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.

Advertisements

Lydia Davis, Harry Mathews: Stuffed Animals (Madras Press, 2013)

Cover art by Heather Alexander

Cover art by Heather Alexander

If she comes, I will smile and smile…. I won’t even be happy, because after the preparation of the meal I won’t have the strength. And if, with my sorry excuse for a first course resting in a bowl in my hands, I hesitate to leave the kitchen and enter the dining room, and if she, at the same time, feeling my embarrassment, hesitates to leave the living room and enter the dining room from the other side, then for that long interval the beautiful room will be empty.

~~ Lydia Davis, “Kafka Cooks Dinner”

Madras Press knows how to make me happy, in so many ways.

In this part of their 2013 collection we find two books in one (if teeny-tiny books), upside-down-back-to-back a la Steve Almond’s This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey; matte cover (go ahead, rub it against your cheek, you know you want to), five stories by Lydia Davis (who won the Man Booker prize a few months later) and one by sole American Oulipo member Harry Mathews… all about cooking and food. This perfectly coincided with my Science of Gastronomy course – though I suppose I should’ve waited for Top Chef season. But once I read it, I just couldn’t wait.

The stories are reprints from over the years, and most are available online, but it’s still nice to have them in a single thematic package. They’re all slightly absurdist, the kind of thing you smile at because people’s neuroses are, when you get right down to it, pretty funny. At least other people’s are; our own neuroses aren’t neuroses at all, of course, but the concerns of a careful, engaged mind. Or so I keep telling myself.

First, Lydia Davis:

The Mice

Mice live in our walls but do not trouble our kitchen.… Although we are pleased, we are also upset, because the mice behave as though there were something wrong with our kitchen.
…In fact, there is so much loose food in the kitchen I can only think the mice themselves are defeated by it.… They are faced with something so out of proportion to their experience that they cannot deal with it.

It concerns me that I understand the shame of feeling one’s kitchen isn’t good enough for mice. And I definitely understand the feeling of being overwhelmed by bounty. It’s only a paragraph long, but it’s quite a paragraph, to go from here to there.

Meat, My Husband

My husband’s favorite food, in childhood, was corned beef. I found this out yesterday when friends came over and we started talking about food.… But I’m the one who cooks most of his meals now. Often I make him meals with no meat in them at all because I don’t think meat is good for us.
But generally he doesn’t like what I cook as much as what he used to eat in diners and certainly not as much as what he used to make for himself before he met me.

I’m pretty sure this story is about more than food. The metaphor “home cooking” comes to mind. Does this mean I’m unusually perverted?

Happiest Moment is a flash so short, and so perfect, that I won’t attempt to extract a quote.

Kafka Cooks Dinner

I am filled with despair as the day approaches when my dear Milena will come. I have hardly begun to decide what to offer her….
The thought of this dinner has been with me constantly all week, weighing on me in the same way that in the deep sea there is no place that is not under the greatest pressure. Now and then I summon all my energy and work at the menu as if I would be forced to hammer a nail into a stone, as if I were both the one hammering and also the nail. But at other times, I sit here reading in the afternoon, a myrtle in my buttonhole, and there are such beautiful passages in the book that I think I have become beautiful myself.

I suspect most people will find the situation funny. The angst-ridden overthinkers will not. Trust me on this. Sometimes the world can seem to ride on the choice between potato salad and bratwurst, but in the end, we finally realize it doesn’t matter if we do everything perfectly: no one’s going to like us anyway because we’re nervous wrecks.

Eating Fish Alone

I love fish, but many fish should not be eaten anymore, and it has become difficult to know which fish I can eat. I carry with me in my wallet a little folding list put out by the National Audubon Society that advises which fish to avoid, which fish to eat with caution, and which fish to eat freely.
When I eat with other people I do not take this list out of my wallet, because it is not much fun to have dinner with someone who takes a list like this out of her wallet before she orders. I simply manage without it, though usually I can remember only that I should not eat farmed salmon, or wild salmon, except for wild Alaskan salmon, which is never on the menu.

Or, “Kafka Dines Out.” Eating is very confusing these days, isn’t it? Not only does everyone have very rigid ideas of what is or is not ok to eat whether for reasons of health or morals, but everyone feels a need to explain their beliefs in detail and a mission to convert everyone else to their cause. That isn’t what the story is about, of course – it’s the “Alone” part that makes it fascinating, how we relate to others, how we fear we might be relating to others – but it’s a great hook. This story originally appeared in Tin House #29, and they just posted it on their blog last May to celebrate Davis’ Man Booker prize. I bookmarked it to use for a future Top Chef recap, but destiny has forced my hand in another direction.

