Saturday 11 December 2021


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Essays: One by Lydia Davis   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
An essay is a literary form but a collection of essays is not a literary form, or, rather, a collection of essays, unless written specifically as a cohesive set, which is unusual for collections of essays and in which case they are not usually considered a collection of essays but something else, only becomes a literary form, and only if we stretch our concept of what constitutes a literary form, at the point at which the essays are assembled, selected and ordered by someone, plausibly not even the author of the essays, some time, perhaps some considerable time, after they were written, at various times perhaps over a considerable period of time, during which the author may or may not have changed her approach to whatever and however she writes and may or may not have written and had published any number of other literary forms, if she happens to be an author who also writes other literary forms. ‘Selected works’ is not a literary form, and essay collections often tend to be selected works, these works often having appeared in various periodicals or other platforms over the years preceding their collection, or, generally more accurately, selection. Reviewing a collection of essays, as an instance of a literary non-form, presents certain difficulties as the reviewer is denied the various familiar analytic tools that are dependent on form, usually ending up making some generalised statements about the author, her qualities and importance, and then garnishing these comments with snippets pulled from various of the works in the collection, each work of which could be analysed as a literary form but none of which tend to be so treated, except perhaps cursorily, due to lack of space and time, space and time being a single entity in writing as they are in physics. If a reviewer does not quite know how to approach the literary non-form of a collection of essays this is because a reader, of which a reviewer is merely a pitiful example, does not know how to approach a non-form. A reader has no obligations towards the collectedness of pieces towards which, severally, he may have obligations, but also, at least, thankfully, tools dependent upon the form of the several pieces, but what obligations does a reviewer have towards the collectedness of the pieces? It is hard to review something that you do not recognise as a thing. Lydia Davis is best known for the devastating precision of the sentences that comprise some of the shortest, sharpest stories you are likely to read, and for her subtle and precise translations of Proust, Flaubert, Blanchot, Foucault, Leiris and others. Her economy of expression astounds, whether that economy is displayed in a single-sentence fiction, indefinitely extended in a translation, or in such various essays as are collected in this book. The essays, which are of various forms, all concern the relationship between language and lucidity; they all concern writing: either writers or the practice of writing; they are all about reading (of which the practice of writing is a peculiarly freighted subset). The essays all both demonstrate and concern what we could call ‘the mechanics of form’, the way in which language, well used, creates, sharpens or transfigures meaning in literature. Davis shows us how to narrow our linguistic aperture in order to maximise our literary depth of field. She is full of good advice, suggestions for new reading, exemplary sentences and memorable observations: “If we catch only a little of the subject, or only badly, clumsily, incoherently, perhaps we have not destroyed it.” Because a collection is not a literary form, you have no obligation as a reader towards the totality of the volume, but there is much here to enjoy and discover, much that will sharpen your writing and your reading of the writing of others, much to return to and re-read. Most likely you will read it all. 

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