As fast as I’ll read anything on Lydia Davis, her writing, her translating process, or that rare spell she has been able to cast on readers (myself included), the thing that may have interested me most about Dana Goodyear’s New Yorker profile of Davis from a few weeks ago wasn’t about the author “assuming a kind of yenta voice” or translating Swann’s Way into English. I was most intrigued by the part early on about Davis’ mother, Hope Hale Davis, who Goodyear tells us “wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker.“ It was exactly the sort of aside that gets me hooked. Knowing Davis, who is one of the most fascinating writers in America today, had parents who didn’t just dabble in the same field as their Man Booker International Prize-winning daughter, but also published fiction in the magazine that is, and long has been, one of the places every fiction writer dreams of placing their work made a lot of sense. Because the profile in question was in the very same magazine, it obviously would have been gauche to emphasize the importance of this little fact, but it’s the sort of thing that deserves a pause: Lydia Davis, one of literature’s finest practitioners, is the daughter of a New Yorker-published writer.
While you won’t see much similarity between mother and daughter, stylistically speaking, in the three stories that are available in the New Yorker’s archives to anybody with a magazine subscription, Hope Hale’s (she became Hope Hale Davis after marrying Lydia’s father, Robert Gorham Davis, her fourth marriage, in 1939) short stories still stand up nicely today, and are quick and easy reads. All three are cosmopolitan tales that seem in step with much of the fiction the magazine published in the Harold Ross era, taking place in New York City; “Wonderful Visit” and “Real Romance” both involve a mother coming to visit the city, and the opening paragraph of “Musings of a Connoisseur” read both like a prophecy, as well as the thoughts of any New Yorker from then or now, the narrator telling us that, “I seldom accept weekend invitations to homes where I am expected to trundle a baby carriage or attend to the disposal of garbage.” These are the types of modern kvetches you hear any good citizen of Brooklyn bringing up when trying to plan for their free time off, and who isn’t “diverted by the drolleries of certain comedians” these days? “Musings of a Connoisseur” is undoubtedly the funniest of the three stories, with Hale Davis writing from the point of view of a total snob who eventually concedes, “what I like is extremely important to me,” something you can’t fault them for.
Moving beyond her fiction, Hope Hale Davis lived the sort of fascinating life that you just don’t hear of anymore. She’s been called a “proto-feminist” by some, and, according the recent profile on her daughter, also threw killer parties with guests like Grace Paley, Lionel Trilling, and Erica Jong. She was also a person who knew tragedy, like the suicide of her third husband, the German economist Hermann Brunck, a fellow card-carrying communist, done in by the pressure put on him by the party who asked him to befriend Nazis and spy on his homeland in the 1930s.
Hope Hale Davis would go on to live until just a month shy of her 101st birthday. In 1969, The Dark Way to the Plaza, a collection of her stories was published, and her 1993 memoir, Great Day Coming: A Memoir of the 1930s, gave readers a unique perspective on America during the New Deal era. And although many might say her great contribution to literature was giving us Lydia, reading her words makes it clear that Hope Hale Davis had much more to offer.