Saturday, November 05, 2005

Motherhood and Work in Three Stories by Lydia Davis

Here is the beginning of the presentation I will be giving this week at MMLA. Comments, questions, feedback PLEASE! I figure if I post a bit every day, it will help me hone (and finish it!) before I go.

The less one feels a thing, the more likely one is to express it as it really is.
-- Flaubert

The three stories I will be discussing, “The Old Dictionary,” “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman” and “Mothers,” deal with the subject of motherhood in radically different ways. In “The Old Dictionary,” Davis contrasts the treatment of an old dictionary with that of a son. “Marie Curie” describes incidents in the life of the famous scientist, events that describe not only her work but also her status as a mother. The story “Mothers” treats the subject of mothers and motherhood from an objective, almost sarcastic point-of-view. In all three stories, Davis employs her signature distance, which imbues the subjects (whether “I,” “she” or “mothers”) with a sheen of otherness. This otherness allows the narrator to deal with the emotions and conflicts of motherhood without sentimentality. In fact, sentimentality seems impossible, for the separation of the speaker and the subject matter is so complete that, like Marie Curie, the speaker seems to be observing the characters through a mechanical apparatus. That apparatus is narrative itself. Focalization, that is Davis’s ability to distance the narrative “I” from the character “I” or “she,” allows the narrator to analyze rather than experience events. This narrative distance gives the stories a detached, almost hermetic feel. The effect of this distance is to render the events described in these stories both anonymous and universal, so that the mothers referred to in the stories are at once non-existent (no one) and universal (every woman). Davis’s fiction demonstrates that narrative can be structure of objectivity that returns the subject (both the content and the character) to the realm of emotion via distance.

1 comment:

Sleepy E said...

I don't know much about Lydia Davis, but I do seem to remember a long rambling story she wrote chronicling this fictional guy's adventures all of old Russia. Am I dreaming this? It was surprising because it seems like most of her stories are three pages or less. However, this particular story went on forever, but it had kind of a stiff formal style that was hilariously tedious and Boswellesque. It reminded me in a way of the film version of Orlando. That is, following the conventions of an outdated genre but using them in a self-conscious way to achieve her own ends. Then again, maybe she didn't write this story. Maybe no one wrote this.