Pushcart XLI: Lydia Davis, “After Reading Peter Bichsel” from Paris Review #215

Yevgenia Nayberg: “Alarm Clock”

Yevgenia Nayberg: “Alarm Clock”

Last spring and summer, I was reading the stories of the Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. I began reading them in Vienna. The little book—a hardcover, but small and lightweight—was a gift from a German friend at the start of my trip, to provide me with something to read in German…. I continued reading Bichsel’s stories on the train from Vienna to Salzburg, and then in Salzburg, and then on the train to Zürich, and then in Zürich, Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne, and on each train I took to go from one city to the next.
In fact, Peter Bichsel regularly writes about reading and about train journeys. He will also sometimes begin a story, or remark in the middle of a story, “There are stories that are hardly worth telling,” or “There is almost nothing to say about X,” and then sometimes follow that with a “but”: “But I have wanted to tell this story for a long time now,” or “But it has to be told, because it was the first story in my life, the first one that I remember.” He then goes on to tell a lovely, quiet, modest story, a story that glows with human kindness, or love, or some combination of compassion, understanding, and honesty. (Or am I, these days, finding this quality so marked in his stories because I am seeking it?)

I have no idea who Peter Bichsel is, or what kinds of stories he writes, other than what we’re told in the text. It’s possible if I were more familiar with this writer, I’d have a more sophisticated understanding of the story. What I notice – beside the inclusion of at least two of the dismissal/but constructions – is a kind of mirror structure: not just the opening and closing frames of train travel for the main story, but within the story itself, there is a repetition that could be viewed as signalling a return track. Or maybe it’s the odd nature of the writing itself that has me looking for tricks where none are intended, that this is a simple telling of a tale: I was reading this writer, and I decided to write out these events in his style. An homage, that is, to Peter Bichsel.

Lydia Davis sure knows how to write restaurant scenes. About four years ago I read her very short story/essay “Eating Fish Alone” (as part of a food-related mini-collection from Madras Press) and wondered why a piece about choosing a meal was so engrossing. Now I have to wonder if that was a practice sketch for this story (if it is a story). I suspect this is related to an Ishiguro story that I later found out was a practice sketch of “dream grammar” for his novel The Unconsoled; Davis’ story here too, seems to me something along the lines of a dream, not for the illogical sequence of events or sudden shifts in time, but for the extreme close-up on details that seem rather trivial.

The story within the frame consists of the author’s observations of fellow diners at lunch the first day of her Salzburg sightseeing, then of another lunch on the second day after a pilgrimage to Mozart’s birthplace. I can’t see any reason in the text for the Mozart connection specifically, but it still seems significant. Maybe it’s that in a story as packed with seemingly random details as this one, I assume everything is significant at some level I just can’t perceive.

It was the woman at the table to my right who came to interest me the most during that lunch hour, although at first, in my preoccupation with settling into my seat, putting my bag down beside me, bringing out something to read, and looking around to take in the sights and sounds of the room, I did not pay particular attention to her. It was only as I became used to my surroundings, having examined the features of the room, the customers in my part of it – the larger part – and those beyond the partition, having absorbed the particular characteristic sights and sounds of this place and taken note of any more unusual features were occupants, that my attention was more and more drawn to my neighbor.

Our narrator is quite interested in the woman at the table to her right, first because she is eating so quickly, while seemingly in no hurry to finish lunch and leave, and second because of an alarm clock on the table. This is the kind of detail that reminded me of a dream sequence. As the story notes, the alarm clock seems to serve no purpose, but reinforces the notion of time associated with this character. Maybe this is what made me think of a mirror story: a reversal of time.

While in general the story is all about observation, there are some incidents of note. The time woman asks if anyone has a pen she may borrow:

When she did not find a pen, she looked up and around at the people near her, including those in my direction, and asked us all generally if anyone could lend her a pen. I hesitated, waiting for someone else to offer. I had been writing in my own notebook, though I had put it and my pen away. I did not want to lend her a pen, even though I had more than one.

I have to wonder: why did the narrator not want to lend her a pen? I think it has to do with story function, with maintaining a distance; if she interacted directly, subject and object would merge, and the preference is to maintain the pre-modern distinction. Of course, that’s reaching, but I’m generally interested in subject/object interaction, so that’s where I go when I have the opportunity. Whether or not that’s where Davis was doing, I have no idea.

Another character of interest sits at the narrator’s table (apparently this is a semi-communal lunch spot, similar I imagine to the old Durgin Park in Boston before it decided to be an upscale restaurant), and while she is examined in detail the narrator’s interest in her is clearly less than in the time woman. I have to wonder if that’s because there is interaction between subject and object, and thus the narrator loses interest in her as a character.

For a time, I felt that we five, in that corner of the restaurant – the silent but contented married couple, who had now finished their palatschinken and returned to their former activities, he reading this newspaper, she gazing at the room; my new table partner with her pale wrinkled face, her little bun of white hair, her somber curiosity; my large-framed energetic neighbor to the right with her firmly planted feet, her wheeling elbows, and her alarm clock; and I – were an odd group, and in our variety reminded me, more than anything, of a group of the more harmless patients on a mental ward at mealtime, each with his or her own difficulty in the face of the food.

