A friend recently loaned me his copy of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, a novel I've meant to read for years. Even though I finished Lydia Davis's The End of the Story several days ago, and am eager to dig into the Bulgakov book, I've resolved not to crack its spine until I complete this review. When I begin to read another fictive work, the impressions it creates will inevitably impinge upon my understanding of Davis's novel. Bulgakov's stylistic tics, characters and themes might become inextricably tangled in my mind with Davis's, tainting my perception of her book and replacing lucidity with uncertainty.
As readers, we have the option to fully digest one book before we begin another. In our lives, we're afforded no such luxury: each day is a new book that muddles, colors or simply changes our recollections, and we do not get to pause and contemplate one before we plunge headlong into the next. The duplicitous nature of memory is at the heart of The End of the Story, the first novel from renowned poet, essayist and translator Lydia Davis.
The End of the Story is about a writer struggling to accurately reconstruct, in a novel, her memories of a failed love affair with a much younger man. She writes from a vantage point several years down the line, when she's married to another man named Vincent, who has very little impact on the story. It's this younger man that, like the dead father in Infinite Jest, makes no physical appearance within the temporal frame of the novel, yet whose absence becomes a massive shadow that infiltrates every corner of the text.
It's never prudent to assume one knows a writer's intentions, but The End of the Story has all the earmarks of a roman a clef: the nameless protagonist is an academic and professional translator about Davis's age, and like Davis, she is attempting to write her first novel. There are many other clues that Davis is writing about herself, and the narrator's self-description in this passage seems particularly salient in this regard, as well as to the novel's status as a thinly veiled memoir:
"I think I did not at first write down the actual words he spoke because I was afraid this would seem vain, even though the novel claims to be fiction and not a story about me... when I looked in the mirror or at a photograph, the face I saw, tense and motionless, or frozen in a strange position, only rarely seemed even pretty to me, and more often either plain or unpleasant, with features that floated or spun when I was tired, one cheek spotted with four dark moles in a pattern like a constellation, hair flat, of a dull brown, on a large squarish head, neck so thin as to seem scrawny, eyes startled or apprehensive, of a blue so pale as to be almost white staring out from behind the lenses of my glasses..."
One glance at the author photo will confirm that Davis is almost certainly describing herself. The brutality of this passage, which stems more from Davis's unfettered honesty than from cruelty, is emblematic of the novel. She is always harshest when dealing with her own motivations: "I did not want him to see another woman," she writes of her unnamed paramour, "though I could see another man. I could see another man because that did not hurt me, and I avoided what would hurt me and went after what would give me pleasure."
The End of the Story, while it documents a love affair, is not a sentimental book - Davis is not unkind, but she is bitingly observant, and unwilling to romanticize. Avoiding nostalgic revision, she meticulously details the precise reactions and shifting chains of causality that led to the undoing of the affair. The narrator's longing for control over all aspects of her life mirrors the spare, elegant and tightly controlled prose in which the tale unfolds.
Reading Davis in the long form takes a little getting used to - the unflashy and affectless prose that works so well in her short works has an intensity that can be unsettling, ranging over two hundred pages. She does not write in broad gestures or sweeping generalizations. The surface of her world is built from the accretion of many tiny, quotidian and highly specific visual details. It is hyper-real and immaculately ordinary.