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A concordance of Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis is an American writer known for her concise and precise prose. Over a career spanning several decades, she has published nine short story collections, one novel, three books of essays, and one lyrical, book-length document of the behaviour of a group of cows in the field next to Davis’s house. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Man Booker International Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship. Davis’s extremely spare treatment of language has sometimes produced stories only one sentence long, while her experimental approach to form means that stories can consist of – for instance – a series of questions, one side of a phone call, or a medical report. Across all her work, Davis’s voice is perhaps most clearly recognised in her attention to the shape and texture of everyday communication, profoundly alive to its often-absurdist humour. For this concordance, Davis responded to five words drawn from her fiction, casting light on a long career built from an uncommon and ingenious relationship to words and how they are wielded.


I have many thoughts about boredom. In fact, a friend of mine whom I encountered by chance, today, at a “repair cafe” – some people know perfectly what that is and some have never heard of it – was just talking to me about boredom. She thought no one should be bored – there is always some useful way to spend your time. She was indignant. But I also offered to her that boredom is sometimes useful. I find that if I am slightly bored doing something, or reading something, I might have a good or interesting idea about something else. In other words, slightly bored means slightly distracted. The thing you’re doing, or reading, is not quite interesting enough to take all your attention, so your mind is wandering a little, but maybe in an interesting way.

As for animals, despite what I said about the cows, I don’t believe animals feel boredom. They may feel the need of a change, as in the case of the cows, they may feel they “used up” whatever occupation it is that they were engaged in, and now they want to move on, but I think, from watching the cows and other animals (such as my cats), they have a much greater capacity than we humans do for simply sitting still, or lying still, without needing to be entertained in any way at all. I admire that and sometimes try to emulate it. Perhaps that is what practiced meditation can achieve.

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↳ “The Fears of Mrs Orlando”

↳ Mrs Orlando’s world is a dark one. In her house she knows what is dangerous: the gas stove, the steep stairs, the slick bathtub, and several kinds of bad wiring. Outside her house she knows some of what is dangerous but not all of it, and is frightened by her own ignorance, and avid for information about crime and disaster.

Though she takes every precaution, no precaution will be enough. She tries to prepare for sudden hunger, for cold, for boredom, and for heavy bleeding. She is never without a bandaid, a safety pin, and a knife. In her car she has, among other things, a length of rope and a whistle, and also a social history of England to read while waiting for her daughters, who are often a long time shopping.


↳  The Cows

↳ If they finally move, is it because they are warm enough, or is it that they are stiff, or bored?


↳  “Sketches for a Life of Wassilly”

↳ Sometimes Wassilly had an inkling that he suffered from a deeper boredom than he could completely picture to himself. At these times, he would brood about the yearly allowance his father gave him: perhaps it was the most unfortunate thing that had ever happened to him; it might ruin what was left of his life. Yet one of the only things Wassilly could be sure of in himself was the recurring hope that things would not turn out as badly as they seemed to be.

His effect on the world was potentially astonishing.


The first four stories come from the same period of about one year, a long time ago, when I and my then-partner were caretakers of an old stone house in the country in the south of France. My stories then reflected the landscape and people around me, and this included hunters. It was a culture of hunting which included the hunting of songbirds, such as thrushes, which were eaten. We were also taking care of two dogs at the time, lovely golden labs, the handsomer of which disappeared in early winter. We always suspected that he was either shot, poisoned or taken by a hunter.

The last story was written where I live now, 40 or 50 years after the first. In the interim I lived in places where I did not think about hunters, since hunters and hunting were not part of the culture around me – New York City, Southern California. Now I live in the country again, though a very different country, and I hear target practice from the field across the road almost every Sunday. A friend’s husband kills one deer every year and they eat venison, though she does not particularly like it. I think deer are beautiful, but I don’t object to a skilled hunter taking down a deer – skilled so that the animal does not die in pain. Deer are seriously destroying our forests, unfortunately, by eating the undergrowth so that no new trees come up, so I don’t mind seeing their numbers reduced. Another friend, when he was young and living with his single mom, had to go out hunting if they were to have enough to eat. So, living now in a culture where hunting is a regular, practical thing, I do not see the hunter as menacing. He (usually but not always a he) is menacing only when he is clumsy, or greedy, or uses nefarious means to take his deer, such as putting down bait, firing from his vehicle, hunting at night.

Unnamed 1

↳  “The House Plans”

↳ Then the autumn chill came down and hunters stalked near my house. The explosion of their rifles filled me with dread. Pipes from a sewage-treatment yard in the next field cracked and let a terrible smell into the air. I built fires in my fireplace and was never warm.


