Lydia Davis at the End of the World
On Learning Norwegian and Writing the Beauty of the Dying World
This profile originally appeared in Norway’s oldest newspaper, Morgenbladet, and was translated for Literary Hub by the author. Photos by Johannes Worsøe Berg.
“No, I never use dictionaries. Then there would have been no challenge. No intellectual challenge at all!”
Lydia Davis has just shown me her handwritten notes in the margins of a novel called “unreadable” and “as dull as the phone book” by critics in the country in which it was published.
In Davis’s meticulous handwriting, systematic descriptions of vocabulary, style, and grammar spill over the pages of the novel and onto a stack of papers. The makeshift booklet, made up of sheets of paper folded in half, densely annotated on both sides, constitute a grammar not only of the novel itself, but of the language in which it was written, a grammar constructed entirely by Davis herself.
The 2013 winner of the Man Booker International Prize, who is widely respected for her translations from French, already speaks German and Spanish, has taught herself Dutch and some Portuguese and admits to having “looked into a few other languages,” although, she adds, “I wouldn’t say I speak them.”
After visiting a literary festival in Norway in 2013, Davis embarked upon her most ambitious linguistic project to date. She decided to learn Norwegian, a language previously unknown to her, from this novel, and this novel only.
“I can’t pronounce the title, so I just call it ‘the Telemark novel’,” Davis admits.
“Do exactly what you want, that’s my idea. Some will love it and some will hate it, and that’s alright.”
“The Telemark novel” is in fact what the book is dubbed even in its native Norway. The full title, which roughly translates as The Insoluble Epic Element in Telemark in the Period 1591-1896, suggests the level at which Davis has chosen to start her self-tutoring.
It is a novel, of sorts, in which the acclaimed author Dag Solstad delves into the genealogy of his own family, fact by fact, name by name. The result—a 400-page epic, chronicling births, deaths and marriages over the course of four centuries—was described by some critics as somewhere between the endless genealogies of Genesis (“and Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob”) and Finnegans Wake.
“I did not want to stop reading Norwegian,” Davis wrote about the experiment in The Times Literary Supplement: “I had become attached to my daily immersion in the tales, some quite dramatic, all curiously entrancing.” The result was a heartfelt passion for the book itself.
A translator’s resolution.
“You may ask questions in Norwegian—if they are simple,” Davis wrote in an email before the interview.
When she greets me at the train station of her hometown, Hudson, two hours north of New York City, Davis is happy to explain how the project grew out of her idea of what it means to be an international writer:
“It all started with a resolution. After my books started coming out in various countries, I made a decision: Any language or culture that translates my work, I want to repay by translating something from that language into English, no matter how small. It might end up being just one poem or one story, but I would always translate something in return.”
Davis’s choice of Dag Solstad, arguably the finest, and undoubtedly the most critically lauded, contemporary novelist in Norway, is less random than it may appear. The author of 33 books, translated into 30 languages, and the recipient of every major literary award in the Nordic countries, Solstad seems to be enjoying something of a belated international breakthrough. Having only recently been translated into English, all three translated titles were longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Another fan, Haruki Murakami, is translating Solstad into Japanese (“He’s a kind of surrealistic writer, very strange novels. I think that’s serious literature,” Murakami told The Guardian).
Dag Solstad, now 73, has for the past 50 years continued to experiment with the form of the novel. Each new Solstad title is not only received as a major cultural event, but they often spark heated debates. His centrality to the cultural life of Norway is perhaps best illustrated by the 2006 publication of a novel that touched on the country’s role in Afghanistan—the book prompted the Foreign Minister to write his own review, debating its political ideas over several pages.
Now imagine Philip Roth publishing a novel deviating so radically from expectations, as to make the critics of The New York Times and The New Yorker claim it really wasn’t a novel at all, and you have some idea of the controversy surrounding the book Lydia Davis has chosen to struggle with.
Having offered to show me around her hometown, Davis proceeds to explain how reading the book went from experiment to inspiration.
