The art of the fragment in Lydia Davis
Precursors in Turgenev and Fénéon
The next bookclub is on 26th November, 19.00 UK time. We are reading Darwin. Selected Letters and The Origin of Species. For letters, any edition will do, and it’s less essential than Origin.
On November 9th, I am running my final salon in the ‘How to Read a Poem’ series.
Lydia Davis, Ivan Turgenev, Félix Fénéon
While I waited for my copy of Lydia Davis’ new collection, I read two of her precursors: Félix Fénéon and Ivan Turgenev. When we talk about Davis and influences, Beckett, Kafka, and Bernhard take centre stage, but Davis is part of a longer, richer tradition of writing than that. To my mind, she is most strongly part of the lineage of fragment writing. She says in Essays II,
what I finally see that I mean when I think of the fragment, old or new, is a text that…suggest[s] that something is missing, but that has the effect of a complete experience.
It’s also notable that Davis is a reader of mystery stories. One way of thinking about her writing is that she creates fragmentary fiction with scenarios that often lend themselves to mystery or thriller settings. Her brevity is designed to leave you with a sense of mystery to explore.
there can be freedom and expansiveness in thrift, because in saying so little, one allows the reader the freedom to enlarge upon what one has said.
Often, Davis’ stories take a strange twist at the end, or simply in what they choose to focus on. The sense of mystery may not be plot based, it may be psychological or existential. Her focus on the small is a focus on the ways in which normal life is a patchwork of weird fragments. In this, she strongly resembles the nineteenth century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev and the French modernist journalist Félix Fénéon.