↳  “St. Martin”

↳ The guns of the hunters boomed from beyond the hills or under our windows, waking us early in the morning. Men walked alone or in pairs, sometimes a woman trailed by a small child, spaniels loping out of sight and smoke rising from the mouths of the rifles. When we were in the woods, we would find a hunter’s mess by the ruins of a stone house where he had settled for lunch—a plastic wine bottle, a glass wine bottle, scraps of paper, a crumpled paper bag, and an empty cartridge box. Or we would come upon a hunter squatting so motionless in the bushes, his gun resting in his arms, that we did not see him until we were on top of him, and even then he did not move, his eyes fixed on us.


↳   “In a House Besieged”

↳ In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. “The wind,” said the woman. “Hunters,” said the man. “The rain,” said the woman. “The army,” said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.


↳ “Sketches for a Life of Wassilly”

↳ Wassilly had difficult relations with the girl at the grocery. He felt insulted by her cold manner. At home, he sometimes worked himself into a rage against her and made cutting remarks to her out loud. Then he would become ashamed of himself and try to adopt a more enlightened attitude, realizing that she was only an unattractive girl in a small town working in a grocery, someone with no hopes, no ideals, no future. This would restore his sense of proportion. Then he would remember a certain day the previous spring. At the shooting match on a hill above the town she had flaunted herself in a white hat and had not acknowledged his presence by so much as a nod, though all around him people were in the highest of spirits. As if this was not enough, he had taken a shot at the target on the next hilltop and the gun had recoiled and hurt him badly in the shoulder. Everyone had laughed. But after all, he said to himself, they were experienced hunters and he was only a fat intellectual.


↳ “Local Obits”

↳ Gordon, 68, an avid hunter, died peacefully at the Firemen’s Home on Monday. Ronald, 72, former fire chief and retired truck driver, was an avid duck hunter. Ellen, 87, volunteered at the Amtrak Station Snack Bar.


Certainly in the first two stories, the fish represent something troubling for me – they are both living creatures with their own needs, desires and drives, and also our prey, what we plan to eat in cooked form. I am troubled by the idea of causing fish pain. It is easier to find a bunny lovable than a fish, and eating rabbit is not as common in our culture. Chickens make good and personable pets, too, but we both keep them as pets and also eat them, though most (but not all) people who eat chicken are not eating their own. I don’t eat either chickens or bunnies. For a while I ate fish without worrying about it. Then I began realizing that they have sensitivities, like mammals and birds, and habits, preferences, plans. I’ve recently learned that fish have more intelligence and abilities than you would think: one kind of fish, maybe trout, can distinguish jazz from classical music. Certainly researchers now know that fish feel pain. They learned this by observing “avoidance behavior” in fish.

As for repetition of the word “fish,” I have just realized that I was repeating the word quite frequently in the last paragraph. I’m not sure why.

As for the fish in the other stories above, they play a smaller part. They are present more anonymously, or featurelessly, as prey, as livelihood or as rather surreal aspects of the scenery (fish swimming in the branches of trees). I have more sympathy for the taking of fish as one’s livelihood than for sport fishing, which seems needlessly cruel. Throwing a fish back after hooking him or her is not an innocent or harmless form of fishing. The wound in the fish’s mouth can become infected and it causes pain at the very least. If it is “fun” for the fisherman, it is extremely unpleasant for the fish.

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↳  “The Fish Tank”

↳ I stare at four fish in a tank in the supermarket. They are swimming in parallel formation against a small current created by a jet of water, and they are opening and closing their mouths and staring off into the distance with the one eye, each, that I can see. As I watch them through the glass, thinking how fresh they would be to eat, still alive now, and calculating whether I might buy one to cook for dinner, I also see, as though behind or through them, a larger, shadowy form darkening their tank, what there is of me on the glass, their predator.


↳  “The Fish ”

↳ She stands over a fish, thinking about certain irrevocable mistakes she has made today. Now the fish has been cooked, and she is alone with it. The fish is for her—there is no one else in the house. But she has had a troubling day. How can she eat this fish, cooling on a slab of marble? And yet the fish, too, motionless as it is, and dismantled from its bones, and fleeced of its silver skin, has never been so completely alone as it is now: violated in a final manner and regarded with a weary eye by this woman who has made the latest mistake of her day and done this to it.


↳  “Eating Fish Alone”

↳ Eating fish is something I generally do alone. I eat fish at home only when I am by myself in the house, because of the strong smell. I am alone with sardines on white bread with mayonnaise and lettuce, I am alone with smoked salmon on buttered rye bread, or tuna fish and anchovies in a salade Niçoise, or a canned salmon salad sandwich, or sometimes salmon cakes sautéed in butter.

