SOURCE  (Paris Review, "Breaking It Down" by Lydia Davis)

I was listening to the radio to improve my listening skills ( because usually I listen and read transcript at the same time ) and they talked about the text below. In the sentence "And I would go on living like that. I would be able to go on living",

"Would" is in the past or the present (conditional)?

I don't really understand those sentences if she's talking about "go on living like that" and being able to "go on living" in the past when she was with her or right now in the present.

And once she lay over against me late in the night and she started talking, her breath in my ear, and she just went on and on, and talked faster and faster, and couldn't stop, and I loved it, I just felt that all that life in her was running into me too, I had so little life in me. Her life, her fire was coming into me in that hot breath in my ear, and I just wanted her to go on talking forever right there next to me, and I would go on living, like that, I would be able to go on living, but without her I don't know.

Then you forget some of it all, maybe most of it all, almost all of it, in the end, and you work hard at remembering everything now so you won't ever forget, but you can kill it too by thinking about it too much, though you can't help thinking about it nearly all the time.


3 Answers 3


Would is the preterite (past) form of the modal verb will. It can be interpreted as future in the past, just as could indicates ability in the past. See English modal verbs | past forms.

However, in the referenced sentence, it seems that it is used to express a wish that was not fulfilled. There seems to be an implicit "if" that is omitted from the sentence. It could have been written as a conditional using the past subjunctive mood:

(If she were) to go on talking forever right there next to me, I would go on living, like that, I would be able to go on living(...)

Would can be used to express wishes, as in "would that it were true". See Use of the past subjunctive.


If you read between the lines, you know that the passage talks about how the narrator felt rejuvenated and revitalized by listening to the woman/girl.

Now, let's understand the metaphor.

It is mentioned that a little life was left in the narrator (may not be in terms of 'years,' but the quality of life. Remember the idiom? Don't see how many years you have in your life, but how much life you have in your years.)

Now, when the lady/girl starts talking, and as she is leaning against the narrator having her mouth pretty close to the ears, the warm breath starts pouring life into the narrator's body. The author beautifully describes the 'warmth' (a sign of life opposite to 'cold' which is a sign of death) filling life into the speaker's body. At least for the narrator, the words spoken were 'lively' i.e. full of zeal and life.

Now, the strings in question:

As the life was pouring into the narrator's body, the speaker wishes that the girl/woman should go on speaking (which means go on pouring life) forever. Why? Because a little life was left in the narrator and the narrator wanted that new life to be continued.

'...and I would go on living...' refers back to forever speaking. And, if it happens, the narrator would be able to live further.

In one sentence, if the life-like talk keeps on pouring into the narrator's body, it is possible to live longer!


When the narrator says he would go on living like that, it simply means that the narrator can get through daily life by taking the "life" the woman breathes into his ear. He says his own life was empty, and that he drew sustenance from her talking to him in such an intimate manner. To go on living means to endure life while staying in a certain static situation. In this case, he is saying he found it wonderful that her hot breath and uncontrollable chatter made him feel alive, and he could have continued living his life without changing anything about the situation. At the end of the paragraph, he says that, without her, he is not sure if he could continue living.

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