‘I find a small caterpillar in my bed in the morning.’ With this simple, yet strange, sentence, Lydia Davis opens her story ‘The Caterpillar’, featured in her 2007 collection Varieties of Disturbance. There is something artfully artless about this line: the repetition of the eponymous caterpillar just five words in; the slight awkwardness of the doubled preposition, ‘in my bed in the morning’, when ‘in the morning’ could so easily work as an opening phrase to avoid that; the very presence of a caterpillar in bed, which gestures equally to the banal and the mysterious. The story that follows is a simple one: the narrator loses the caterpillar somewhere on the stairs while bringing it out to the garden. Searching with a torch doesn’t reveal anything, and eventually the narrator stops looking and continues with their work. Other writers use bombast and drama to amplify or inflate reality until we can see the outline of the meaningful, the miraculous, there; Davis takes a different tack: her prose hushes, disorients and deflates the ego until we are ready to notice that reality is already speaking.
When interviewing Davis shortly after the book was published, Michael Silverblatt singles out this story as an example of Davis’s attempt to ‘parse daily experiences’. He says, ‘It records those slight blinks of sensation that would not be there, almost, if one were only considering the harsher or more striking moments in a life.’
Throughout the story, one of the ‘blinks’ we are made to notice is the degree, the exact degree, to which the narrator forgets. Soon after the caterpillar is lost, we read: ‘I go about my business. I think I’ve forgotten him, but I haven’t.’ Later in the story, ‘I go back to my work. Then I begin to forget the caterpillar. I forget him for as long as one hour, until I happen to go to the stairs again.’ And almost at the end of the story, ‘The next time I think of him, I see that I have forgotten him for several hours […] Soon, I’m sure, I will forget him entirely.’
There is a curious splitting here of the ‘I’. ‘I think I’ve forgotten him.’ This phrase could only be logically uttered by an ‘I’ somewhere in the future, looking back at the ‘I’ that has not forgotten. The ‘I’ in the present moment is not aware that they have not forgotten the caterpillar. In fact, this lack of awareness of ‘not forgetting’ actually seems very similar to forgetfulness itself.
Davis, of course, has not written the sentence unknowingly. As well as being a storyteller (her preferred term over ‘fiction writer’), Davis is the celebrated translator of, among others, Proust’s Swann’s Way, and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. ‘I’m always thinking about grammar,’ she has said. In a similar splitting of the ‘I’, while researching this article I realised that I’d first encountered Lydia Davis before I knew who she was. While writing my PhD on the novels of J. M. Coetzee back in 2004, I referred many times to the essays of French theorist Maurice Blanchot, in particular to the lovely, weighty Station Hill Blanchot Reader, which I now remember is co-translated by Lydia Davis. It is something, like a caterpillar on the stairs, I thought I had forgotten, but I hadn’t.
“Other writers use bombast and drama to amplify or inflate reality until we can see the outline of the meaningful, the miraculous, there; Davis takes a different tack: her prose hushes, disorients and deflates the ego until we are ready to notice that reality is already speaking.”
The passages I returned to repeatedly in Blanchot’s work describe the dread experienced at the moment of writing. In his essay ‘From Dread to Language’, translated scrupulously by Lydia Davis, we find:
If I read, language makes me adhere to a common meaning which, because it is not directly connected to what I am, interposes itself between my dread and me. But if I write, I am the one who is making the common meaning adhere to language […] The writer finds himself in this more and more comical condition – of having nothing to write, of having no means of writing it, and of being forced by an extreme necessity to keep writing it.
I find this description of the difference between reading and writing satisfying in its precision. ‘Reading interposes itself between my dread and me.’ Some writers, I find, perform this act of interposition better than others. Lydia Davis’s writing does it better than almost anyone else’s. She is famous for the brevity of her stories, which have been called, variously, microfictions, ‘flash fictions’ or, my favourite, ‘capsule narratives’. Though her one or two-sentence stories are delightful, like fast-melting sweets you hold in your mouth, it’s her more sustained stories that perform the strenuous work of making language adhere to a common meaning.
