Gently Dying, or the Intricacies of a Beautifully Written Death Scene

[an analysis by Sam Bilheimer]

I’ve read many of Lydia Davis’ pieces, and I’m madly in love with her style of writing. She’s the author that I found at just the right time in my life. Some of her stories—and I’m careful to call them “stories;” I believe she, like Robert Walser, prefers the phrase “short prose pieces”—are less than fifteen words. I read through her collection, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, almost once a week.

“The House Behind,” first published in Davis’ 1997 collection, Almost No Memory, doesn’t employ any sort of literary device in an outlandish way, as she might in some other pieces—extremities of length in “They Take Turns Using a Word They Like” or hilarious word play in “A Mown Lawn.” Yeah, this story has metaphor, depth of theme, and tightly worded prose, but you can find that stuff in pretty much all of her stories. I knew that I liked this piece, but I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized that I enjoyed “The House Behind” because it’s distinctly Lydia Davis, and it’s a well-crafted piece of prose. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say that my favorite moment of this piece is the murder scene, and I’d say that it’s because that scene is described and surrounded with such astounding detail.

You can tell that the amount of precision Davis put into every line could drive many writers crazy. When the unnamed girl on whose death this story is centered enters the scene, she does so “gliding over the cobblestones.” This sense of lightness and fluidity become the central theme of this pivotal moment; as do the cobblestones. M. Martin, the man who so effortlessly ends the girl’s life, does so “quickly and quietly,” as if to keep her gentle grace intact. There is not a lot of grisly language used here. In fact, “[h]is gesture was a classically beautiful one.” As for the cobblestones: the girl entered this scene with them, and she leaves it (and her life) similarly: “[S]he slumped down onto the cobblestones as quietly as a mist melting away from the surface of a pond.” Again, the theme of grace and silence is presented. There are many details an author could give when describing a death. Davis decided on the sound of the girl’s slump, though, because the girl’s death was caused by “the gentle sound of her voice.” Her life ended with sound, so her death must come in silence. The girl’s voice, the soft sound she made, catalyzed her brutal murder.

It’s Lydia Davis’ attention to detail and the way that she sculpts such beauty into a scene of pure violence that makes “The House Behind” so enjoyable. The rest of the “short prose piece” deals with the day-to-day activities of the tenants of the “house behind” and the “front house,” and it’s not filled with quite as much detail as the previously mentioned death scene. In fact, I believe that Davis wanted the every-day scenes to feel more mundane and surround the beautiful death in a sort of picture-frame like style so that the reader would feel a sense of reality. Life has moments of both beauty and brutality, and they can come at any time.

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