“Honor the Syntax”: an Interview with Lydia Davis

I met Lydia Davis in Cambridge, UK when she visited to give a lecture on her translation (into modern English) of a nineteenth century Scottish children's book, Bob, Son of Battle: the Last Grey Dog of Kenmuir. At the time, I was just finishing my masters dissertation on punctuation and grammar in Davis's fiction. My interest in this area of her work seemed to amuse Davis, who wondered how a writer could not be fundamentally interested in the mechanical aspects of their craft.

But Davis, author of over 12 collections of short fiction and won the International Man Booker prize in 2013 and the McArthur Genius Grant in 2003, is different; Her minute, compact stories, many of which span only a couple of lines or a paragraph, demand a kind of poetic attention, what Christopher Ricks when awarding Davis the International Man Booker described as her 'vigilance'. Perhaps it is her work in translation, for which she has been named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, that has instilled her work with a kind of grammatical consciousness. A translator of French philosopher Maurice Blanchot in 1980s, Davis more recently undertook Marcel Proust's Swann's Way (2003), in which she attempted to retain the original rhythms of the French syntax, attempting to translate "comma for comma," treating the act of translation like a "word puzzle" (she once tried to teach herself Norwegian using only a novel and a dictionary).

This commingling of exactitude and playfulness in her prose seems to evolve out of the imposition of limits on her writing, of manipulating structures without violating them, or parodying their own logic. Her stories are so often almost blunt in their simplicity, obvious in such a way that it actually transforms our thinking. Her eagle-eyed perception focuses in on overlooked, often mundane, elements of daily life and makes us pause to consider them, for example her story "Collaboration with a Fly":

I put that word on the page,

but he added the apostrophe.

These stories resonate much more than you first expect, their sharp humor giving way to quiet meditation. No wonder some have categorized her fiction not as "short stories" but, rather, "philosophical investigations." This classification most definitely seems more apt.

Lola Boorman: What did you think when you found out I wanted to interview you about grammar?

Lydia Davis: Well, I laughed because I know it's a particular interest of mine but I always assumed it was a particular interest of any writer that any writer broods about usage and grammar, and spots incorrectness in other people's writing, and worries about incorrectness. So I thought it was funny. But I think that then I interpreted it to mean that I'm more explicit about it in my writing rather than just care about it and produce a piece of writing that doesn't specifically address it. I do address it.

 Yes, probably many writers use grammar merely as a means to an end, you use it specifically as a subject as well as a medium.

Some people say all writing is really about writing, in the end, or all painting is about painting. A painting may seem to be about the Virgin and Child, but is also about painting.

Has this always been an interest of yours?  

I think it probably started with family, because both my parents were writers and my father was an English professor so they paid a lot of attention to language all the time, and they talked about language all the time; it was a subject of conversation. My father would go and look things up in the dictionary when he was curious about where a word came from or he would correct our way of talking sometimes, though not in an annoying way. So I think it came very early on. I was almost trained to pay a lot of attention to each word and choice of word and construction, so nothing was casual, from the very beginning.

But that must have changed when you went to school. Learning to speak in the home is very different to learning in a school environment. 

They probably left me alone till I was old enough to know better. Although they wrote down things I said. So they were always conscious of my language, but I'm not sure bothered me about it until I was 12, or 13, or 14, when I was old enough to speak well.

It seems that a lot of your stories involve a schoolroom setting, a contract of instruction ("French Lesson 1: Le Meurtre" and "We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth Graders"). Is there something about the form of the lesson that generates a new way of looking at the writer-reader relationship?  

Well, the story about the get well cards ... I like that story a lot. It started with a folder of letters. My brother is the one, the child in the hospital, and it was his class writing to him, and my mother kept the folder. The fact that she was a writer meant that she kept things, maybe thinking that one day she would do something with them, and I inherited them. I was very touched by the letters and the sort of meaninglessness or contentless-ness of the letters, and wanted to do something with them and then chose the persona of the dry academic-sociologist, analyzing them. And since there's almost no content, they're not really very personal, they're not really very individual, then she's just really bending over backwards to analyze what is there.