I usually order fish, too, when I eat out. I order it because I like it and because it is not meat, which I rarely eat, or pasta, which is usually too rich, or a vegetarian dish, which I am likely to know all too well. I bring a book with me, though often the light over the table is not very good for reading and I am too distracted to read. I try to choose a table with good light, then I order a glass of wine and take out my book. I always want my glass of wine immediately, and I am very impatient until it comes. When it comes, and I have taken my first sip, I put my book down beside my plate and consider the menu, and my plan is always to order fish.


↳ “Lord Royston’s Tour”

↳ The beauty of the scenery on the Volga is gratifying, the right bank mountainous and well wooded. After passing Tsauritzin, where both banks were in Asia, there is nothing on either side but vast deserts of sand.

He sees great numbers of pelicans. Islands are white with them. He sees prodigious quantities of eagles, too. He and the others eat well on sterlet and its caviar. The number of fish in the Volga is astounding. The Russian peasants won’t eat some of them for reasons of superstition. For example, he had too much of a sort of fish like the chad, and offered them to the boat’s crew, but they refused them, saying that the fish swam round and round, and were insane, and if they ate them they, too, would become insane.


↳  “Cape Cod Diary”

↳ Not far away, three men fished off the pier for mackerel, casting again and again, pulling up silver fish that fought hard, all muscle, then unhooking them and slipping them carefully into a Styrofoam cooler where they flopped so violently that the cooler shook and thudded for a while after it was closed.

At the same time, a bright red oil truck was fueling the boats. It would stop next to them on the pier where they were tied two or three deep alongside and send the long hose down into one, over one into the next, and then into the third. At the same time, a steel cable that extended the length of the pier into what seemed to be a fish-packing shed was being wound mechanically onto a drum in one of the fishing boats. The winding went on and on. A group of tourists watched this carefully, too.

The tourists took pictures of the fishermen mending their nets. If a tourist asked a fisherman to smile, the fisherman would glance up soberly, with a neutral expression on his face, and keep still for the picture, but he would not smile.


↳ “Visual Artists: Early Tourist Photographs”, Essays One

↳ Boys with cart on beach. The Dutch boys – variously in sweater, smocks, shirt with bib, and clogs – are nestled around or perched on the shafts of a sturdy cart equipped with baskets that must have something to do with fishing for shrimp, eel, oysters, or fish, or with gathering seaweed. In the background, holidaymakers, either foreign or Dutch, stand at the shoreline in more cosmopolitan dress, and a horse is partly visible, there either to pull a “bathing machine” or, more likely, to assist with some aspect of the fishing industry.


The first story here, too, comes from my time in the south of France, where the countryside around us was indeed dotted with ruined stone farmhouses, one with a mulberry tree growing up within the tumbling walls. I was told that if a house was standing empty for a while and he had no use for it, the owner would have its roof removed so that he would not have to pay taxes on it. Thus the house would fall into ruin all the faster.

I think I like the word “dung” because it is strong, Anglo-Saxon, reeking of the farmyard. I like the words “farm,” “yard,” “farmyard,” and – although less – “reek,” also.

I wrote “Cockroaches in Autumn” in a very different place, New York City, specifically Brooklyn, where one’s companions in an apartment were quite likely to be cockroaches. I did not know the word for an insect’s excrement then. I do know it now, but only to recognize it, not to call it forth just at the moment. What comes to mind, incorrectly, is “scat,” which is the word for excrement when one is tracking a mammal, and maybe also a bird, I think.

A dung-soaked cow’s tail is something I am quite familiar with, in memory. I went to a boarding school where working in the barn in the early morning, for one semester, was expected of every student. So early each morning, for that semester, in the warm barn after a walk through the cold pre-dawn, I was faced with a great deal of rather liquid dung – on the concrete barn floor, in the runnels behind the cows, and on the hoofs and tails of the cows. I don’t remember that this bothered me terribly, or at all.  We showered every morning after barn duty because the smell that lingered in our hair was otherwise very strong.

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↳ “The House Plans”

↳ “The land was pointed out to me from the road, which ran along the side of the hill above it, and right away I wanted to buy it. If the agent had spoken to me of disadvantages, I would not have heard him at that moment. I was numbed by the beauty of what I saw: a long valley of blood-red vineyards, half flooded with late summer rain; in the distance, yellow fields choked with weeds and thistles and behind them a forest covering a hillside; in the middle of the valley, higher than the fields, the ruin of a farmhouse: a mulberry tree grew up through the broken stone of its garden wall, and nearby, the shadow of an ancient pear tree lay across the carpet of brown, rotted fruit on the ground.

