Monday, October 13, 2008

Almost No Memory

by Lydia Davis

In high school, I spent a lot of my afternoons in the weight-room. Not that you could tell by looking at me today. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t done anything that resembles steady exercise in years, and it’s hard for me now to picture myself lifting weights. I was actually pretty dedicated to weight-training for a good three to fours years as a teenager. I started going the summer before freshman year, and stopped right around graduation. Why did I do it? Who knows, though it probably had something to do with becoming fed up with being picked on as overweight and shy. My two friends and I spent about an hour and a half to two hours every other weekday in the cramped weight-room nestled between our school’s math and art wings.

It was exciting. I noticed the changes almost immediately. I seemed to be lifting more every other week. I no longer became winded after running a lap or two. I had a lot more vitality, a lot more energy. I just felt more alert. But then I fell into the routine. The flipside of discipline – tedium. I didn’t fall out of habit, I anchored myself to one. Sure, I was in the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but I stopped pushing myself. I didn’t ask myself why I was doing a particular exercise, if I should try something new for a change. I lost an assertive awareness of the act itself. I hit a plateau. I was stuck.

The frequent reader is confronted with a similar dilemma. Treading water. I probably read too fast. That is, I make my way through a book, often on my commute, and I don’t slow down enough for an active reading. It’s not enough to just “read,” instead an engagement, an inquiry into method and intent should occur. An assertive reader not only pauses to ask himself “Do I challenge myself?” and “Do I consciously consider what I read?” but also to question the very act itself. The text is considered, but the mechanical act of encountering also occurs. I am talking about asking “How do I read?,” and not just “What do I read?”

I like Lydia Davis because she causes me to reconsider my own methods of reading – it is hard to read through her books without looking at one’s habits of reading. The shortness and deceptive ease of the pieces necessitate an assertive inquiry into the incremental nuance of the words. Compare this with the pared down poetry of Robert Creeley. This leads to broader reappraisals, towards memory, experience and intuition. What is going on here? Lydia Davis’ collection, “Almost No Memory,” isn’t full of metaphors that contextualize life within a representational symbolism. Writing itself becomes a generous metaphor for empirical life – for living. What is defined as “writing” is porous – it reflects a thing and is a thing. Remember Michael Palmer’s idea of the poem as an “echo chamber” as he discusses it in his book, “Active Boundaries.” It is through writing that the world is negotiated. More explicitly, it is through language.

The short prose pieces that comprise this collection are easily consumed – their difficulty hinges upon their deceptive ease, the smoothness of the prose. I often stop while reading Lydia Davis- I will realize I’ve been reading too quickly and have to retrace my steps. Reading is not a race, but a nexus of the penetrable. Davis has said in interviews that she often sits down to write without knowing exactly what she is going to write. These pieces are casual in the best way, in that they are a natural investigation of writing, and thought, in the act. The digressions and diversions lead to a surprising and unified goal.

Writing is a means to investigate identity. The short piece, “To Reiterate,” begins with two paraphrases, but in Davis’ words. Language here allows different voices to interact and to contribute to developing a further, generative voice. Davis writes “Michel Butor says that to travel is to write, because to travel is to read.” A couple lines later she adds “…George Steiner says that to translate is also to read, and to translate is to write, as to write is to translate and to read is to translate.” Here we are, bouncing between two different writers, Butor and Steiner, as well as a third, Davis herself, and all three of them are basically saying the same thing. It’s just that the emphasis is on a different word.
Because ultimately what is under analysis here is experience and how thought can reflect on experience, and by reflecting become an experience itself. Davis continues this train of thought to its humorous, and honest, conclusions – “…to read is to translate, and to translate is to write, to write to travel, to read to travel, to write to read, to read to write, and to travel to translate…” and further, “…therefore read; therefore read, read, read and read. The same argument can be made for translating, traveling, and writing.” We find ourselves approaching the same point from different perspectives, which stress both the similarities and the fluent differences. The words are here striped of any superstitious power as entities themselves and the emphasis is placed on context and emphasis – on a thriving social textuality and interaction. Emphasis and social context is at the forefront of “Go Away,” where the narrator meditates on an angry lover shouting “Go away and don’t come back,” and “…the fact that he chooses to say words to you that mean you should never come back, even though he does not mean what the words says, even though only the words themselves mean what they say.” Yes! The word is transformed through experience, as the experience must be set in words. This is the same variety of difference I am currently encountering as I read the fractal science fiction of Samuel R. Delany – which you can expect me to be writing on in depth in the near future.