[With "French Lesson"] I think I studied French in school starting at age 10. I had entered a new school and had to catch up with the other children who'd already been having French since kindergarten. So I had tutorial sessions with the French teacher and I think that was a very meaningful thing to me. I was working one-on-one with her and it was kind of a private, personal situation in the midst of a new school that was big and a little overwhelming so I think I had a very great attachment to the primer that we used, the French primer. It doesn't really come into the story. The story probably grows more out of translating. I have a great interest in foreign languages more and more so it comes out of all that: translating, the early lessons with my teacher, and I like the idea of mixing a language primer with language theory and a mystery story the mystery story never really gets going. But I thought of doing a whole book about grammar. That was a project of mine that's still there somewhere on the back burner. It's very old by now, the idea. But I never completely abandon what I think is a good idea.

Is it still something you think you could get back to?

Yes, well, what happens is that another project comes along that's more compelling, and then another one comes along in front of that that's more compelling, so they keep getting pushed back. So I have at least five book length projects that have been pushed to the back burner, but it doesn't mean that I won't ever get to them.

How would it be structured? How did you see the grammar form intersecting with the novel?

Well, I was going to have it be a mystery novel. I had two different ideas. Another one wouldn't be specifically grammar; it would be a book that would have a little French in it at the beginning and then more and more and more and more and more so that by the time you were done with the book it would be in French, but you could read it. I thought that would be a really great idea. So that's one idea. [The second] one would teach French in a more... you know, I even made charts about how to include all the traditional elements of a first year language book, first-year grammar - but [it would] still hav[e] an ongoing story and still having vocabulary lists and everything.

This 'grammar drill' form comes up again in some of your other stories, too, in what I call the 'example stories', like "Honoring the Subjunctive" and "Example of a Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room". It occurred to me that you were taking examples from real life or from your reading and turning them into the kind of anonymous examples you find in grammar books. The kind of phrases that are written by someone but are never attributed but that are considered a kind of common language, a sentence that belongs to everyone.

That's true, that's true. I hadn't thought of it that way because I really love the example sentences that are given in a grammar. I collect foreign grammars and I love just reading, you know, "Peter will be coming on the train today," for example. They actually have content, but the content sort of floats there divorced from any story.

"French Lesson" toys with the idea of structuralism. Has linguistics or literary theory influenced you at all?

Not really. In school I was not as serious a student as I would be now. I would be a very good student now. Kids nowadays are more serious in the better schools. But I was just doing whatever I could to pass the course; sometimes I was interested but I wasn't that serious and I wasn't that sophisticated. So a lot of my interests came later. And I'm not anti-academic, I think I'd really enjoy going back to school, but I tend to take a more independent, self-teaching direction. Translating Proust, I didn't read studies of Proust or books about him first, I just did it. I like doing things my own way.

But you read some of the other translations of Proust on the second draft. Is there a sense that you can't help but be influenced by these other translators?

Yes. Well, I have a sensitive ear, so if I read something it will stay with me. So I can't read another version before I do my own version.

Some critics have compared your translation method for Swann's Way to how one would translate poetry. Is that how you were thinking about it?

Yes, my aim was to be as close as I could and that meant certainly honoring the syntax as much as I could. People say French is very different [to English]; it's not that different. You can honor the syntax, you can reproduce it pretty well and the one book I didn't even read the whole of it but the one book I looked at was an academic study, a book by a French scholar, Jean Milly, who was analyzing what was going on in the prose, meaning he was pointing out the buried alexandrines and parallel structures, so I wouldn't miss what was going on. And then if [Proust] had alliteration I would try to reproduce it, and you can very often, if you use cognates. And I tried to end the sentence with the same word that he ended with and follow everything else very closely. It's nice to think that someone said I translated it the way you would translate poetry.

You're often compared with female experimental poets (Rosmarie Waldrop, Lyn Hejinian etc.). Do you think there is a way in which an attention to grammar and language, and a formal experimentalism, is distinctly female?

I'm thinking of Anne Carson, do you know her work? If I had to choose, I would feel closer to what she's doing. I mean, somewhat the others, but I never thought of myself as a poet and I would never call myself a poet. I've written things that were meant to be poems but even though I know that some of my pieces cross the line into poetry, I would never call myself a poet because my background was always in prose, and my ambitions were in prose, and my reading was in prose. A lot of my reading is poetry, but you define yourself one way or the other. So I feel mainly like a fiction [writer] even though a lot of what I write is not fiction, or not very fictional. You do tend to give yourself some kind of a label.