One of these is ‘What You Learn About the Baby’, a nine-and-a-half page story I read while thinking about three different friends who all had babies around the same time. For two of my friends, it is their first child. The story is organized into almost forty pieces, each with a subheading, like ‘Idle’, ‘What Exhausts You’, ‘What Resembles His Cry’, and ‘You Will Not Know What Is Wrong’. Each describes, with unflinching accuracy, the experience of looking after a newborn baby.
Listening for his cry, you mistake, for his cry, the wind, seagulls, and police sirens.
I read this tiny story and laughed in a gasp, remembering what I thought I had forgotten. The hundreds of times as a new mother when I had left my baby sleeping in another room, and had heard his cry, in a mosquito, a cat on the TV, the squeak of a chair. Again, I find the warm assurance of being reminded of something I thought I’d forgotten: Davis’s interposition between my dread and me. But, also, we see evidence here of what has been described as a ‘vaguely alien’ quality to Davis’s sentences, as though they are themselves translations.
Listening for his cry, you mistake, for his cry…
The repetitiveness of this phrasing is similar to a line in ‘The Caterpillar’: ‘He is not an inchworm though he is the size of an inchworm.’
In both cases, the sentences would have made perfect sense without the echo. They could have been, for instance: ‘You mistake, for his cry, the wind, seagulls, and police sirens’ and ‘He is about the size of an inchworm’. What is the difference between these varieties? What is lost? What is gained?
One might think that what is lost is pure affectation: style, rhythm, cadence. I teach Hemingway’s story ‘Cat in the Rain’ to students of short fiction in our ‘Style’ week, precisely for passages like this:
It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain.
In Hemingway’s case, it’s easy to make the comparison between the ‘long line in the rain’ and the long written line, the soft, incessant breaking of the waves and the softly self-replicating phrase. You could look at Davis’s sentences in the same way. The interrupting commas of ‘Listening for his cry, you mistake, for his cry’ mimic the interruption of a baby’s cries into your thoughts – real cries, or phantom ones. Instead of the more natural-sounding ‘He is not an inchworm, though he’s the same size as one,’ Davis gives us, ‘He is not an inchworm though he is the size of an inchworm.’ Her sentence, like the caterpillar, ‘does not hump up in the middle but travels steadily along on his many pairs of legs’. Instead of the vague pronoun ‘one’ groping back for its antecedent, which props the sentence up like a tent-pole in the middle, ‘an inchworm’ travels along until it meets, sequentially, its second footfall, ‘an inchworm’.
Poetry is lost, then, if we remove the repetitions. Style. Attention to the accord between rhythm and content. Davis has been called, dismissively, ‘a writer’s writer’s writer’, which gives the impression that her work exists somewhere on the ethereal edges of what can be enjoyed by the average person. It’s true that Davis’s prose is often very close to poetry in its meticulous attention to the verbal. But to dismiss this kind of writing as gratuitously abstruse, available only to other writers, is to ignore the true gift that Davis gives us in her work: the gift of noticing, or ‘vigilance’, as one of her Booker-prize judges called it. What is lost in my more conventional variations on Davis’s sentences is a sense of being in the present moment of a text coming into existence, a sense that the mind is apprehending these moments as they are happening. The dismissive ‘writer’s writer’s writer’ carries the implication that paying attention to language positions these stories as being outside life, beyond life, holding nothing concrete, and therefore marks them as whimsical and solipsistic. And yet ‘you are listening for his cry’. You are there in the present moment, and you, because you are a new parent and this is your state of being now, ‘are always listening’. At first, you think it is an inchworm, since it is the same size, but it does not move as an inchworm moves. Yet inchworm is the only word at your disposal to describe this caterpillar – in its non-inch-worm-ness. Our tools of making language adhere to a common meaning are often crude and poor. Davis notices, and she makes capsules out of these moments.