Language is experience; it establishes a reference point for experience. Look at Davis’ condensation of Rev. Henry Pepys’ “The Remains of Viscount Royston: A Memoir of His Life” in her short story, “Lord Royston’s Tour.” Here we see the earlier tautologies of “To Reiterate” in practice. Royston’s journey across Eurasia is actualized through linguistic difference. Royston’s fluency allows him mobility, “he studies Russian in the morning,” and thus moves through Russia. At one point in his travels, he comes to the Caucasus, which “…is inhabited by about twenty nations, most of them speaking distinct languages, so that the inhabitants of one valley, insulated from the rest of the world, often can’t make themselves understood if they cross the mountain.” The physical isolation of the mountains manifests itself linguistically; the isolation of the valley only becoming truly binding through a gulf of language. A mountain barrier can be passed, as difficult as that is, but a barrier in fundamental modes of communication isn’t so easily overcome.

It’s important to note the full title of the book, as it appears on the cover, and within, is “Almost No Memory, Stories.” Many of these stories first appeared in poetry journals – “New American writing,” “Conjunctions,” and “Parnassus.” These stories exist in the bordertowns of poetry - a porous zone allowing Davis to utilize the benefits of both prose and poetry. A fuller understanding of the pieces hinges upon an appraisal of the works as stories, but the reader must also confront their poetic confluences. The stories really spark up as the reader acknowledges their poetic attention, that is, the emphasis here is on an articulation of language’s nuance as language that can only appropriately be called “poetic.”

Each story in the collection contains all of the conventional elements “necessary” for fiction – character and plot and language. It is just that in Lydia Davis’ hands the subject is often reading and writing its self. Language becomes the subject, but it becomes an impassioned subject, other than just a linguistic exercise (not that there is anything wrong with pieces that exist as linguistic exercises!) “Foucault and Pencil” dramatizes the act of reading – the narrative follows the literal act of reading, as well as the small diversions often left out of an appraisal of “reading,” especially “difficult” reading. But aren’t these distractions also an integral part of the reading experience? Davis acutely emphasizes these diversions that inform and often articulate our readings. Her sentences almost read as the sort of marginal notes the text references, as Davis writes how she “sat in subway car, took out Foucault and pencil but did not read, thought instead about situation fraught with conflict, red flag, recent argument concerning travel, argument itself became form of travel, each sentence carrying arguers on to next sentence, next sentence on to next…” Reading, again, becomes travel. Reading then, is never something that is “done” in the past tense, but is instead being done constantly, and is shifting as such.

In this way, Lydia Davis is our great contemporary writer of travel, though her pieces are usually short and often occur in a domestic setting. In the aforementioned “Foucault and Pencil” we do not “move” beyond a transcription of a reading of Michel Foucault, but the mind travels great distances, even as these distances manifest in details. The narrator writes about how she “put away notebook and returned to Foucault. Understood more clearly at which points Foucault harder to understand and at which points easier…” Here we are making great leaps, even though the text doesn’t talk about Foucault as it talks about reading Foucault. This associative cycle does ultimately lead towards Foucault himself, and does so with an honest unity. In an era where physical travel is ridiculously easy, Davis’ subtle leaps in language and thought represent the great contemporary act of travel. It’s to Lydia Davis’ credit that she manifests this linguistic travel with such humor and warmth. The language itself shines with a humanity – well, that makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, Lydia Davis shows us throughout “Almost No Memory” how connected humanity itself is to language, it is only fitting that Davis’ language exude such humanity in its incremental linguistic units.

Compare this to weight lifting however you choose.

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