In Lydia Davis’s Work, Writing and Translating Provocatively Commingle – The New York Times

December 13, 2021 by No Comments

There are any number of amazements in “Essays Two.” Some involve deep dives into a writer, others brief, bracing immersions. There are seven separate engagements with Proust, essays approaching the author’s work from different directions but all centered on Davis’s translating of “Swann’s Way.” We learn, for example, that Davis first read Proust 25 years before she began her translation, and at the time she didn’t, or wasn’t able to, finish reading even that volume, the first of Proust’s seven-volume novel. Rather, she read the final third only as she translated it — an idea that for many of us might seem counterintuitive: Mustn’t one have first read a book to translate it? Davis’s experience flips the idea: How can one read a book if one isn’t first translating it?

“What is hard to determine,” Davis writes, “is what sort of influence reading Proust for the first time had had on me as a young writer.” In “Hammers and Hoofbeats,” an essay that made my brain’s jaw drop as I read it, Proust’s influence on Davis materializes as she thinks through, or imagines, the sounds Proust would have heard as a child:

The sounds in the city (either in his parents’ apartment or in his uncle’s house in Auteuil), outdoors: birds warbling and chirping in the garden, voices in the garden calling and shouting, laughing, occasionally singing, sung music and instrumental music; his own piano lessons and practice, and his brother Robert’s; musical instruments being practiced in different apartments in the neighborhood; voices practicing scales and songs and arias (some of the same sounds that you hear now in a bourgeois neighborhood, and that you hear in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”); people calling their pets; dogs barking — I don’t know what the laws were then regulating pets or other animals roaming free in the streets, about 1885; cats meowing or caterwauling in the middle of the night; people whistling; footsteps on sidewalks; tradesmen calling their wares through the streets; horses’ hoofbeats, trotting and walking; carriage wheels rattling on cobblestone and grinding over dust and dirt over stone (i.e., the steady sound of wheels under the regular rhythm of the hoofbeats either pacing or trotting); in the carriage, the creaking of the wood and leather along with the hoofbeats and wheels.

This 187-word sentence is a list, grammatically a sentence fragment, one constituted of 14 dependent clauses that evoke the fragmentary nature of sensation, offering a sonic portrait of a provincial past. Not in 14 …….



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