“Out of all the books in the world, why on earth did you choose this one to learn a new language?”
“I knew I had to read it,” she says, having heard about the unusual book from her translator. “I thought it sounded fascinating, both as a literary experiment and because I was working on a book involving family history and genealogy myself. Solstad has done just that, in a radical way, using facts only, and avoiding any kind of dramatization, any fiction at all. Hearing about it, I expected the book to have diagrams, photos, maps, landscapes, things to look at. I had not imagined it being nothing but text, blocks of text, with very few paragraphs.”
“Were you discouraged?”
“When I found out, I had already decided to read it. I was curious to see if I would understand anything at all. When I was able to read the first five words, I was encouraged to continue.”
“Read slowly, word by word.”
“Were those first words in the novel—‘Read slowly, word by word, if you wish to understand what I am saying.’—in themselves an encouragement?”
“At that point I didn’t even worry about what it meant, I was more concerned with decoding words than interpreting content. But at least I can say I really followed the author’s instructions!”
“How do you start making sense of such a complex material?”
“Some passages are richer than others. Look at this, for example, when I found this I felt I had found a goldmine…” She examines the pages, pointing to a paragraph. “Look, these words clearly form pairs, they function as opposites,” she says.
“’Jung’—is that how you pronounce this?”
“Yes, ‘young’ and ‘old’, I knew that was what ‘ung’ and ‘gammel’ meant. I could tell what followed was a whole list of opposites of the same order. So I could easily figure out the other words: ‘rich’ and ‘poor,’ ‘sickness’ and ‘health’. You see how you are suddenly able to unlock so many words, just by studying the pattern? Take the words beginning with ‘Hv.’ I guessed they were used in questions: ‘hva’ meaning ‘what’, ‘hvorfor’ meaning ‘why’. But it took me a long time to figure out ‘hvis’ was ‘if.’ I had to start by assuming it was a word of the same class and then test all the different possibilities. The h is always silent, right?
“Correct. So when you find a pattern, do you check with other sources to see if you’re right?”
“No, no, never! Then it wouldn’t be the same. I want to figure it out myself. I think of learning a language as a riddle. Learning it this way is like being an egyptologist, deciphering hieroglyphs. It is that process, finding the key that opens up a world of meaning that was previously hidden, which is the motivation for me. To learn grammar in the traditional textbook way would just be too boring.
The grammar of potholes.
“This place is like an extension of New York,” Davis says, heading towards her car. A woman approaches us to ask if we know a good place to eat with kids. Lydia Davis slips easily from literary conversation into the role of helpful tourist guide. But as we get into the car, she looks worried, suddenly remembering the restaurant in question may be closed. During the drive she repeats her unease at the possibility of having led the family astray.
“Look at the car in front of us, it’s that woman!” she exclaims enthusiastically, as we’re about to park.
Davis leaps out of the car, runs after the stranger, explains her mistake and returns with a look of relief.
“You are really considerate.”
“Oh, I’m just a busybody!”
Those who have read her work will not be surprised by Davis’s acute sensitivity to the finer points of social interaction. Her stories often hinge on descriptions of the tiniest of situations—like greeting a friend or sitting down to a meal—breaking interaction down into the smallest possible units. Taken together, the hundreds of stories Davis has published since her debut in 1976 can almost be said to outline a form of social grammar.
“In your stories you analyze social interaction in the finest detail, almost dismantling actions like components in a puzzle. Are you trying to liberate the way we view social life, free it from convention?”
“I’m not sure I have an idea of liberating anything. But at least I can say I do not take things for granted. I tend to look at things pretty closely. I just want to observe and try to see things for what they are, rather than categorize them, put them in a system. If I categorize, I want to do it from my own observations. I do that with the natural world. But I also do it with people.”
“You prefer your scenarios to be as normal and everyday as possible?”