Leaning against his car, the agent said, “There is one room left intact. Inside, it is filthy. They have had animals there for years.” We walked down to the house.

Dung was thick on the tiles of the floor. I felt the wind through the stones and I saw daylight through the lofty roof. None of this discouraged me. I had the papers drawn up that same day.


↳ “Cockroaches in Autumn”

↳ On the white painted bolt of a door that is never opened, a thick line of tiny black grains – the dung of cockroaches.


↳ “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.


I think I am intrigued by the hollowness of the word “special”. It has probably been so overused generally that it has lost all meaning or has acquired the opposite meaning – not at all special, extremely commonplace. The first story is sad, I find. We are certainly all special, in one sense – because we are all individuals – but we often don’t seem very special to ourselves. Or the word “special” is proposed as being accurate and then, as in the first story, but also in the second, we have a little trouble discovering in what ways the person or the thing is special – special meaning different from other people, different from other chairs.

I’m enjoying rereading the third quoted passage, about jury duty. I remember so vividly how it worked that day – how those people were “special” for just a little while, until they weren’t special anymore. How we were all being judged, judged by a set of people qualified to judge us, and we had no way of appealing. If we were no longer considered special in a good way, we had to accept the judgment. It was a fascinating experience. In the next extract, I think I enjoyed the abrupt contrast between the chickens being “special” pets until they were not only not special anymore, but beheaded. Yes, there is menace in that, particularly if you see this – which I did not intend – as an analogy to a political situation in which – and this has often happened – an advisor to a dictator, for example, is in a powerful and special relationship to the dictator until, abruptly, he too is beheaded. And in the last extract, I’m sure the name “Jane” and the word “cane,” both of which were in the real situation, made me think of the very first books I so loved as a first- or second-grader in school. People think the Dick and Jane books were boring for kids, but no, they weren’t – what was exciting was learning to read. ◉

Unnamed 2

↳ “Special”

↳ We know we are very special. Yet we keep trying to find out in what way: not this way, not that way, then what way?


↳ “Special Chair”

↳ He and I are both teachers in the university system and we will be teachers until we are too old to teach, and we would certainly like to be given a special chair at our universities, but what we have gotten so far is the wrong kind of special chair, a special chair belonging to a friend, a chair that swivels and has splayed feet and is special to her for reasons we can’t remember.


↳ “Jury Duty”

↳ So these ones, who stayed on the jury, they were the Chosen. And the ones who were excused, after all that questioning, when they were excused, when they had to walk back to their seats in front of everybody, they became the Unchosen, they lost all that special prestige, they were ordinary again, they were not special anymore. Or rather, the ones who were rejected for obvious or technical reasons were simply ordinary. But the ones who were rejected for mysterious reasons, for reasons that probably said something not so good about their lives and who they were, they were not just ordinary anymore, now, they had somehow been declared unfit. The others were still sitting up there.


↳ “French Lesson I: Le Meurtre”

↳ We can now introduce the definite articles le, la, and les, which we know already from certain phrases we see in our own country, such as le car, le sandwich, le café, les girls. Besides la vache, there are other animaux on la ferme, whose buildings are weather-beaten, pocked with rusty nails, and leaning at odd angles, but which has a new tractor. Les chiens cringe in the presence of their master, le fermier, and bark at les chats as les chats slink mewing to the back door, and les poulets cluck and scratch and are special pets of le fermier’s children until they are beheaded by le fermier and plucked by la femme of le fermier with her red-knuckled hands and then cooked and eaten by the entire famille.


↳ “Jane and the Cane”

↳ Mother could not find her cane. She had a cane, but she could not find her special cane. Her special cane had a handle that was the head of a dog. Then she remembered: Jane had her cane. Jane had come to visit. Jane had needed a cane to get back home. That was two years ago. Mother called Jane. She told Jane she needed her cane. Jane came with a cane. When Jane came, Mother was tired. She was in bed. She did not look at the cane. Jane went back home. Mother got out of bed. She looked at the cane. She saw that it was not the same cane. It was a plain cane. She called Jane and told her: it was not the same cane. But Jane was tired. She was too tired to talk. She was going to bed. The next morning she came with the cane. Mother got out of bed. She looked at the cane. It was the right cane. It had the head of a dog on it, brown and white. Jane went home with the other cane, the plain cane. After Jane was gone, Mother complained, she complained on the phone: Why did Jane not bring back the cane? Why did Jane bring the wrong cane? Mother was tired. Oh, Mother was so tired of Jane and the cane.