Jesse Field's Reviews > Break it Down

Break it Down by Lydia Davis
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Nov 03, 10

bookshelves: essay, short-fiction
Read in November, 2010

These queer little portraits often make me grin silently -- probably I'm recognizing some aspect of my own personality, or else imagining that I am. (I know now you can be quite wrong about who you think you are.) First and foremost, there is Wassily:
He did not know exactly when to thank his hostess after attending a dinner or a weekend party. In his uncertainty, he would thank her over and over again. It was as though he hoped to achieve through the effect of accumulation what one speech alone could not accomplish.

Wassilly was puzzled by the fact that these social responses did not come naturally to him, as they evidently did to others. He tried to learn them by watching other people closely, and was to some extent sucessful. But why was it such a difficult game? Sometimes he felt like a wolf-child who had only recently joined humanity.
"Very little of the real world can be intelligble to" such a character, says the blurb. And I suppose so. The romantic attachment certainly is not:
The fact that he does not tell me the truth all the time makes me not sure of his truth at certain times, and then I work to figure out for myself if what he is telling me is the truth or not, and sometimes I don't know and never know, and sometimes just because he says it to me over and over again I am convinced it is the truth because I don't believe he would repeat a lie so often. Maybe the truth does not matter, but I want to know it if only so that I can come to some conclusions about such questions as: whether he is angry at me or not; if he is, then how angry; whether he still loves her or not; if he does, then how much; whether he loves me or not; how much; how capable he is of deceiving me in the act and after the act in the telling.
The subject just can't understand, must work so hard just to speak. Yet, she also exists little musical nest of words, which makes her beautiful.

Some of Davis' characters were doing translation work when this book was written. This is satisfying work: the translator knows how many words she can do in a day. It becomes craft, and so as pleasant as cooking or knitting are to those who know how. Literary translation is the exercise that has resulted in the deep care for syntax, structure and play in these prose pieces.This idea hit me in "French Lesson I: Le Meurtre:"
See the vaches ambling up the hill, head to rump, head to rump. Learn what a vache is. A vache is milked in the morning, and milked again in the evening, twitching her dung-soaked tail, her head in a stanchion. Always start learning your foreign language with the names of farm animals. Remember that one animal is an animal, but more than one are animaux, ending in a u x. Do not pronounce the x. These animaux live on a ferme. There is not much difference between that word, ferme, and our own word for the place where wisps of straw cover everything, the barnyard is deep in mud, and a hot dunghill steams by the barn door on a winter morning, so it should be easy to learn. Ferme.
I feel that at least some of the writing here is not story, but more accurately a form of essay or prose-poem, with mostly descriptive (or prescriptive) words, and sometimes only thin fragments of narrative. But "French Lesson" might actually be story, because it has a climax:
Now that you know the words la femme, dans and la cuisine, you will have no trouble understanding your first complete sentence in French: La femme est dans la cuisine.
This is the way to break it down.
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Jesse Field Reminder to self: find a moment to take the Autism spectrum quiz. (Wonder what Lydia scores?)


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