“I do find the everyday, what other people might find mundane or boring, interesting. For example, I participate in various local groups devoted to issues in the community, and I do actually enjoy them all. Others might say: ‘Do we really have to hear about potholes in the road for an hour and a half, God, that sounds really boring.’ But I am interested in looking at the people, seeing their expressions, the dynamic between them. If I went to an academic conference on literary theory, I would have been bored out of my mind! But a town meeting about potholes, that interests me. I don’t know what that says about me, except I know it’s important for me to look at each thing freshly, without preconceived notions.”“Sometimes I read a contemporary novel that is delightful and completely engaging. But mostly I find they are not.”
“How do you turn these everyday observations into literature?”
“It always starts with what interests me, what I find funny or intriguing. If I take an interest in the movements of a ladybug, or having cat saliva on my sock—something that has only happened to me once and that I consequently found interesting—I write it down without thinking about whether it is great literature or not. If I go back to that text and I find the sock with the cat saliva still interests me, I begin changing the words to make the text more interesting. Then it may become literature.”
Heresy and history.
Davis leads us to a lunch spot serving “homecooked fare,” with an interior to match: doilies line the sturdy wooden tables, embroidered words of wisdom adorn the walls. The welcoming staff, all women in their sixties, serve pancakes, hash browns, eggs and bacon on toast, and never-ending refills of strong black coffee. It is almost a pity we are not here to talk about potholes in local roads.
“What was it about the Telemark novel you found interesting?”
“I am very interested in history, and was taken by the material. I also fully sympathize with the willfulness of Solstad’s project, that he doesn’t write to please other people. Do exactly what you want, that’s my idea. Some will love it and some will hate it, and that’s alright. I’ve seen writers do it the opposite, trying to please, and the results often show that’s a bad idea.”
Also, I could somehow tell that he wrote well. Yes, the retelling of facts may sound flat. But I noticed sometimes he would change his tone, turn the level of rhetoric up a notch, and become more eloquent. He always writes well, but in particular I enjoyed the changes between facts and the more eloquent voice commenting on them. I’m fine about there being little drama.”
“The book engages in a polemic against two kinds of writing: historical novels that fictionalize people of the past through a 20th-century psychological lens. And actual historical writing employing fictional measures, like dramatizing interior monologues for people we know very little of.”
“I do not like that type of historical writing either. And I certainly do not like that kind of historical novel. But I do find history interesting. The Cathars in France for example, I have wanted to write about for a long time. They were a religious group persecuted for their ‘heretical’ form of Christianity in the south of France in the 13th century. Some have suggested I write a historical novel about the Cathars. But I must say I find the idea repulsive.”
“I will not try and guess what this shepherd thought 700 years ago. More and more my interest as a writer goes in the direction of taking real material and making something from it. I can distort the truth a little bit, I do not have to be completely faithful, but my interest, more and more, is in what really happened. I’ve had this idea about the Cathars in my head for 20 years, but I haven’t decided what to do with it, so that was another reason to read Solstad.”
“Did you learn anything you can use?”
“Yes. The fearlessness in just reporting what happened, certainly. But then, of course, you have to write it really well. It wouldn’t work if he didn’t write well, and if you didn’t sense the mind behind it, the spirited intelligence taking you through all these facts.”
“Does an awareness of Solstad’s storied, half-century career as a writer make it easier to sense that intelligence?”
“Coming to it with no preconceived notions: If it was a second book from a clever 27-year-old, I think I still would have accepted it, if it had been done with the same confidence. Look at how it begins, the assertive tone in which the book lays down the rules for its own reading—that would have been equally impressive from a less established author.”
“’To me writing is about not making things up,’ Solstad writes. In Can’t and Won’t you have two stories, ‘Not Interested’ and ‘Writing’, that express related sentiments: ‘Writing is often not about real things, and then, when it is about real things, it is often at the same time taking the place of some real things,’ as the narrator of ‘Writing’ puts it.”
