Tue 20 Jan 2015
by Gloria Garfunkel
Lydia Davis is an exemplary and intellectual flash fiction writer. So why did she choose to translate Proust of all people, whose seven volume novel In Search of Lost Time, seems the opposite of flash fiction? Because I think a lot can be learned from his work to apply to flash fiction.
First of all, like me and a book of linked flashes I am writing, Proust struggled to decide if his book was memoir or novel. He felt he had tinkered enough with reality to call it a novel but he went back and forth because so much was based on memory, though distorted and deliberately recombined to express the essence of his meaning. That has been a major issue for me for some of my flash fiction that I submit to journals as fiction and they decide is nonfiction. Just because it sounds autobiographical doesn’t mean it is literarily so, and I think the writer should get to decide. Memoir is a sort of compromise, a little of this and a little of that, but not purely nonfiction or even creative nonfiction. I think it is in a class all itself but closer to fiction, which gives the writer more free reign to change reality. I like to call my work fiction simply to protect the identities of people I write about. But memoir can do that as well, since everyone knows memory distorts reality. Still, I think memoir is closer to fiction than to nonfiction.
Swann’s Way, the first volume, is Lydia Davis’ translation. Being set in childhood but told with the insight of an adult’s voice and perspective, the long meandering but structured sentences of sensual detail work well. If a story is told about childhood in the present, short sentences are the only option. Flash, like Proust, can easily flow back and forth, like poetry.
Proust did not pretend in any way to write chronologically. His fragments of memory were constantly shuffled around like pieces of a puzzle, like little shards of flash fiction looking for a home. He kept doing this in his revisions up to the last minute before publication. Like Proust, flash fiction plays with time, consciousness, and the levels of reality we experience. The only difference is that flash needs to be worked around a sense of tension to ground the story. Proust didn’t have to do that. He could take his time.
Proust tried to pack all the information of one particular thought in his long systemic meticulously crafted sentences. Flash fiction does that with one story. Lydia Davis, like Marcel Proust, is concerned with liminal states of consciousness, between waking and sleeping and that hypnogogic state of transition, as well as between versions of memory and reality. That is why Lydia Davis was such a perfect choice for this first volume of Proust’s memoir/novel.
Gloria Garfunkel has a Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Relations from Harvard University and was a psychotherapist for thirty years. She has since started writing flash fiction and memoir and published over fifty stories. She is working on two collections.