Lydia Davis has thrice distinguished herself in the world of American letters. First, as a fiction writer (seven collections and one novel), then as a translator (Proust's "Swann's Way," Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," et al), and third, with the publication of "Essays One" in 2019 and now "Essays Two," as an essayist.
The first two of these roles — fiction writer and translator — have always seemed a bit at odds with each other. Davis is celebrated for her micro-fiction pieces, some of which are a mere paragraph long, and one of her most famous stories is only a complete sentence when it's combined with the title (it's called "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant" and it goes, "that Scotland has so few trees").
As a translator, though, Davis most successfully tackled the first book of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," a digressive, seven-volume text made up of lengthy sentences and paragraphs that stretch for pages and pages, quite the contrast to Davis's severe economy.
Her excellent essays exist somewhere in the middle of these two poles. Here, she's more verbose than in her stories, but still succinct, clear and eloquent. Her first collection focused on writers and artists whom Davis admires, as well as pieces on her own fiction. "Essays Two" is concerned with translation and foreign languages in general. In the preface, Davis deems this second collection a more "single-minded" work, and she's correct. This is a celebration of the beautiful and bewildering intermittences of language.
Fittingly, she opens with "Twenty-One Pleasures of Translating (and a Silver Lining)," a delightful rumination that showcases just how difficult and complicated the act of translating is. She tells a story about attending a wine-tasting in France and being instructed to "mâchez le vin" ("chew the wine"), which sends her back seven years to when she translated "Madame Bovary" and struggled over the verb "mâcher" in a sentence she rendered as "like a man continuing to chew, after dinner, the taste of the truffles he is digesting." That a single word could linger so long after the work is finished attests to how arduous the translator's job can be.
Far and away the best and most fascinating section here is the one on "Translating Proust," which includes a 100-page "Alphabet (in Progress) of Proust Translation Observations, from Aurore to Zut." It's such an assiduous and insightful essay that it could justifiably be published on its own in book form and should be required reading for anyone interested in translations, languages or literary art.
When translating Proust, she explains, she "tended to consider and reconsider even the smallest questions." Davis' work is a productive blend of authority and doubt, solution and exploration, confidence and humility. "If I were to write a memoir about being a translator," she writes, "I might title it: 'Then Again, Maybe Not.' " May we all learn from her convicted uncertainty.
"Essays Two" may not be light reading for the general interest reader, but for all its erudition it's always accessible, comprehensible, and even fun. Davis is a literary treasure.
Jonathan Russell Clark is the author of "An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom" and the forthcoming "Skateboard." His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the L.A. Times, the Boston Globe and other publications. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.
By: Lydia Davis.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 571 pages, $35.