As for the female aspect of it... It's funny, because my first influences were pretty much all men. And then people would say, What about Gertrude Stein? What about Virginia Woolf? Those were the two big ones. I react very personally to writers, as if they were people I was going to know, and I never liked Gertrude Stein personally, and I didn't like Virginia Woolf personally. And I did read a lot of Virginia Woolf and I did like her way of writing but there was something about her way of being in the world that I didn't like. And I still want to give her another chance, because I have friends who say you've got to give her another chance. As for Gertrude Stein, I liked some of what she did, but again I didn't really like her way of being in the world. They were both snobbish, and arrogant, and demanding. Whereas Kafka seemed much humbler, kinder... Well, you know, any writer's got to be somewhat arrogant, ambitious, but I just liked Beckett and Kafka better.

I didn't feel that I had to identify as a woman writer with women writers, even though I came of age in the Sixties when feminism was very important. My mind was on writing, not so much on feminism or women's identity in the world, all that kind of went by me... It was very important to me to be part of a circle of young writers who were doing experimental things, and almost nothing but experimental things. There wasn't any traditional writing going on among any of my friends, and they both men and women, so I had plenty of examples around me of both men and women who were doing experimental things and also even starting little magazines and starting little publishing houses. It was a good atmosphere, it was a healthy supportive atmosphere where men and women were supporting men and women. Because there certainly artistic circles, maybe a generation or two before me, where the women are doing interesting things but the men are still putting them down, and telling them to go get the coffee. But that wasn't happening in my generation, my generation was the hippie-dippie generation where the men treated women well.

You've mentioned before one of the things you admire in Beckett in his syntax.

Well, what he does, the acrobatics he performs with syntax, I think are amazing. He'll manage to stay within the rules and yet through elision or by using some rhetorical device, he will make the language strange and new, even though it is still technically conventionally grammatical. It's not that I feel things have to be correct all the time but I admire his way of stretching language, making it do everything it can do, and paying so much attention to it.

Have you heard of what critics call his "syntax of weakness"? It's a term Beckett applied to his own writing I think he writes about it in some of his letters. It refers to his desire to 'violate' his mother tongue in the way that he does to French. I think he's trying to capture the will to misuse language, to alienate it.

I see alienation in the positive sense as standing outside it and looking at it and not taking it for granted. But not alienation in the sense of disowning it or recusing it. English is very much my favorite language and this comes up sometimes with the subject of translating because there are plenty of people who translate another language because they love the other language so much: so and so's always been a Francophile from the age of 10 and she loves being immersed in French. But for me it's the opposite, I like to take this alien language and convert it into my beloved English. So I love other languages and love being immersed in other languages but I think English is amazing. So, the only alienation would be and I'm sure my position on this is somewhat related to Beckett's in standing apart from it enough to be able to see what's going on and hear every single word of it, and then manipulate it and work with it to make it do what you want it to do.

Have you ever thought of translating your own work into French?

I've done it once or twice, just to help another translator who would then work on my version. But I would find it immensely frustrating. I mean, it could be fun, but only a little fun, because you wouldn't be doing a very good job, or I wouldn't. I'm not so truly, deeply bilingual that I could draw on all the resources that I would need to make the translation really fantastic. So it would just be faulty and lame.

You've said in previous interviews that you see translation as "assuming a disguise", and you also often write stories 'as' other authors: your stories from Flaubert, "Kafka Cooks Dinner"... 

I really took Kafka's language for that.

Exactly. This seems to be a dominant mode in your writing: stealing or borrowing voices, imitation, "found" fiction...

Did you call them "fan" fiction?

No, "found," although they could be "fan"...

