The joy of this collection is its own shimmering uncertainty. Davis never takes her first idea as the best idea, it loops around its own precarious thinking. It constantly revises itself as it is being written. One memory is linked to Graz in Austria or perhaps Nottingham. It also has a genuine relish in the specificity of things. Despite all the wonderment at the whorls of memory, language and reading, it is sometimes simply a quick notice of an unusual colour in a painting, or a word that seems askew.
Most of all, her essays inspire confidence because she seems almost exclusively interested in the stuff of literature — in words and sentences. Unusually these days, she is a writer who loves etymology, pointing out that capricious has a goat hiding in it, that seeds give rise to sporadic and diaspora and (for once rather stuffily) that dilapidated can be used of a stony thing like a wall but not of a pair of trousers. Next to her, many acclaimed critics seem only concerned by the morals literature draws, or its relationship to huge and serious subjects such as religious belief. Davis is interested in the quality of writing.
Reading, too, can spark an electric joy “as live wires touch” and the reader’s mind “comes alive, all synapses firing”. To read Davis is to be jolted out of complacency. One comes away from Essays optimistic that such hyperfocus can be honed. At a party after an afternoon immersed in the book, I found every conversation cast in enchantment and I wished, like Davis, that I had a notebook in my pocket to jot it all down — although that’s probably like heading to Home Depot for cans of paint after seeing a Jackson Pollock exhibition.
These essays, written over several decades, illuminate Davis’s own processes while attending to the work of writers and artists she admires. She is in some ways the most honestly solipsistic of writers – her narrators are rarely set in the context of society or even company; their voices, conscious of written language, emerge with minimal framing. Here, for example is her story A Double Negative in its entirety:
At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.
The voice of these essays never forgets its own limitations, or the inherent comedy of passing critical judgment. Sometimes Davis reminds you of the tone of Geoff Dyer’s criticism, with acknowledgments that her mind is forever wandering from the task at hand.
Finding the right word is one thing, taking it for a walk another. Like most writers who are called “experimental,” Davis shrugs off the label — it suggests rules or protocols, when in fact she proceeds by intuition, accident and divination. She can seem, in her fiction and the way she talks about it, like a writer who is all minimalist control. There is a beautiful account here of how she wrote certain stories based on Flaubert’s letters to his lover, the writer Louise Colet. Davis agonized over how much detail to alter, whether to keep an occasional “etc.,” and how much breathable white space to dilate Flaubert’s dense paragraphs with. But there are exuberant economies in writing too, as Davis says of Henry James and Marcel Proust, whose books seem baggy only if you’re not concentrating. In an essay on Joseph Cornell, Davis delights in the measured extravagance of lists. Here’s just a fragment from one of hers: “a meridienne, banquette, pouf, ottoman, ear, stile, cross rail, stretcher, cross stretcher, crinoline stretcher, cornice, top rail, diamond point.”