working with reality

an interview with Lydia Davis
A large part of writing a story, after all, has to do with structure, proportion, the ordering of events and facts, and of course the choice and handling of the language itself – in description, striving for precision and minutely observed detail (à la Flaubert), and in dialogue, the economical expressiveness of one’s characters. The material can be invented, or it can be real. In a way, it doesn’t matter. Invented material can be wonderful. As for a story using ‘real’ material, what makes it read as fiction is the tone, the stylised nature of the writing, the selection and shaping of the material, and of course those (optional) fictional elements that may be needed for the structure or drama of it. Out of a hundred people reading this sort of story, though, only three might know that it has many ‘real’ elements; to the other ninety-seven, it could just as well be wholly invented. So, these days, I’m simply more interested in the manipulation of material taken from everyday life – which of course can include texts. It feels like a great, rich mine… When I am working with reality, the material is all there, or almost all, and my challenge is to put it into a form that suits it, and then to arrange it and word it effectively, making little adjustments or fictional additions to the ‘truth’ as necessary. Invention is not obligatory. Maybe it is my long practice of translation that has biased me toward the pleasure of working with found material – an important difference, however, being that I have a great deal more freedom with a story of my own.

read the full conversation in The White Review, issue 10

a shadow that casts its own shadow

an essay on Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story
The “story” is deceptively simple. An unnamed narrator (who, like Davis, works as a translator) looks back on a love affair long since over. As with any such loss, she “couldn’t let go of it later.” So, looking back at herself not letting go, she tries to imprint an order upon her experience. Specifically, she sets out to turn the story of the failed affair and its aftermath into a novel. Already though, this apparently straightforward story of love and loss is mediated through multiple optics. Firstly, there are the facts; secondly, the narrator’s slanted experience of those facts. Next, there are the mechanisms of memory—always frail and fallible—through which this experience is recalled. Finally, framing this nested structure, we confront the encompassing act of writing—an act which, as Blanchot would have it, “issues from its own absence, addressing itself to the shadow of events, not their reality.” More confusingly still, if writing is the final stage of this sequence, it is also the first, since writing is what renders recollection. And this is to say nothing of the difference between the novel the narrator is writing and the one we are reading—the one written by Lydia Davis. Writing is a shadow that casts its own shadow.

read the rest at The Quarterly Conversation 

steep turns, surprising vistas

a review of D.N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory
If theory moves forward by looking back, then Rodowick’s own work epitomizes the metacritical spirit it describes. In this essential respect, Elegy for Theory surpasses its humbly stated aim of “clarifying” the history of a concept. While it is true that readers of Rodowick’s book will discover new insights into the story of theory, the exhilaration aroused by those “steep turns and surprising vistas” stems as much from the structure and form of the story’s telling: to follow Rodowick’s argument is, in a way, to witness the spiraling swerve of theory enveloping and comprehending itself. It remains to be seen where Rodowick’s next book will lead—he hints that it will relinquish high theory in favor of a new conception of philosophy. And yet his elegy’s very existence suggests, somehow, that whatever animates theory is alive and well. Toward the end of this book, Rodowick writes of the era of theory that “to feel one’s self at the end of something inspires reflection on its ends.” In itself, his inspired reflection revives the stream of ideas on which it reflects; if this is only an elegy, it’s one that instills its object with endless energy.

read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books

(image: Mark Tansey, “Derrida Queries de Man”, 1990, oil on canvas)

speeds and shapes of consciousness

a conversation about literature and philosophy with Evan Lavender-Smith
Evan Lavender-Smith
I remember reading Derrida and becoming aware of the fact that I wasn’t really making any substantive leap from the words on the page to extra-textual referents, to anything out there in the world, and yet I was still very much desiring the continuation of the text, the extension of the text’s form in my mind. It seemed like I’d gained access to a secret or interior meaning, an alternate mode of reading and meaning–making in which the words accrued to refer to or establish some intra-textual formal intensity or truth. In Markson — in Reader’s Block, say — there’s always a point when the content begins to blur, when I’ve relaxed my vision of the novel’s surface in order to project my attention below or behind the language, to engage more viscerally with the novel’s form. Of conceptualism in general one might say that gestures of appropriation and repetition invite the reader to look past or beyond content and instead toward form and production (…)

Maybe this is just a fancy way of reframing or intellectualising the reader’s familiar claim that she had ‘fallen’ or ‘escaped’ into something called “the world of the book.” I suppose the difference here, with respect to the Derrida and Markson reading experiences, is that the “world of the book” is more closely aligned with the book’s form — perhaps its ‘texture,’ as you call it — than with its immediate content, with Markson’s specific anecdotes or Derrida’s specific abstractions. When I fall into the world of a Markson novel, I’m not picturing myself in some dilapidated Brooklyn flat surrounded by thousands of note cards each containing a single death-related literary anecdote; instead, I’ve become less interested in the anecdotes themselves, more interested in the rhythms of their presentation and my reception of those rhythms, their syntactic rhythms, of course, but also those rhythms I associate simply with the application of my consciousness to the book, or with the speeds and shapes of my consciousness as revealed by the book — with the form of the book and with the book’s formal effects on me.

read a longer excerpt from the interview online at Gorse Journal