Lydia Davis

Journal Excerpts
June 27 2002 – July 8 2003


Deeper or older survival characteristics in us: vision out of the corners of our eyes (peripheral vision); instinct to look at what moves (people entering hall or church); to run if something next to you runs (subway train accelerating while you are walking on the platform in the same direction); that it is easier to work if someone is working with you (A and I putting away dishes); that you feel safer or more secure on a slightly elevated place; that your feet want to go down a path; that you find it harder to walk in a setting of large-scale (not human scale) features, as when you are surrounded by tall buildings and vast flat areas (what harmful effect the architecture of the “projects” must have)

Different ways words are formed. (Often formed through metaphor–comparison.) Each different language reveals different ways of thinking. Death of language is also death of another culture’s individual ways of thinking.

Smaller bite, fewer crumbs. (possible proverb)

Not just that she is interested–she is prepared to be interested, or expects herself to be interested.

Land higher in altitude if not farther north–both would be cooler in temperature. A ritual sacrifice to bring rain, for instance, is a way to enter into a dialogue or to interact with “fate” or “the course of events”–whether or not there is a direct result–whereas doing nothing leaves one with less relationship to fate. Same with prayer. (Cf. Madagasy proverb, “If an offering does not prevent you from dying, at least it does you no harm,” and the Malagasy commonsensical remark, “There are times when the rain falls right after the sacrifice and other times when it does not come at all.” (Remark made by old and authoritative Malagasy diviner.)

“I’m blind–if you give me an eel, I eat it, if you give me a snake, I eat it.”

Impression one gains from lists of proverbs: images of domestic and animal life, a tone of dry irony, and a fragmentary quality.

As salt does not enter a nut in its shell, so good advice does not enter the head of a stubborn child.

Imagery in proverbs was: rice, beef, cattle, chickens, dogs, sheep, tubers, bananas–from stable, sedentary village life of last five centuries (analyzed in 1960s). Most numerous animals in proverbs and folk tales: birds, locusts, crocodiles, rats, eels, bears, wildcats.

Animals and plants more interesting to us because more unpredictable (they are alive). They interact with us (plant grows, doesn’t grow, deer gets away from our sights). Man-made things only seem to interact voluntarily (car won’t start, computer gives Error message).


horses pulling ploughs (England) with round leather boots on. (Mrs. Miniver)


bones as fuel to cook dinner

This living creature, mostly out of my sight but with a bit of white hair showing over a pile of books, has walked over to look out the window. (Sam, the dog)

Cato the Elder seems interesting. “Cato the Elder opposed the Hellenizing group…and wrote his works in as rude a Latin as possible.” (Columbia Encyclopedia)

“I think that was what saved me – to the extent that I am saved…”(L.T., on phone)

Began singing lessons (L’s elderly mother) six months ago – studies with a friend of D’s. Within a couple of weeks she noticed improvement in walking. Her internist very interested.

“Maybe she could just sing at home.” (L., about my mother)

When there are many interruptions, the information is absorbed more slowly…

By knowing the etymology of a word we know about the thinking that went on around its formation. Often a new word is born of an attempt to express an idea through a comparison (gregarious, capricious). Or born of a reference to a location (Septentrion) [more types of formations]

1) Fights over territory seem pervasive in history and in contemporary society and #2) rivalry for superiority and #3) greed, desire for profit at the expense of others and of ethical considerations. Difference is that now the ruin will be permanent.

Smile as relaxation or release. Smile and laughter–tears and sobbing–both forms of release–

How natural to fight over territory: feeding chipmunks on deck. One–peace. Arrival of second–conflict.

“You’re the only good person in the world. You and Saint Francis.” (said sarcastically)

K.P. definition of person with teacherly qualities: patient, involved in subject, trying different ways to explain, and–

Eloquent ending distracted by prosaic footnote.


(phone conversation with mother):
I (answering phone): Hello?
She: Hi, it’s mother.
I: Hi!
She: What?

“Youthful production of fervent ignorance.” (St. Jerome disclaiming an early piece of writing.)

Peter and Nancy in South America (title of children’s educational travel book)

The people of that 13th-century village seem very close to us (like us) when they speak, less close to us when we see them in their “funny” medieval clothes.

Hard for me not to think how often the church has been a terribly destructive force.

