Lydia Davis began her career as a translator as soon as she graduated from New York’s Barnard College. She became renowned for this early work, such as her translations of Maurice Blanchot’s essays. She is also celebrated for her more recent translations of the first volume of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Davis has published eight collections of short stories (most of which can be found in her Collected Stories) and one novel, The End of the Story. Davis has earned numerous achievements as a translator and writer; she possesses MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships as well as a Whiting Award; she is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and in 2013 she won the Man Booker International Prize. Davis cites Europeans such as Kafka, Joyce, Altenberg, Bernhard and Beckett as influences, and is often grouped with such writers as Lorrie Moore and Diane Williams, though part of Davis’s appeal is arguably attributable to the ways her writing transcends any of these comparisons.
‘The Letter’ from Davis’s early story collection Break it Down is exemplary of her focal themes: analytical thought processes, anxiety, translation, translation anxiety, and problematic exes who callously reassert themselves and their literary egos into the lives of female protagonist-writer-translators who are simply trying to get on with things. The eponymous letter of the story refers to a letter that a woman receives from an ex-lover. His handwriting is so familiar that it takes her a moment to realise it is his. Maybe he has sent her a cheque for all that money he still owes her! No such luck. The letter contains a poem written in French. And although the poem itself is not included within Davis’s story, a quick Google of the odd lines that are quoted reveals that it is ‘Le Bois amical’ by Paul Valéry.
The woman is shaken by the arrival of the letter since she has not entirely recovered from the end of the relationship. Throughout the story, the letter affects her entire day; she is late for a meeting after receiving the letter, she lies to her new boyfriend about the letter, and it occupies every other thought. She also has a strong physical reaction that she suppresses as she moves through the day, pinching herself, swearing aloud to herself, cleaning her house before she allows herself to examine the letter. She works like a detective, taking her cues from the practicalities of the letter first. The envelope; the date (written in a more cramped style than the poem – was it added later? Why?); the postmark (the letter originates from a different location to his home address – where was he when he felt compelled to write to her?); her name and address (he uses the incorrect zip code); his return address (why did he include one? Does he expect a reply?); his name, signed at the bottom.
At first glance, the letter is in fact not a letter because there is no accompanying note; it only includes a poem, and at that, a poem written in French, with an author who is not the sender himself. But she reasons that the epistolary markers such as a date, her name followed by a comma and his named signed at the end are not just perfunctory inclusions. He could have just sent the poem inside the envelope but instead chose to position it between their names, entangling them both in the context of the poem-letter. His cursive is imbued with meaning as he copies words that both are and aren’t his own. ‘The poem is the letter’, she realises.
She concentrates her writer-translator faculties on the poem itself, speeding through it to reach the ‘dying part’, which she hopes will hold the crux of its meaning. But the word ‘retrouvions’ and the notion of meeting again looms in her mind because it recalls the circumstances of their parting; when he broke up with her he suggested that they could be together again in ten years’ time. She breaks ‘retrouvions’ down into its various possible meanings. The woman is a professional translator, and it seems that she uses this familiar process as a calming mechanism. It seems unfair of the man to bring translation, her craft, into the sphere of their troubled relationship. When she first broke up with the man who would later send the letter, ‘she did a lot of hard work on the translation just to keep the pain away’. After she receives the letter, she works on translating a ‘difficult prose poem’, which seems to balance her nerves. Translation necessitates obsessive attention to detail to the point of perfectionism, and so the gaps between words provide a hiding place for the woman in ‘The Letter’.
And she does try to escape this story. We see her turn her head from her new lover when he asks about the ex, the bedside lamplight shining on her closed eyes; the pain of the breakup evidently still luminous and raw. As the story concludes, she drifts uneasily into a half-sleep, leaving the letter at her side, the lamp burning on.
But she wakes up:
‘She takes the paper out of the envelope and unfolds it and breathes deeply the wide white margin at the bottom of the page. Nothing. Then the poem, and she thinks she can smell something there, though she is probably smelling only the ink.’
The woman sniffing the ink on the page of ‘The Letter’ could be said to represent the futility of her analysis, but in fact we see a woman try to understand a complicated message on a critical level as a professional translator, as well as on a physical level as a person who has been hurt. The woman dissects the letter, using a combination of practical and academic skills to deduce its intentions. She takes the letter to her bed and engages with the physical aspects of the text using touch and smell.
As Davis’s protagonists grapple with analysis we witness our own private experiences with obsessive logic, language and meaning. The phrase that concludes the poem in ‘The Letter’ is reminiscent of this idea – ‘compagnon de silence’. In this case, the silent companion is the poem-as-letter, projecting its uncertain message at her. Secondly, it is her experience of the letter; the acts of analysis and translation. Analysis that provides companionship occurs in many of Davis’s stories; as Davis states in an interview, it’s the process of ‘the brain trying to teach the feelings how to behave’. It then seems fitting that this account of preoccupation and passion is one of Davis’s stories that she revisits within her novel, The End of the Story. You, me, the reader, are also silent companions. We are active readers, conducting our own analyses and translations, noting our own emotional responses – doing both.