“It’s difficult to talk about this subject without sounding very negative—and also self-contradictory. Sometimes I read a contemporary novel that is delightful and completely engaging. But mostly I find they are not. And then I turn sour on the whole form, and feel like saying, come on, we’ve been doing the same thing for decades now, it’s just not interesting anymore. Of course, if you can do it in a wonderful way, please go on. But I just don’t find much of that. That sounds really negative and maybe even naive, and I have to admit I do make exceptions, for example for older novels, that have withstood the test of time. But when one contemporary novel after the other enters the house with loud fanfare, I most often find they are not all they are said to be.”
“In ‘Not Interested’, the narrator says ‘I am tired of novels and stories, even the good ones, or the ones that are supposed to be good.’ One feels ‘good here means ‘mediocre’?”
“The point for me is these books do not excite me as a writer, however decently done. I do not think I’m interested in experimental writing only, but the authors I like tend to use reality in some way or at least do not write conventional fiction. W.G. Sebald I like a lot. And Peter Handke. He mixes fiction and reality, but it doesn’t feel artificial to me. Even though by definition anything you make is artificial, that is what art is. Even Solstad’s book is artificial, or planned, on some level. So there really is no one statement that neatly takes care of all these contradictions.”
“The narrator of ‘Not Interested’ says the same applies to friends as to novels, she doesn’t get as much out of being around them as before. Perhaps it is not a statement about literature in general but about habits?”
“About her state of mind.”
“Yes. These days one could cite Karl Ove Knausgaard, Geoff Dyer or Will Self among others on similar statements: the feeling of a certain falsehood in traditional fiction. But perhaps instead of discussing them as general statements about the state of the novel, we should consider them statements dealing with the logic of creativity? The idea of shunning fiction seems to function as a kind of hurdle writers set for themselves, a set of limitations facilitating creativity?”
“I certainly never felt I was in need of an idea like that to help me. For me it has been a natural progression. I felt a little hesitant even writing that story, ‘Not Interested’. It’s the kind of story that is not about me, but that grows out of what I am thinking, even though as soon as I put it on paper, the person turns into a character. It is also the type of story that begins with a certain feeling—that of not being interested in certain kinds of writing—and setting that against another idea, which is this thing about gathering sticks in the garden. It is, like reading or writing, a painstaking, slow activity. Now, I am very patient with drudgery, I can tolerate tedious tasks, but all of a sudden I give up. This feeling of ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ was what interested me. Suddenly I can feel tired of literature, tired of my friendships, tired of my dreams. It comes with age: When you are 25 everything is interesting.
“But I do not grow tired of other things, like reading Solstad!” Davis laughs. “Although others would say they could not imagine anything duller. I find it amusing that people think trying to read a book in a language you do not understand is the most boring activity in the world. If you are interested in how literature works, these things are interesting.”
Song for a seafaring ancestor.
Hudson is an old whaling town, Davis explains, pointing out the many signs of past maritime glory. It turns out the family history she is working on also has a maritime theme.
“Where does your own family enter into the picture?”
“One of my ancestors was a sea captain, and for a long time I’ve wanted to write about him. He was a great-great-great-uncle of mine, and I have the diaries he wrote at sea, which he addressed to his wife.”
“When was this?”
“In the 1860s. I transcribed his diary, and what interested me was the fact that descriptions often contradicted my beliefs about the life of a sea captain. For example he read women’s magazines in his cabin below decks, and he wept over the stories! As soon as you start reading these genuine stories, they are always more interesting than imaginary and romanticized stories about life at sea.”
“And how do you go about turning this into a story?”
“Well, there’s another book I want to use as well, Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana Jr., a delightful book that used to be considered a classic. Dana was a Harvard student who took a year off to be a sailor. He took meticulous notes, presumably intending to write a book. Dana wanted to write exactly what happened, in an effort to convey the truth about the life at sea.”
“How would you combine this material?”