Then we turn the book over and upside down, and lo and behold, we have yet a whole other story:

Harry Mathews, Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double), available online in text and audio.

Carefully lower the lamb into a 25-inch casserole. (If you have no such casserole, buy one. If it will not fit in your oven, consider this merely one more symptom of the shoddiness of our age, which the popularity of dishes like farce double may someday remedy.)

Cover Art by Sippanont Samchai

Cover Art by Sippanont Samchai

This should give you some hint that the piece is not entirely serious. I’ve observed (via the wonders of the internet and various Jeffrey Steingarten and Anthony Bourdain books) a fair amount of complex cooking in my time, from Grant Achatz making raspberry glass to French farmers cooking a pig in the Provence countryside, but nothing comes close to this recipe. It includes what might be every ingredient in the known universe – from the extremely common like parsnips and garlic, to the unexpected but not unusual like juniper berries, to the imaginary, like a mouthless fish captured by underwater boomerang. Not to mention the clay that must be molded to contain the quenelles. And for those unfamiliar with the kitchen: I’m pretty sure cooking anything at 445 degrees (445?) for five hours will reduce it to cinders.

Stuffed within this elaborate recipe is the plot of a folk song sung by the people of La Tour Lambert while the lamb roasts. The song follows a young man who, initiated into sex by his stepmother, goes searching for his dead mother via the beds of beautiful women of all hair colors, until he comes upon a humble shepherdess with the answer he seeks. You can see where the “farce double” of the title comes from now, right?

In a 2007 interview with The Paris Review, Mathews talks about his invitation into Oulipo:

He asked me if I’d be interested in joining. After all, he said, I had unwittingly written some purely Oulipian pieces. One of them was excruciatingly hard to do: I took two texts, Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and a cauliflower recipe from a Julia Child cookbook. I made a list of the vocabularies in each piece and I rewrote the poem using the vocabulary of the recipe and vice versa. It was agony. But I discovered something very important, which is that once you start on a project like that, no matter how insane it is, you rapidly become convinced that there’s a solution, which is, of course, nonsense. You have to make it happen. When I first visited the Oulipo, I told them about this. And what I had thought had been a shameful, secret habit was, to them, perfectly fine.

I’m not sure if this is that story or not – no cauliflower, and no Keats vocabulary – but it might be along the same idea. The interview also makes some connections I’m not sure I want made. Then again, he’s the author, I suppose he should know.

All in all, a wonderful little packet of culinary reading.

Pushcart 2012: Lydia Davis, “Five” from Little Star #1, 2010

Photo by Jon's Magic Lens

Photo by Jon's Magic Lens

Into how small a space the word judgment can be compressed: it must fit inside the brain of a ladybug as she, before my eyes, makes a decision.

I’m a big fan of micro-fiction. I worship at the feet of Randall Brown, my flash idol; even when I don’t get exactly what he’s doing, I’m intrigued by how he does it.

And I very much like these micros by Lydia Davis. But I like some of Randall’s better than some of these, and I’m puzzled by how this collection of five micros is Pushcart-worthy whereas others are not. My guess is: if you’re only going to allow one set of micros or flashes in the Pushcart volume for a given year, it’s got to be a “name.”

Be that as it may, it’s a lovely little set. I’m wowed by JUDGMENT (quoted above), her HOUSEKEEPING OBSERVATION, the artist so enrapt by THE SKY ABOVE LOS ANGELES that she is lured away from her painting, and the comparison of the pleasures of the narrator reading with the dog licking its leg while SITTING WITH MY LITTLE FRIEND (even if the title does evoke Bob Dole’s 90’s era Pepsi commercial/Viagra spoof; that’s my warped mind, and I take full responsibility for it). I’m not so sure about HANDEL, but that’s me.

Overall, it’s a cavalcade of thought, art, music, the physical world, the compromise of marriage, and joy of reading, a portrait of a woman I might like to know, and, I’m grasping here, examination of the ability we all have to judge the world around us: the sky is more beautiful than my painting, pained tolerance of a husband’s Handel obsession is worth it (I had a husband who played Viennese operetta all day, I can sympathize), a reasonable view of a dirty floor, and the sensual nature of reading.

But my (micro)heart still belongs to Randall Brown.