They are kind of fan fictions... I would not have done found fiction this way 20 or 30 years ago. People evolve (maybe I'm forgetting, maybe I did), but nowadays I'm always picking up language. In fact, that's the function of [my travel] journal: I'm always copying things I hear and see. I don't really make up things anymore unless they're just minor fictional elements created because I need a transition or something. So I'm not that interested in inventing anymore; I like finding. I'm thinking, for example, of "The Cows" piece where I'm just observing the cows, and it's me talking but it's me observing a real thing. I tend to just follow my interest. I don't think, "Now I'm going to work with found texts," I just see what happens, and I may evolve in this direction or that direction without trying to control things too closely. Maybe I'll get tired of working with found things and I'll decide to become a pure fiction writer again. I don't know what will happen.

But is there a way in which taking in "Honoring the Subjunctive," for example a line from Ruskin and including it unattributed, could be considered plagiarism? Where does your work lie in relation to that line?

[In Can't and Won't] a lot of the dreams were created from friends' dreams, so I credited each friend with the dream. And then there's a very short piece called "Acknowledgement" at the end of one of the books acknowledging a certain Mr. Cuff. I don't remember what book that is from and I don't think I acknowledged it or attributed it. Plagiarism! I don't feel at all uneasy about, say, taking the line the subjunctive and isolating it and making a different piece out of it, but there's a little story I can't remember its name about finding a skeleton on the mountain, hiking and finding a skeleton...with a backpack... and there's a postcard that's never sent. The title is the name of a writer. I found that on the internet under the name of that writer written up as a little incident, so that felt a little borderline because it's hardly changed, and someone wrote it that website. If it's too much verbatim... my intention is a little different, in isolating it as a story, their intention was to provide it as information. But that's a little close, so I was a little hesitant about that. But that's an extreme example and there aren't too many of those where I'm treading a thin line. The Flaubert stories if I acknowledge them, that makes a big difference. But I try not to change them much, I don't want to change them much from what Flaubert wrote, so a story close to a straight translation of a letter of Flaubert's, or a part of one. But I do make changes to it, to turn it into a story.

It's interesting to see you mixing translation and fiction in your collections that way. And with your new translation, or 'updating,' of Alfred Ollivant's dialect-heavy novel Bob, Son of Battle: the Last Grey Dog of Kenmuir (1898), is the distinction between these two acts becoming more and more blurred in your work?

I definitely think of Bob, Son of Battle as a kind of translation. It's not mine in the way that Flaubert's stories are mine, even though I took them from Flaubert.

And translating letters is quite a different thing, it's kind of a private encounter with the author.

Well, I'm finding a story within a longer continuum, in something that has a different intention, his intention was different and the editor's intention was different. My intention was to make a story out of it. Whereas [with] Bob, Son of Battle, my intention really is just to modernize and... that's not a good word to use because a lot of it I don't change, but my intention is to make an easier version. And [Ollivant is] the main author, not me. I'm just the translator, I'm not making it into something my own, I'm trying to keep it something of his.

Do you find it hard to write and translate at the same time?

For some of the long translations I would stop writing, pretty much. And then, nowadays, I'm really only doing short translations, or I'm going to be doing only short translations. So the main thing will be my own writing. I will be going back and forth, but, actually, I don't find it difficult to go back and forth.

A lot of your stories are heavily and minutely analytical, an approach that becomes most prominent in stories which deal with grief or mourning. Is there a way in which your intensive treatment of grammar achieves a kind of solace? Or is it an evasion, a deferral of emotion?

Yes, particularly in "Grammar Questions"... I don't know, it may be solace and evasion at the same time, because it may be a way of staying close to the subject without dealing with it frontally. You still want to be close to it, you want to think about it, but you don't want to just sit there and cry, so you get analytical.

Most of my stories start very spontaneously, so I'm sure that "Grammar Questions" just started with me asking a question: "Where's he living?" Well, he's actually dying. So is he living? So it starts with a real question and then I just let the story grow from there as far as it wants to grow. But because it's my father, and because he himself was so concerned with language, it's also a way to be close to him. If he'd been a bricklayer, and a bricklayer who wasn't interested in language because I know some bricklayers aren't that would have been one thing. But because he was always interested in language, it's also a double way of being close to him. Because he would have been interested in reading this, thinking about it. I think language per se is very interesting because of all that it does at once. I think of it as a kind of music because it is sound, it is always music and sound, but then it also has meaning, and the meaning is so huge in human interaction. The tiniest syllable can be hugely meaningful in a personal interaction. If your lover says 'uhhhhhh' at the wrong moment it could be devastating. In that way, it's amazing. And the writer can manipulate it so subtly. So when I'm reading I'm always analyzing, too: 'Is the writing or the language doing something interesting or not'? I'm always thinking about it, partly because it's what I do, but also because it's interesting, the infinite variety of ways that language is used by different writers.