She’s [acting] very young–like a little girl–tossing a handful of coins that fall on her page and marking down how many heads and how many tails – but she has jowls. She is not a little girl but a small, small-boned, dark-haired, neurotic middle-aged woman.

Sometimes you want the connotations of the word “Boston” and sometimes you don’t. But when you want them, you want to use them in a way contrary to their customary use.

Criminals–we pass Exxon and McDonald’s, which have the franchise on the Mass Pike. We tolerate them, though they are wrong and bad. We do not even tolerate–because we do not even know. We live in ignorance.

Every unknown word or foreign word–a mystery that opens to reveal a surprise, usually–and the surprise is delightful just because it is a surprise–

What hawk is so white on breast and underside of tail?

Could add, later in book: it isn’t only hawks, by the way, that like a tree with some dead branches.

Let’s not forget that Julius Caesar was a good writer. A very good stylist, in fact.

A dialect is defined as a language that has not “succeeded” on a literary level and especially on a political level. Certain dialects have succeeded; examples: the dialect of the shepherds of Latium which became Latin; the Frankish dialect of Hughes Capet which became French. [from Toponymie occitane]

She kept her daughter wearing shoes till she was three or four because she didn’t want her feet to be big. (Then her daughter discovered the pleasure of going barefoot and wouldn’t wear shoes after that.)

An old man decides he can’t walk to church anymore, and buys a horse and buggy.

A woman wanted always to have a cow, a Jersey cow, for the milk and butter–

high cholesterol –you must exchange your Jersey cow for something with lower fat, like a Guernsey or Holstein.

Hawk with white and gray horizontal stripes under its wings – quite big.

There is bare dirt on the banks of a river, because the water level periodically rises and kills off what might grow there. There is bare dirt on a hillside where the soil has eroded. There is bare dirt beside a paved path on the Cambridge Common because people continually step off the asphalt path or are pushed off. In the dirt there you can see patterns of the soles of shoes and bicycle tires.

Of course this may be because he has very little money of his own: He doesn’t go shopping very often. He buys only what he really wants and likes. Then he really uses and enjoys what he buys.

Sometimes the gray of dawn has an evil look to it.

Dog: the click of his toenails and then the thump of his bones when he lies down on the floor.

“featuring thousands of previously owned socks” (misheard on radio)

absent-minded graciousness bordering on dementia

getting a urine sample from a dog (different ways of)

young and smelly

The feet looked so calm and obedient.

“The male gender shall also mean the female gender, singular shall mean plural.” (from legal document about house sale)

Is that a very small piece of burst tire in the road or a giant cricket?

“youthful production of fervent ignorance” (St. Jerome disclaiming an early writing)

Acknowledgment: Matthew S. for the word “then” and where he places it in his (spoken) sentence.

Something about the way a path is worn into the landscape following its natural curves–and if it wears down so much that it cuts through a rise in the ground it does so because people walk on it or rain falls on it and makes little streams that erode.

Listening to passages of music as closely as you do when studying an instrument may increase your capacity to hear nuances in language too.

The truth is, I have some of the qualifications of a good teacher, but I need to improve in certain areas. (Even saying that fills me with fear.)

When the light begins to come, it will not stop. (Dawn.)

There is the faint light of a streetlamp or a neighbor’s porch, that stays the same. But then a cooler, larger (wider) light. This one will grow and grow.

By dying (killing himself), he stopped being a separate, private person–gave himself up–Opened himself up. Gave up–and gave himself up– (suicide across the street)

They had a little girl who wasn’t quite right
What was wrong with her
I don’t know… she was born that way (H.C. tells us)

Flannery O’Connor, E. Dickinson, Wm. Bronk – writers who “stayed home.” And writers who were absent from the scene–Lorine Niedecker–her modesty–Laura Riding

Before Leaving: Make sure certain things are full, and certain things empty. (Full–cat and dog food containers, filtered water pitchers. Empty – compost bucket, trash barrel, dehumidifier.) Certain things on, and certain things off. (Porch light on, stove off.) Certain things open, and certain things closed. (Basement door open, porch windows closed.) (All this before leaving the house.)


I’ve been so petrified by teaching that all thought of political activity has been driven from my mind. The personal drives out the political.

