‘Break It Down’ by Lydia Davis

Some years ago, somebody broke my heart. Perhaps this has happened to you. Perhaps you can still bring to mind the wasted, hollow feeling and the paralysing urge both to run and to burrow. Heartbreak is hard because it is acutely paradoxical; your greatest joy is causing you inexpressible pain, and you cannot even bring yourself to wish the pain away. At such times we cleverly turn to art, which, like god, we invented to help us cope with paradox. ‘Break It Down’ is a break-up story. In my case, it is also a story I discovered and enjoyed together with the person who ended up breaking my heart. It is dear to both of us, which made it all the more comforting/excruciating to reread in those hollow and wasted days. Much could be inserted here about Davis’s technical genius, about the effect of shifting from third into first and then second person, or the many exquisite images, or the particular line that may be the only time a short story has ever single-handedly brought tears to my eyes. But there’s no time to go into that, because I have to tell you what happened next. What happened next was that some time went by, and I met my girlfriend, Madeleine. And in the weeks after we met, I discovered during one of our long conversations that ‘Break It Down’ was extremely dear to her, too. So the story became part of the stories we told each other as we gradually unlayered ourselves in that way you do when you get to know someone special. I guess what I’m saying is that if one can be hoisted on one’s own petard, the opposite must also be true.

First published in the Paris Review 88, Summer 1983, and available to subscribers to read there. Collected in Break It Down, FSG, 1986. You can also hear James Salter read the story on the Guardian podcast, here

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