Lydia Davis: ‘Learning to Sing’, Granta 151
This was the piece that set me back on the Lydia Davis trail—and then I forgot all about it in the silly rush and panic to get a reading package assembled. I had bought this issue of Granta in Scorpio books in Christchurch in February only because Davis was featured. And I enjoyed the piece, partly because I was about to embark on two terms of private singing lessons with Lesley Graham, but also because, having written (and read) mostly non-fiction in the last three years, I am finding the ‘contrivance’ of fiction wearying, and the direct voice of the essayist seems more pleasurable and stimulating. Perhaps it’s also that I identify with Lydia Davis’s account(s) of how she struggled to squeeze out well-shaped short stories early in her writing career.
I’ve enjoyed Solnit and Didion, and more recently Rachel Cusk, whose essays I have; and now I have just bought Cusk’s The Second House—I find something I want to underline on every page and want to have the time to read it properly.
I’ve also just picked up Jhumpa Lahiri’s little book, Whereabouts, and although it is fiction, it has the same unadorned, reflective essay voice: a woman walking through a city writes short observations, anecdotes, and reflections (Lahiri wrote it initially in Italian, and then translated it into English. She probably speaks at least three Indian languages as well!) This is a book that makes me want to write. I guess I am out of love with fiction’s dialogue, scenic descriptions, and showy prose.
Meanwhile, back to Lydia Davis. She writes the entire piece in second person: ‘You are in your neighbourhood singing group, you are singing with others for recreation, for pleasure, not in order to perform. You enjoy it, but you are not satisfied with the way you sing. You would like to learn, at least, better to control your legato, your dynamics, your phrasing, and, if you can how to produce a better quality in the voice itself.’
You think this should not be difficult, she writes, but then carefully, painstakingly she records all the steps involved over several terms. Learning to sing better requires overcoming many other problems you had never imagined you had: your breathing, your body, how you hold your neck. There are candle-blowing exercises, scales and arpeggios, relaxation lessons and techniques, Alexander Technique sessions, a visit to an ear, nose and throat specialist, and, at last, songs. The process goes on, until after some months or so there is the teacher’s recital concert.
In another writer’s hands, this could simply be an amusing piece, something light, written to entertain; but it is another typically careful, almost obsessive Davis examination of difficulties. In addition to having to sing it from memory, she faces another challenge: it has one rather high note that you must land on after a leap of a large interval. There is no way to make sure that you will land on it successfully without squawking. Later, when the high note comes you do land on it successfully, but not with a lovely sound.
[James] Thurber or [S.J.] Perelman writing this would have made it comical, but not Lydia Davis. And the prose is careful, unadorned, precise, and honest. And there is humanity in it: excruciating anxiety and conscientiousness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janet Holst lives in Wellington. She has just completed the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML, Victoria University of Wellington.