April Reading 2020 Part 1: Lydia Davis and Natalia Ginzburg – two essayists

IMG_0264That pile of books looks more impressive than it should. I didn’t read all of the books there cover to cover. The two MacNeice books arrived only at the end of the month, and so far I’ve only read them scavenger-wise, mining them for the parts about the writing of ‘Autumn Journal’, MacNeice’s book-length poem that I’ve been using as a model for a poem I’m writing on our current Covid-times, called ‘Spring Journal’, that you can read here. I also wrote about Ana María Matute’s excellent novel, The Island, here.

The essays (Lydia Davis and Natalia Ginzburg) I’ve been dipping in and out of, as you should with essays. Reading the Davis is perhaps the odder experience. She is so marked by her style, so wedded to it, you might say, and that style across all her writing is so essaystic anyway, or bellelettristic – and on occasion faux-essayistic, faux-bellelettristic – that the essays themselves seem to almost dissolve in their own solution.

Her stories often read like boiled-down or reduced essays, like you reduce a sauce – but reduced to the level of density and taste that Heston Blumenthal would approve of – but they also often seem to be poking fun at the idea of essays, of the gap between their confidence of delivery and the meaning of what is delivered.

None of the essays in the book are as outright enjoyable as the best of her stories, and the very placidity of her voice – placidly arch, you might say – means I kind of drifted through them. Some of them I must have read three or four times now, without them becoming fixed in my mind, good though they are.

(The essay about fragments, for example: how perfect, how useful, how now, how me: I love fragments! And she is interesting and useful about fragments, and she carefully considers various people who write in fragments, or forms that are akin to fragments, but at the end of it I’m no wiser than I was at the beginning.)

Perhaps she is trying hard not to be showy in her writing, which is good, in a way, but in another way it is not good. Certainly she is never aphoristic. She is only aphoristic in her stories, where she is lampooning aphoristic writing, with its idea that you can boil down wisdom into apercus:

‘Examples of Remember’

Remember that thou art but dust.
I shall try to bear it in mind.

Natalia Ginzburg is, on the face of it, a very different kind of essayist. (For those that don’t know, she was a prolific Italian writer and political activist who lived through the second world war, though her husband was murdered by the government, and lived to the early 90s.) She is not primarily writing about literature, and so about things thought, but about life, and lived experience.

(Davis seems to give the sense in her writing that she has not experienced anything in her life that has not been thoroughly, even entirely mediated by words. If you walked up to her and tweaked her nose, she would be thinking about the word ‘tweak’ before the sense-impression of the physical act had even reached her brain.)

The Little Virtues (published by Daunt Books) is another book that I have picked up more than once, and read bits of, and probably reread some bits of multiple times. Perhaps it took reading it under lockdown to really make it stick. Ginzburg is a simple writer, rather in the way that Davis is a simple writer, but the difference is that I am reading Ginzburg in translation, whereas Davis always reads like I am reading her in translation.

(Davis puts things plainly, in the way that Wittgenstein put things plainly, rather as someone who is recovering from a stroke might put them. She sticks to the essential, even if what is left when you are left with the essential sounds gauche. She writes as if washed clean of culture. She polishes each word like the umpire in a game of snooker polishes the ball with his white gloves, before placing it, just so, in the sentence.)

Perhaps reading Davis taints other writers, who tend to read as if they have been translated by Davis (or rewritten by Davis, in the way that Pierre Menard, in Borges’s story, rewrote Don Quixote). Here are the opening lines of the second essay in The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg, as rewritten by Davis:

My shoes are worn out, and the friend I am living with at the moment also has worn out shoes.

Note particularly the way in which Davis engineers an elegant chiasmus (My shoes are worn out… she has worn out shoes) where in the original Ginzburg relies on a simple reversal of syntax (My shoes are worn out… she has worn out shoes).

This little skit (that you won’t get if you haven’t read Borges: sorry) is made more confusing by the fact that the translator of The Little Virtues is called Dick Davis, so what I typed facetiously can be read accurately. And there is more confusion still, because a little online research tells me that the in Ginzburg’s original Italian the syntax is not reversed.

Io ho le scarpe rotte e l’amica con la quale vivo in questo momento ha le scarpe rotte anche lei.

(I have worn out shoes and the friend with whom I am living in this moment has worn out shoes herself.)

Which I can read well enough to see that the Italian has a rhythm all of its own, but I don’t know enough Italian to judge whether the transposition made by David Davis is an appropriate version of that rhythm. Certainly, it reads well in Italian, and it reads well in English, but I can’t tell how much of the goodness of the English is Ginzburg, and how much Davis.

There are other essays in The Little Virtues that sound a bit like Lydia Davis, for instance ‘La Maison Volpé’, about the awfulness of English food. (“To me it seems that even some of the words they use to indicate food have an unpleasant sound and reveal hatred and distaste. ‘Snacks. Squash. Poultry.’ Don’t such words sound like insults?”)

However, the essay that struck home most clearly and cleanly was ‘The Son of Man’, about the experience of living through the Second World War and how different it was for Ginzburg’s generation (she was 33 when the war began) compared to the older generation. She talks about the all-pervasive fear of the knock on the door, and about how the war for Italians like her had started long before the war itself, with the growth of Fascism.

Someone who has seen a house collapse knows only too clearly what frail things little vases of flowers and pictures and white walls are. He knows only too well what a house is made of. A house is made of bricks and mortar and can collapse. A house is not particularly solid. It can collapse from one moment to the next. Behind the peaceful little vases of glowers, behind the teapots and carpets and waxed floors there is the other true face of the house – the hideous face of a house that has been reduce to rubble.

This, like Davis, is calm writing, but it is based on more than thinking; it is based on experience. It is also poetical, of the kind of poetry that can only arise from brutalisation and despair. I’m not sure if this essay is one that I tried reading before Covid-19, but I certainly did read it in the midst of the current pandemic, with its weird sense of a continuing normality (if you are not working on the frontline, and don’t know anyone closely who has contracted the virus) unfolding at the same time as horrendous death tolls. This made me slow down, in my reading, and not drift, as writing that is being read without being truly considered lets the reader drift, and still think they are reading.

The problem for me with this essay is that when I read about the generation gap – or “unbridgeable abyss” – that Ginzburg sees in post-war Italy (“We cannot lie in our books and we cannot lie in any of the things we do. And perhaps this is the one good thing that has come out of the war. Not to lie, and not to allow others to lie to us.”), I cannot help but see myself on the wrong side of it. It is the younger generation in this country that will be most harmed in the long term by the virus, not directly because of the virus, though they may be harmed psychologically, we shall see, because indirectly, because of the damage done to the economy over the last few years by austerity, and over the last decades by unregulated global free market capitalism. That is why Ginzburg’s essay hit home: because it felt like an accusation.

Part Two of this blog post moves onto Proust.

Thanks to Daunt Books for the review copy of The Little Virtues. The Lydia Davis essays is my own purchased copy.

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