“My idea was to use my forefather’s diary in a very straight forward manner. To explain expressions and habits that are no longer understood I would use Dana’s text for annotations. For example, if my ancestor mentions sailors singing a certain song… [Davis hums a little tune: ho ye ho hum…], I would make a footnote or something, so Dana could explain this was a song sung while working. It would be this layered text, where Dana and I would intervene every now and then. I made an index for Dana’s book, but then a new thread appeared. It turned out his wife also led a very interesting life, she wrote fiction, and was a very successful freelance writer. So I imagined I would rather make a double biography of both him and his wife… and then things got really complicated, because I started taking an interest in the sea captain’s own ancestors…
“Hence the genealogy?”
“Yes, and then I followed that thread all the way to family letters from Ireland dating back to the 1730s. That’s where things got difficult. Where does one end?”
“How will you deal with the problem of writing about these people seen from the perspective of our time?”
“I will never pretend I could reconstruct their lives. I’ll make it clear it’s my attempt to patch together an account. With this material, I think it’s ok if I also speak in my own voice, that it’s my ancestor, Dana, and I talking. Solstad does the same thing, the drama exists in his voice, in his comments and views, and that works, it helps connect the reader to the story. But that is not the same as fiction. You can have authorial comments in historical writing, and there can be a form of drama in that, without touching the realm of fiction.”
The beauty of facts.
“Theres is a Norwegian non-fiction writer named Espen Søbye—Solstad has cited him as an inspiration—who works in what he has termed ‘the archive method,’ a method allowing no inferences, only facts.”
“The idea of ‘letting the data speak’ opens up genuine and almost insoluble problems of form. I did a lot of research for a friend who was researching her family’s fate during the Holocaust. I had access to every year of the Vienna telephone directory. And every year, beginning in the late 30s and going up to about ’42, there were fewer of her family members in the directory. Year by year, the number went down: twelve, seven, five, four, three. And finally none. These bare facts are extremely touching on the page, and that reaction comes directly from the primary material. If you do all the research and then work a lot on editing everything the right way, I do not believe the result will be as moving as the direct response to the primary material. It is a real problem.”
“Do you find beauty in facts?”
“Yes, I find great beauty in little scraps of real language that might sound ordinary to others. A simple sentence like ‘They walked by the river’ can seem very beautiful to me. For the same reason I think it is better to eat here than at a more fixed-up, elegant restaurant—I enjoy the beauty of the individuality of this place. No professional decorator chose this interior, they just hung up the pictures they like, the curtains they like. Being an individual is of great value to me.”
“Your stories really go into the finer details of individual experience. In the story ‘I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable’, for example, the narrator describes how ‘The cuff of my sweater is damp’ and ‘My navel orange is a little dry.’ How do you turn these small irritations from individual preoccupations into literature?”
“Well, some of these irritations are inherently funny. The pettiness of them is funny. I think it’s about describing what others do not describe. We all notice trifles like ‘my thumb hurts’ or ‘the bridge of my nose is slightly dry,’ but we do not think they are worth talking about. But my point, and this actually goes back to something Primo Levi said, is that we listen to the news, and hear that so and so many bombs have killed so and so many people, but we are still bothered because our thumb hurts, or because the shower is not quite strong enough. That there is no proportion to these feelings doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with us. Except on rare occasions we are not able to look away from our immediate sensations, and think: I’m glad to at least be alive, as there are so many others suffering. Primo Levi describes this in one of his books: We get used to things the way they are. When we suffer we know the difference, but when we are back in a comfortable situation all the small things will bother us again.
“When you write on these matters you seem to balance empathy with a small dose of irony?”
“I was made aware of a website devoted to so-called ‘First World problems,’ as in: ‘The car I rented was supposed to be cream-colored but is actually beige.’ The title of the story ‘I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable’ is exaggerated, to reveal just that. That title, which is a little over the top, shows the disproportion by exaggerating it. But the story is also about how the small things matter to the person telling them and how we can never escape that.”
Getting ready to leave, Davis seizes the chance to test her Norwegian: ‘Kvitto, is that what you call the bill? Kan jeg få, can I have… the kvitto?’ Is that how you say it?”
Cows of change.
