The first of a proposed two-volume collection of essays from one of America’s most ingenious short story writers.
The goal of these essays, writes Davis (Can’t and Won’t: Stories, 2014, etc.), is to “reflect, to some extent, two of the main occupations of my life—writing and translating.” Included here are pieces that range from an appreciation of authors such as Samuel Beckett, Grace Paley, and Franz Kafka, whose works inspired the extremely short stories for which Davis is most celebrated, to essays that reflect her thoughts on the work of translation. Among the latter are essays on John Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, in which she praises Ashbery’s approach “to stay close to the original, following the line of the sentence, retaining the order of ideas and images, reproducing even eccentric or inconsistent punctuation”—not surprising, given that she, too, has been praised (and criticized) for the same approach to translation. Many of the authors Davis explores are French, from famous names such as Proust and Stendahl to comparatively obscure writers such as Maurice Blanchot and Michel Leiris, author of the multivolume “autobiographical essay” The Rules of the Game. Essays on visual artists such as Joan Mitchell and Joseph Cornell are less insightful than the pieces on literature, and some essays rely so heavily on excerpts from other writers’ works that it feels like Davis is showcasing their opinions rather than putting forth her own. However, at her best, she’s an astute critic, as when, in analyzing early works by Thomas Pynchon, she notes his tendency to go “beyond eloquence to a kind of hyper-eloquence that becomes a display of power over language itself that perhaps borders on control by coercion,” or when she writes of poet Rae Armantrout, “under the lens she turns on everything, the refractive lens, a bland world loses its blandness….I see more clearly because of the way she sees.”
Lively essays bound to stimulate debate among readers of global literature.