Primo Levi (Other People’s Trades): “the buyer of ‘combed hairs,’ to whom the maid periodically sold her hair which was long and grizzled…” (One of several street merchants)

Levi thinks that “our very concept of beauty, necessarily relative and cultural, has over the centuries patterned itself on [butterflies], as on the stars, the mountains, and the sea.”

On Saturday the Methodist Church would be holding its annual apple festival. The church ladies’ cars were parked all along the street in front of the church. Behind the church, where the vent came up through the roof from the church kitchen, the air was filled with the smell of baking apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, butter, and burnt sugar.
cinnamon, nutmeg, butter, baking apples and burnt sugar
cinnamon, nutmeg, butter, hot apples and burnt sugar.
nutmeg, cinnamon, butter, hot apples and burnt sugar.

Do not like to read the words “risky” or “risk” applied to unusual forms of writing. It implies failure, as though there were one thing in which the work could succeed or fail – usually or always meaning public or critical acceptance or praise. (Reading review of Gaddis by Sven Berkerts.)

Ans. to recurring question: constraints of translation make me more inclined to be free of constraints in writing? Or: to make my own peculiar constraints.

“She contradicts everything I say!” (Nurse on phone to me from mother’s hospital room.)

The way I can stand it: I say two things to myself: “I am not there right now”; and “it is all right if I’m less than good.” (or “I can be less than good.” “I am not there now”; and “I can be less than good.”) (teaching)


Lobster. In the seafood restaurant north of Hunter – seeing the lobster lifted from the tank. It waved its claws gently, trying to get its bearings. It was taken off to the kitchen. After a while it was brought back, a different color on a bed of lettuce on a platter…

I have hardly any hair to pull but she pulled it.

(Mother tells me:) Robert and a group would have coffee every morning (“elevenses”) with W. H. Auden when he taught at Smith (he rented Newton Arvin’s place).

Maybe it was the retsina.

He asks us to write a letter about the bathroom.
He asks us to complain to the taxi commissioner.

A man takes off his shoes and socks to be comfortable on the bus. But now the other people on the bus are less comfortable.

A man takes off his shoes on the bus to be comfortable. He is not comfortable enough, so he takes off his socks. Now the other people on the bus are less comfortable.

   His bare feet, airing beside by the aisle, are pink.

The people on this bus are mostly comfortable. But the strange large young man on this bus is not comfortable. He takes off his shoes, then his socks. Now he is more comfortable, airing his large pink feet near the aisle. But now the other on this bus are less comfortable.

“You know her doctor told her she had Alzheimer’s. She forgets everything now. I think the doctor gave it to her! (Mother)

“I didn’t know they were running a mountain bus today.” (baggage man at station)

“I walk to an unimportant spot” (student paper)


“Someone set a dish of stuffed mussels in front of him.” (P. Fox)

It’s not that the mice are more active on Sunday afternoon, but that it is winter now, and the windows are shut, the traffic is quieter, the refrigerator has stopped humming, the furnace is still.

If you get more than you give away, or create more mess than you clean up (start more than you finish).
(Instead, clean up more than you mess up, give away more than you get, etc.)

Problems of Luggage and Traveling Bag of food gets lighter as you eat from it. Book does not get lighter as you read from it.

(In Ian McEwan book) a corridor is evidently quite a bit narrower than a hallway.

“The table was set into a bay, and light from its window silhouetted the couple. The man was settling himself, sedately lifting the creases of his loose gray flannel trousers before sitting in close to the woman. They were on a bench seat built into three side of the bay.” (McEwan, The Child in Time, 64)



“I usually trade here” or “I often trade here.” (Older woman talking about shopping at Filene’s. Right after W. C. Fields movie in which he talked about “losing our trade” meaning “customers.”)

The landscape of her leg – the bruise, the pores, the hairs – suddenly reminded her of a landscape in France, one she had not seen but only read about.

The time of day when a grain of salt throws a long shadow.

It was probably bad food-combining…

The Committee will deeply appreciate your counsel…

All the daily business of life takes so long: opening a new bottle of vitamins – the knife, the plastic, the paper, the cotton wadding, getting it off and out, throwing it away–

Never happier than when… [fill in the blank]

nervous canoe

forgetting to be gentle.
I’m forgetting that I intended to be gentle.


