cane. Her special cane had a handle that was the head of a dog. Then she remembered: Jane had her cane...Mother called Jane. She told Jane she needed her cane.

See, to me, that is just packed with emotion. I picture the author sitting perfectly still, her hands folded, looking like she's going to explode at any second--Davis is intentionally writing as though she is a very precocious child grappling with feelings too huge to put into words.

Now, granted, I haven't read the whole thing yet--and Marcus does get around to saying that Davis indeed packs her fiction with emotion, in her own way. But the funny thing is, the description Marcus initially offers seems closer, to me, to a description of Marcus's fiction--indeed, his books are so bullheaded I can't get through them.

Are we all doing that? Seeing ourselves in the books we read, and taking writers to task for seeming to be like us? The prospect is depressing. I think maybe I am, anyway--my last couple of book reviews, when they were critical, were critical of things I myself am often guilty of, like excessive jokiness or overly loose structure. I didn't realize this until they were published.

In all fairness, Marcus isn't really taking Davis to task at all--he greatly admires her, as he should. As do I. As should you. And when I read the new book, I'm going to try to avoid seeing my goony mug glaring back from its pages.


rmellis said...

Yes, Davis writes as if the emotions are so huge and overwhelming you can only approach them sidelong, one eye darting away. One of my favorites of hers, I think it's called The Sock, is about how a character's ex comes to stay and leaves behind a sock. She returns the sock when they meet later, and he stuffs it in his pocket, its toe dangling out. Somehow this is a totally devastating metaphor for an expired relationship. It's about an old discarded sock, but it's heartbreaking.

Anonymous said...

Ha haa!!, yes that is "The Sock," and you're not mentioning the most hilarious bit, which is that the ex is obviously Paul Auster but instead of making his new wife unusually tall, as Auster's wife actually is, she makes her unusually short. In my opinion, that alone justifies Davis's MacArthur.

ronnie said...

Haven't read the article by Marcus, but could a distinction be drawn between acknowledging emotion and being packed with emotion? Can a narrative be packed with unacknowledged emotion?

The post does bring up an interesting topic: authors reviewing authors. Did anyone here catch Cynthia Ozick's piece in Harpers calling for the reestablishment of a critical establishment?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, maybe there is no distinction. Maybe I'm ultra-sensitive. It's like...when some random guy tells you your wife is good-looking. You don't want to thank him, you want to punch him. How dare you compliment my favorite writer!!!!

Authors reviewing authors is of course hugely wish it could be otherwise, but then of course hardly anybody who really gave a crap would ever review books.

ronnie said...

The post addresses solipsism in reviewers. Stands to reason that critics, who have taken a vow of not publishing fiction, would be less prone to that sort of thing. (As opposed to authors, or professional reviewers, who are required by their jobs to read quickly and make snap judgments).

Regarding the cited bit, while Marcus asserts that Davis doesn't "acknowledge" emotion, I wouldn't automatically take that to mean he's denying that the passage contains intense emotion (again, I probably should read the article).

I mean, if we believe in the life of the unconscious mind, we know that restraining our emotions is emotional, although that emotion usually goes unacknowledged (unless you're in therapy!). Woo. That sounds loopy. Maybe I am projecting myself.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I don't know, I did a little soul-seaching about this post and realized that the only thing I disagree with Marcus about is the word bullheaded. I think that's an inaccurate description of what Davis does, and perhaps an accurate description of what Marcus does. (That's not a value judgement, either, as I can admire "bullheaded" writing...I just don't think Davis does it.)

One thing Marcus is NOT guilty of is approaching literature with some bitter and obvious external agenda, then applying that to the work in question. This is a common tactic, especially in the Times Book Review, which often hires people to review books for dumb reasons, ie., taking a novel about, say, the Holocaust, and getting a Holocaust historian to review it, instead of a literary reviewer. Thus we get a review of how well the fictional work corresponds to the historian's idea of what the Holocaust was really like, rather than an assessment of the novelist's artistry.

Ultimately, see, the people who understand writers best are writers. There are exceptions, of course. But the best reviewer IMHO is a fellow practitioner of the art who happens not to have a chip on his/her shoulder. And that's a tough thing to find.

Marcus is indeed that, I think, as a reviewer. I just didn't like "bullheaded" ;-)