Walking back to Davis’s car we meet a man. She introduces us. They exchange a few words. Afterwards she turns to me.
“Did you recognize his name?”
“That was Hilton Als, he writes for The New Yorker.”
Later that night, I leaf through the magazine. Hilton Als has an article about Ingmar Bergman. Hudson really is an extension of New York.
Returning to her car Lydia Davis shifts to the interrogative mode:
“So, you’ve asked me a lot of questions. Now I want to ask you a question. I actually think we are approaching the end of the world. How do you feel about that?”
“[Nervous laughter.] What do you mean?”
“I mean literally. I’m thinking about climate change, that we’re not doing anything about it. That life as we know it will probably be gone in 50 years or so. Yes, you can laugh, but don’t you agree?”
“Maybe not in 50 years…”
“In 20 years then! I think this is going to start coloring the way I live, and therefore the way I think. And as a result it’s going to make a difference in what I write.”
“Will you become more directly political?”
“It could happen, but I don’t really think so. More likely I will just be more aware of how precious this all is. I believe the world won’t look like this in the not-so-distant future, and that will make me value what is here more. I try not to be too pessimistic—one can never know which technologies may be created to solve these problems. Nevertheless I do think we are the last ones to see this,” Davis says, pointing out the bright orange, red and yellow of the trees against the autumn sky seemingly there to underline her point.
“Do you believe something can or will be done?”
“We both assume we can’t do anything. Isn’t that a bit sad?”
“Yes. There was a big protest march about this last week. I thought I might go, but I did not. On the other hand, we know in which direction the people in power are going. The way things could change, I think, would not be through these small symbolic protests, but through outrageous behavior, that’s what it takes to grab people’s attention, if people really became angry. But we are too cautious. What it would take would be massive strikes, but not a lot of people can afford to risk losing their jobs.”
“Will this affect your writing?”
“It must. I don’t know how. It will not change how I write about my ancestors or the Cathars. In that respect my writing will remain the same. But maybe I will see more clearly what it is I can do: To insist on valuing what we have here, not just natural beauty, but also the beauty of human history, the beauty of archives and so forth. Why don’t we just enjoy the riches we already have, instead of trying to create even greater riches?”
“You base your work on observations of dry skin or the state of your socks, and end up with stories that open up to a kind of wide-eyed amazement at everyday experiences. One could ask: Why worry about that dry skin on your elbows when the world is going to hell? In spite of the underlying issue of ‘First World problems’ you seem able to make these everyday observations relevant again. Is that your project?”
“No.” Davis answers quickly, no doubt in her voice. “I have no project, none whatsoever. Or if I have a project it is divorced from what I actually do. I may wish I could change the world, but I never write trying to do that. I just write what I want to write, and that grows out of who I am. Take the story about cows in the new collection for example. I have very strong feelings about factory farming and animal welfare. Nevertheless, I never put that directly into a story of this kind. If that was the point I would rather write a letter to the editor, a comment, a manifesto. The story ‘The Cows’ grew out of the fact that I care about animals, but I will not agitate on their behalf in a piece of fiction.”
“Although you have no direct intention of changing people’s minds, it might still indirectly result from reading your stories?”
“Yes, that’s it! Even though I never write with that intention, if people begin to really look at cows, they may see them in a new light, and may start thinking differently on the matter. I always want to write a text that is effective, a text that works, even if it just works on me. I don’t write about animals to change people’s minds. Still, I think that really being able to see things, and see them well, can change you, and the way you think. I do not go looking for topics, as a writer I want to be open and receptive to what exists in the world.”
“Then you will never run out of subjects to write about?”
“Presumably not. If this feeling of being ‘not interested’ doesn’t spread… Fortunately, the world is full of thing to be interested in. It is perhaps the only thing we can do, to write about the beauty that exists in this world. We may be the last ones around to experience it.
Lydia Davis and Dag Solstad will meet in conversation in New York on May 20th, hosted by The Norwegian-American Literary Festival and The Paris Review.