Winter Encounter at the cash machine   She is entering the enclosure as I’m leaving. She smiles at me, so I think I have smiled at her. She has a pleasant look on her face, so I think I have one on mine, until I remember what I must really look like, my scarf over my mouth, my large steamy glasses, my strange wool hat, etc.

Long Shadows   Time of day when smallest pebbles and bits of road tar, etc., cast long shadows, as if sun is showing each one particular attention–

“If I thought I could get something done by having a heart attack, I would have a heart attack.” (V. , about the condition of her house after the pipes burst)

For a while she was unusually subdued, then humor came into her voice, esp. a chuckle when she said the water in her house came up nearly over the tops of the firemen’s boots.

An old lady showed a certain amount of interest in the bowel movements of another old lady–

Nice “equilibrated” sentences in Boswell’s dedication in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.

Acknowledgment: Ann L. for “place of”.


The birds (three black ones landing in the top of a tall tree) do not pick their landing spots – the branches pick them.

They do not cause my anger; it is in me already and reaches out for them.

E.W. says James Laughlin kept sheep which grazed on his vast lawn (that info alone about enough to cheer me up)

Mother in Paris in 1926 – saw Josephine Baker and Mistinguett in the Folies Bergère. The franc was worth 4 cents, a room with breakfast was $.52.

Writers with facial hair.

fever dream
(“architect’s fever dream” – G. Household)

“In a library deeps…” (Bradbury)

spell (of warm weather)

She says relatives would come visit for a week or two at a time (mother about childhood)


that English poet, Brian–

in one pan of the scales
   (in the other pan of the scales) (McEwan)

It isn’t the words that hurt, it’s the intention to hurt that hurts.

Principle: it is always a good idea to maintain one’s friendship with a person who has a beach house.

Is there another life?
There is!

He has no patience with neurotic behavior.
He has no patients with neurotic behavior.

I was born in Egypt.
I am a U.S. citizen.
I went to Oxford University. (Bill T., but also good as grammar sentence examples)

Mother’s news: Sri Lanka has come to a possible settlement with the Tamils, which is good…

wild or snow asparagus–


To maintain your prose, your language at a level where it is not really “noticeable” per se, but is pleasing enough (or not pleasing) so that it enhances the effect you are trying to achieve. (Of course, if part of the intended effect is to have noticeable prose, then you make it noticeable.) A spectrum, at either end of which language itself becomes noticeable (good-noticeable or bad-noticeable).

After All These Years  Sudden interest in Cato the Elder.

I will from now on have a special affection for him because he did not leave my talk halfway through, or even just after the beginning, as he did leave so many other talks, according to my host, but stayed to the very end and after, asking several questions, or rather, asking even more questions than anyone else. (about E.H.)


poignant (buried metaphor) dull the poignancy of


large animal–strong and big (for a weasel)

“the three-day process [test of sprinkler systems] will be silent and invisible.” (college maintenance email)

The coral, a simple animal…

(Mother tells me:) Her friend Kitty once backed over her maid’s toe, in Vermont…


words (as written, with letters) are pictures too–we recognize them as visual objects.

Stairs–one can climb to the same height but depending on how the steps are arranged it is harder or easier. (1. The steps up the Provincetown Monument; 2. the steps up from the entrance to my mother’s apartment building; 3. the long flights up old industrial buildings in lower Manhattan, where the steps go straight up sometimes three stories, stretching ahead of you like Jacob’s ladder to heaven.)

What a nice summer’s day–for fall! But it is summer. (Looking out bus window.)

People are important.

I know something interesting just flew by behind me.

On the first day here, I am already sorry to be leaving so soon and already glad to be going home.

The beeswax in my cup of tea hardens as the tea cools–
The tea in my cup cools and the beeswax in it hardens.

In our dream band, on piano:

Lydia Davis’s Essays One was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2019. Her second collection of non-fiction, Essays Two¸ on translation, learning foreign languages, Proust, and the city of Arles, is forthcoming from FSG in the Fall of 2021, as is a book of her translations from the Dutch of the very-short-story writer A.L. Snijders, Night Train, to be published by New Directions. Her most recent collection of short fiction was Can’t and Won’t (FSG, 2014). She is presently compiling another book of stories. 

Interior Piano, Anonymous, 1907-1935, Netherlands

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