What are your thoughts on how language is evolving in a digital agethe fact that the "emoji" was the OED's 'Word of the Year'? Is this something you're interested in?

Somewhat, among other things. I mean I don't turn my back on changes in language or refuse them. But I guess I'm just as interested in much older language... I actually do use emojis, but mainly with my son, who's 28. So I'll say something embarrassing, and I'll add a little embarrassed face, but I do it to amuse him...

At first I welcomed Facebook and I still think it's useful for things. And I thought my friends and I can have some interesting dialogues. A lot of my friends, writers, are on it. But a lot of the things they have to say on Facebook are not any more interesting than what anyone else has to say. I think even my son is tired of Facebook. But all these conversations where someone posts a photo and everyone just says, "Cool!", "Awesome!", "Looking Great!" You know, what a bore! The comments are meaningful because it's your friends... but they're just boring to anyone else. So I gave up on it pretty quickly. And I don't do Twitter at all.

You don't think Twitter could be an interesting medium for you?

Yes, people have said that before, that it's just tailor-made for my kind of writing. But my very short pieces are done with a lot of second thoughts and a lot of revision. A lot of revision! Changing one word and changing it back. So they are not spontaneous Twitter-type utterances.

Since you said you were interested in grammar, I brought along an article I was reading that I found mistakes in. And then I looked at it again today and found some more. In one sentence it really annoys me in one sentence [the author] has three mistakes. First, I should explain: the article interested me because it described how Thomas Jefferson was assigning Indian agents (I mean non-Indian people who were agents with the Native Americans) to make Native American word lists, and I thought, "Oh, that is interesting." And then when he moved from the White House when his second term was over, the trunk got stolen that had all the Indian word lists in it. And the thief dumped them in the river because he was disappointed that all he found was paper. They were then partially rescued. So that's what this [article] refers to: "Literally splattered with mud from the riverbank, torn and blotted from the immersion in the water, the modern reader struggles to make out the words on the lists, let alone see how Jefferson's" ... blah blah blah. So there's a dangling modifier first. "Splattered with mud... the modern reader"it's really a terrible example of that. But then 'literally' is nonsensical. She didn't have to say "literally." "They are literally splattered with mud." And then the use of "let alone," which I think really has to go with a negative, like "I couldn't understand what he was staying, let alone interpret it to someone else." So she has a negative idea, "struggles to make out the words," but it isn't a negative, it's a positive. So her use of "let alone" is wrong. It's in a journal called American Literature. Most of the articles I wasn't interested in, but then, this one seemed interesting, until her writing began to bother me.

Do you do this kind of thing a lot? Finding mistakes?

I do... Oh, she has a few other mistakes but I won't bother showing you. I do; I don't usually mark up books, but I do sometimes if it's a writer with a good reputation who makes mistakes, that annoys me. It's not that I think every writer should be absolutely correct, and I'm not absolutely correct myself, but I think at some stage in the publishing process, all these mistakes should be caught. I don't mind bad grammar if it's done on purpose. But I do mind bad grammar and careless mistakes that just get in the way. This woman's writing gets in the way.

Do you read any popular grammar books? I'm thinking of things like Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, and the like.

Not generally. I take note of them and recommend them to students sometimes. I have some more obscure language books. Like, there's a terrific book, but it's really old I think I found it in a library. It analyses every part of a long word, like 'disdainful', a word with many parts. It will give the meaning in full, then the meaning of 'dis' and 'dain', etc. We usually don't think about the meaning of every affix. And I often tell students to keep books like that around and look at them regularly just to remain more explicitly conscious of language. I think there is a great pleasure in writing and reading language that is skillfully used to its full rhetorical capacity.


Lola Boorman is a doctoral candidate at the University of York, UK. Her research focuses on the institutional impact of grammar on twentieth century American literature, looking in particular at the work of Gertrude Stein, Lydia Davis, and David Foster Wallace.