“Poetry is lost, then, if we remove the repetitions. Style. Attention to the accord between rhythm and content.”
Two of my favourite pieces in Varieties of Disturbance are both close, exhaustive analyses of matters rarely exposed to notice or examination. They are also the two longest pieces in the book. One of the analyses is titled ‘We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders’. And it is exactly that: an analysis of the textual content and handwriting of get-well letters written by ten-year-olds to their ill classmate Stephen, with subheadings like ‘Overall Coherence’, ‘Compound-Complex Sentences’ and ‘Formulaic Expressions of Sympathy’. Often the analysis leads to conclusions about the children’s psychological constitution, as in ‘The content, along with the brevity of the letter and Sally’s small handwriting, would seem to indicate either an innate pessimism or a low self-esteem, despite the quite exceptional exuberance and panache of her capital H.’ Davis conducts her analysis with vigour, forensic precision and complete seriousness. Through the analysis, we receive a comprehensive picture of not only the children and their writing, but the education system at the time, the topography of the town, the social and economic position of the children’s families, and the importance of an awareness of space and time in texts. Davis remains relatively invisible as a narrator (this is the humour, of course), except for a couple of moments of quiet admiration:
Two of the children achieve moments of stylistic eloquence. One, Susan A. creates a vivid concrete image which is enhanced by her use of alliteration and a forceful rhythm: ‘some trees were bent and broken.’ The other, Sally, opens with a powerful specific image – ‘your seat is empty’ – and then reinforces it with parallel structure: ‘Your stocking is not finished.’
The other analysis is ‘Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality’, which ‘presents the lives of two elderly women still thriving in their eighties and nineties’ with the express purpose of discovering the secret to their all-around health and longevity. As with the analysis of the get-well letters, Davis’s warmth towards her subjects is evident within the crisp clarity, almost dryness, of the prose:
Both Helen and Vi give generously to their friends and family, materially and in time and attention […] Visitors have brought [Helen] so many gift boxes of cookies, candies, and fruit, that she has a large store of them in her bedside cabinet. ‘Would you like these ginger cookies?’ she will ask. ‘Take this banana,’ she will say.
Let’s return to ‘The Caterpillar’ and its final line: ‘He is simply too small, really, for me to go on thinking about him.’ Like most of Davis’s sentences, it contains the trace of its opposite. Our narrator has of course gone on thinking about him, enough to write a story. Reading Davis, we find that all those things we thought were ‘simply too small’ – a get-well letter to a classmate, mistaking a seagull’s cry for a baby’s cry, a very old woman in a retirement home – all have life, depth, and substance to them: enough to be noticed, enough to be remembered, enough to be written down. I set about writing this meditation with lots of stories in mind, but I ended up with three or four tiny sentences, and I couldn’t get past them. Davis’s strange, translated-feeling syntax gives pause to the hungry reader, who is accustomed to eating a sentence up and moving directly on. For just a second or a beat – the time it takes to hiccup on a repeated noun – we remember the things we’d never really forgotten.
Blanchot, M. ‘From Dread to Language’, L Davis (trans), in The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays, G Quasha (ed) Barrytown: Station Hill, 1999.
Davis, L. Varieties of Disturbance, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Flood, A. ‘Man Booker International prize goes to (very) short-story writer Lydia Davis’, The Guardian, May 23, 2013.
Goodyear, D. ‘Long Story Short: Lydia Davis’s radical fiction’, The New Yorker, March 17, 2014.
Hemingway, E. ‘Cat in the Rain’, In Our Time, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002
Miller, M. H. ‘Lydia Davis: Storytelling, a Strange Impulse’, 032c, Issue 23, Winter 2012/2013.
KCRW. ‘Lydia Davis: Varieties Of Disturbance’. Bookworm. N.p., 2007. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.