That’s a strange observation, but it seems spot-on. I wonder if the narrator is referring to actual experience of having observed patients on a mental ward, or is surmising reality from descriptions in books.

The final event of interest – in a sea of acute observation and speculation – comes at lunch the next day in another restaurant when the time woman again is a fellow diner. The narrator spends a great deal of time trying to figure out how that event, unlikely to occur by chance, has happened; she considers asking the staff about the woman, but isn’t willing to breach protocol simply to satisfy her curiosity. This reminded me of the kind of writing I hear about, a projective technique where the writer considers that the character has a mind of her own and the author’s job is to follow and shape the story to accommodate her.

It’s an odd story, written in slightly odd style, but one I found to be unexpectedly engrossing, as I did Davis’ earlier fish story. Maybe that’s why I’m working so hard – overworking? – to find a more conventional significance and meaning. Maybe I don’t need to find a symbolic structurization (the world as a mental ward; compassion and honesty as something observed but not done); maybe it’s enough that it be an interesting little piece that held my attention for twenty minutes. Maybe it’s more of an appealing wallpaper image or catchy tune than the Key to Human Existence.

And, by the way, my favorite part of the story has little to do with the story at all, but with the blog post written by Jake Weber as part of his continuing WIHPTS series. He makes a wonderful observation about the closing section of the story, something that fits in with my narrator-distance idea. But for the first time since he started the approach, he decides, “No I would not have published this story.”

At first, I took umbrage at that verdict, but I can’t really disagree with his reasons. They’re the sort of thing every beginning writer knows about literary magazines: “Not very promising to be warned early on that there isn’t really much of interest in the story….It’s adjective heavy… so much of this right at the outset of the story, after first being waylaid by a lengthy framing of the story….” Yes, and yes. These are things they warn you about. I don’t disagree with the observation, merely that those are disqualifying factors.

And then there’s the slow pace, anathema to contemporary editors who insist you grab them from the first sentence and never let them go (a quality that nevertheless seems quite lacking to me in most stories, which I’ve always chalked up to my own odd sense of what is interesting). But Jake admits:

I actually somewhat liked the non-hurried pace of it. So many literary magazine stories are frenetic, because we writers are told how critical it is to keep the story moving. This has a feel to it like a story from a century ago, when writers were still self-assured of their own raison d’etre they weren’t always in a rush, didn’t always have to have explosions.

I loved this comment, because it pointed out 1) a need for variety; if every story “grab the reader”, the slower pace stands out, feels like a relief; and 2) the explosions. I once wrote a story – it was written around a single line (“We say, but we don’t always mean”) that was highly personal to me at the time, a story about two boys become two men, with the crucial reunion scene in a coffee shop, a scene I choreographed down to with what words one leaned forward or back, featuring a trash bin with a flap that waved goodbye. In workshop I was told, “Have them meet in a forest, where there’s a fire, and the helicopters come in to save them, and he’s shouting over the noise; Or maybe explosions, a bomb goes off in the coffee shop”. The story did eventually find a home, but this is why I gave up fiction writing. Well, that, and I could never really construct a plot that interested anyone but myself; writing as therapy is great, but doesn’t create art. As opposed to blogging, where I can put a huge digression here in the middle and not worry about it because no more than two people will ever read this. The blessings of obscurity.

In any case, Jake makes a fantastic case for a story he enjoyed but wouldn’t have published, and I have to wonder if that’s what’s why I’m more drawn to Pushcart, which lets the lines be blurred between fiction and memoir, between prose and poetry, which includes pieces I don’t understand and don’t always like, but also pieces that show what is possible beyond the traditional edicts like “Grab the reader from the first sentence and put in helicopters and explosions”.

I do have to agree with Jake’s final assessment: “I’m pretty sure an unknown author would have had a very hard time publishing this story.” Oh, yeah. But what’s the point of being Lydia Davis if you have to climb your way out of the slush pile? Is it fair that others may do this and be dismissed because they aren’t Lydia Davis? No – but that doesn’t mean Davis should be more restricted, but that these rigid requirements have become the antithesis of art and that too many litmags are more about entertainment, about meeting expectations, than shaping them, about following the status quo than challenging it.

/end rant.

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3 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Lydia Davis, “After Reading Peter Bichsel” from Paris Review #215

  1. I like your thoughts on the reluctance to give the pen being tied to her not wanting to fall into the story herself. And now that you bring up Ishiguro, I can sort of see this as part of one of those dream-like sequences in a Japanese anime. I did enjoy it, which makes me all the more circumspect now about my own performance as an editor and of the selection done by literary journals in general. Thanks for the shout-out yet again. I’m not sure I’ve really decoded this story yet, but this analysis helps.

  2. Karen, re: “I can put a huge digression here in the middle and not worry about it because no more than two people will ever read this…:: I just want you to know that I am SURE more than two people read your blog; I find it fascinating though I rarely comment (I am not so comfortable writing off the top of my head to to world which is what the Internet is); and I am really really glad you write it. Your industry, enthusiasm, and insight knock my socks off. Thank you.

    • Hi Susan – see, you & Jake, that’s two! 😉
      This ties in with what you said about writing “to the world”; feeling under scrutiny would inhibit me terribly, so obscurity is much better in terms of feeling free to write pretty much whatever I like. Once I start worrying about how I’m perceived, I come to a grinding halt.

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