Recently finished reading Lydia Davis’ novel, The End of the Story. The novel is about a narrator attempting to recount an experience of love she shared with a man, years previously. As the narrator carries us through the story, we encounter the difficulties of an authentic retelling of an event of the past. We, along with the narrator, discover memories warped by time, or incidents misshapen, put into a new order, or forgotten.
From one angle, the novel is about how history, or events of the past, transfigure with time. The interpretive act, when focused on an event of the past, necessarily changes the event into something new.
From another angle, the novel is simply about Love. The retelling of a previous experience with love seems to be an attempt made by the narrator to learn about love, or how to love better, how she mistreated the love of another, and what she gained, and lost, from being loved, and loving.
What comes into question in relation to love, history, and retroactive interpretation, is the notion of self. The self of the narrator seems to be constantly changing as she is brought in relation to new events, or as the love-relationship transforms, and ultimately ends. In addition, it becomes difficult to tell a story about the self in the past, because the self doing the telling has changed since the time of the events being discussed. In the novel, there seem to be stages and spaces of the self as much as there are stages to the relationship, and spaces to occupy.
There is a good quote from early in the novel, as the narrator enters a bookshop in a sort of last-resort, frantic search for a sign of the man she loved. As she approaches the realization that she is giving up on ever recovering the love, she approaches the man working the desk to ask for a glass of water:
“As he looked at me, I floated away from what I thought I was, and became neutral, colorless, without feeling: there was an equal choice between what I thought I was, this tired woman asking him for water, and what he thought I was, and there might not be any such thing as the truth anymore, to bind us together, so that he and I, facing each other across the counter, were more separate than two strangers usually are, isolated as though in a bank of fog, the voices and footsteps near us silenced, a little well of clarity around us, before I, in my new character as vagrant, too tired and disoriented to speak, looked away without answering and went into the next room” (10 Davis).
An important event follows, becoming a signification for the giving-up of this particular love affair. The man at the desk of the bookshop brings the narrator a cup of bitter tea. This gesture then complicates what the narrator had previously thought about her interaction with the man at the desk, and it becomes an act of compassion from a stranger, even though the tea is bitter. It becomes a sort of parable or symbol of the experience of Love that the narrator has gone through in the story.
Interestingly, I was reading Nietzsche last night, and I came across an interesting quote from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, that illuminated this occurrence in Davis’ novel:
“But even your best love is merely an ecstatic parable and a painful ardor. It is a torch that should light up higher paths for you. Over and beyond yourselves you shall love one day. Thus learn first to love. And for that you had to drain the bitter cup of your love. Bitterness lies in the cup of even the best love: thus it arouses longing for the overman; thus is arouses your thirst, creator. Thirst for the creator, an arrow and longing for the overman” (71 Nietzsche).
Learning how to love is a universal that first demands a particular. We must move through the cycles of love, in order to love better, and higher. Lydia Davis’s novel is the recounting of a love, a reexamining of its joys and sorrows, of its ability to become great, and its ability to diminish the self. It is also the recreation of love, it is the transformation of an experience of love into a creation that reaches further, and higher. The human experience enters a new body in the art, and is capable of loving, and teaching, further, and higher, even if the creation is a reinterpretation of past events, that have changed form over time. The End of the Story exposes the fragility of structures of history, as well as the possibilities and effects of loving, capable of transforming the self, and refiguring perception and understanding.
Davis, Lydia. The End of the Story. New York: Picador, 2004. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York, NY: Penguin, 1978. Print.