A good indicator of just how interesting and alluring Lydia Davis’s Essays proved might be my recent credit card statement. It was hard to read very far without being introduced to an unfamiliar author, and the terms of the introduction were frequently so seductive that I found myself breaking off to order several secondhand books. The fee for writing this review had long been swallowed up when I realised that if I read everything that Davis made sound irresistible I would probably never reach the end of this splendid collection — and end up like Achilles chasing the tortoise in Zeno’s paradox.
A writer of literary essays who encourages her readers to discover new works, to re-read familiar classics and to shift unexamined prejudices that have left authors untouched has done her job. In Davis’s case, I returned to Madame Bovary; and I was pushed towards both the growing reputation of James Agee and the unfashionable novels of Edward Dahlberg.
There are writers here I’ve barely heard of, such as Felix Fénéon, who published before the first world war the remarkable Nouvelles en trois lignes — a miscellany of macabre episodes taken from the gutter press. For instance:
At five o’clock in the morning, M.P. Bouget was accosted by two men on Rue Fondary. One put out his right eye, the other his left. In Necker.
There are many even more extraordinary books to investigate, such as Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, an idiosyncratic and learned taxonomy of sentences by structure. And there are writers of small, local reputation, including Roger Lewinter, who wrote about the marché aux puces in Geneva and turns out to live round the corner from us there. Best of all was an introduction to the counter-cultural New York poet ‘Sparrow’, whose America: A Prophecy includes a set of ‘translations from the New Yorker’, rendering poetry published in that magazine in a less mandarin style.