>Gili Does Her Schoolwork: Proof

May 23, 2007 § 8 Comments

>I have to admit, I wasn’t looking forward to tonight’s reading. The only time I ever set foot in a Barnes and Noble is for one of these author events, and having had a bad experience at the Lethem reading at B &N in Union Square, I was anticipating a disaster at the branch in Astor Place. I had heard of Lydia Davis from another Lesley student, Jen Girdish who had recently interviewed her for Venus Magazine. Her new book, Varieties of Disturbance has been getting a lot of press, and Davis’ recent translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way has contributed to her success. I had read her recent interview in Time Out New York, but hadn’t been able to get a real sense of her from the brief piece.

Like the other two Barnes and Nobles readings I’ve attended during the semester, the reading was introduced by a staff member, who clearly had not read Lydia Davis’ work since she was unable to pronounce one of Davis’ titles, and may have printed out a summary of the author from the author bio on the back of Davis’ new book. After we were encouraged to help the Barnes and Nobles hostess welcome the author, positions were switched at the podium and I craned my neck over the flat and filled rows of folding chairs in order to see the author.

The chairs had not been staggered and situated in the middle of a crowd of about one hundred people, I had to make an effort to see the small woman standing before us. Davis opened up with two charming jokes. “Reading itself is always an anti-climax after the introduction.” The audience laughed and she continued. “My own cell phone is still turned on but I think the only people who would call me are actually in the audience.” I warmed up to her right away. It was as if she knew the best way to get us to turn off our phones was to poke fun at herself. It was indirect, adorable, and smart. I began to relax.

Davis’ new book is composed of short-short prose pieces, often a chain of three or four sentences, at times a bit longer and at others, shorter still. She began the reading with the first story in her book, “A Man From Her Past.” “I think Mother is flirting with a man from her past who is not Father,” Davis writes. The audience laughed with hesitation. Quickly we learn that Mother is ninety-four years old, but “her capacity for betrayal is still young and fresh.” And so the tone is set. Davis has a sense of humor but there is clearly a poignancy she hopes to express.

Maybe because there are so many breaks in between her pieces, Davis interjects thoughts on writing, her process, and her inspiration. It’s almost as if she’s taking cues from an interviewer, but she is simply sharing her ideas. “A lot of these stories are true. I just select from life. It’s not all of life, just selections.” Even the way she says this, in a conversational and comforting tone, creates a sense of respect between the author and myself. She isn’t trying to keep secrets from us and she doesn’t seem to be hoping to prove herself. Even though she is horrible at eye contact, and even though I have to work hard in order to look at her, I get the sense she is talking directly to each of us. Davis is soft-spoken, but not quiet, and there is the slightest tremble in her voice that never goes away throughout the reading, which makes me think she is not nervous but that this is part of the way she speaks.

Because this is Barnes and Noble, the reading cannot be too good. There are a slew of cell phones that go off. The floors are wooden and creaky, and people are shifting and bustling here and there. But the hum of the escalator adds to the cadence of Davis’ voice.

Davis mentions that she began taking herself serious as a writer in college. She didn’t start writing very short pieces until five years after she had graduated. She had read Kafka, but felt that he was not someone to imitate. He had his own style and the short-short story was off-limits. Then she read Russell Edson. Of his stories, she comments, “some of them are just plain silly but others hit you really hard. He sort of gives you a way in to try something different.” After I read her work, I may see if I can get my hands on Edson’s.

She describes one of her stories as the “perils of self-consciousness,” and when she says things like this, she does not look at anyone in particular. I would not go so far as to call her sheepish, but she is definitely mild in personality and most comfortable with letting her words establish her personality.

Her final piece is called “Insomnia” and it may be my favorite. In one line, she has expressed a feeling that I have suffered many nights of my life. “My body aches so it must be this heavy bed pressing up against me.”

Consistently darling, she opens up the Q and A with, “So if you want to ask questions, the easier the better.” Davis’ reading exceeded my expectations. She is a quiet force and a reminder to take time with language, to enjoy the music in the words, to find humor and beauty in the awkward and the strange. For once, Barnes and Nobles did something right. Or maybe it was simply Lydia Davis. In forty-five minutes, I felt like I had made a friend.

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