If the name Lydia Davis doesn’t mean much to you, never fear: until recently it meant little to anyone, anywhere. The author of one novel (1995’s The End of the Story) and several collections of strange, brief and intriguing short fiction Davis has spent the majority of her career far from the mainstream, publishing her work in avant garde literary journals and on obscure websites. Her first book, 1976’s The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories, was little more than a pamphlet restricted to just five hundred copies. With numbers like that, you can sell out an entire print run and still be a jot on the landscape. If the sixty-three year-old writer, academic and translator was known for anything, it was primarily as the ex-wife of Paul Auster and as an esteemed translator of French literature: most famously, Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, a new version of Proust’s Swann’s Way and the forthcoming Madame Bovary for Penguin.
Nevertheless, what Davis’s readership lacked in size, it made up for in stature: her loyal cheerleaders include the cream of contemporary American fiction like Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Francine Prose and the late David Foster Wallace. Perhaps this explains why it now seems mandatory for critics to refer to Davis as a ‘writer’s writer’, shorthand that means she is more highly praised than widely read.
That is, until last year when The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis was published in America. Critics everywhere fell over themselves to extol Davis’s individualism, to praise the courage of her artistic vision and to boast about the duration of their admiration: writing in the New Yorker, James Wood made sure to record that he first encountered Davis as far back as the mid-1990s. These rave reviews have now spread over the Atlantic and across the world.
So why all the fuss? And why has it taken critics and readers so long to catch on? One answer can be boiled down to a single word: concision. If brevity truly is the soul of wit, then Davis is the wittiest author around. While doorstoppers like War and Peace and À la Recherche du Temps Perdu test both a reader’s stamina and the strength of their grip, Davis’s minimalistic fiction strains the eyesight. Blink and you really might miss a Lydia Davis. Here is ‘Insomnia’ from her 2007 volume, Varieties of Disturbance:
My body aches so –
It must be this heavy bed pressing up against me.
And that’s all she wrote. Or how about ‘Nietszche’, which sounds dangerously close to poetry, and comic poetry at that:
Oh, poor Dad. I’m sorry I made fun of you.
Now I’m spelling Nietszche wrong, too.
Both of these fizzles (to use Samuel Beckett’s term) seem positively epic when compared to ‘Index Entry’:
Christian, I’m not a.
Davis’s curtness poses a number of fundamental questions. How short can a short story get before it is too short to be a short story? Are these stories at all? Perhaps they are Christmas cracker jokes elevated to the status of art?
In fact, Davis’s brevity is central to her power as a writer, which achieves a delicate balance between revealing and concealing. Denuded of the familiar Chekovian contexts (character, plot, clarity of setting, time, tone, mood), Davis demands that the reader read betweens the lines – and around them too. The typographically-challenged ‘Nietszche’ makes one feel as if one is eavesdropping on a life-long conversation between father and daughter. Its cheerful couplet provides a counterpoint to this short study of ageing and forgetting, and the pathos of hard-won empathy: so much depends on that concluding ‘too’. ‘Insomnia’ whisks us into a present tense (perhaps with accents of Keats’s heart-ache?) of physical discomfort and mental turmoil: the narrator’s life feels literally turned upside down as the bed presses ‘up’. Why she cannot sleep remains unspoken.
These one- and two-liners are a relatively recent addition to Davis’s literary oeuvre. She has described them as a reaction to the working on Proust’s convoluted sentences. This was a matter of both aesthetics and convenience: with little time left for her own work, Davis found herself compacting her prose to Twitter-like proportions. Davis has come a long way from her literary origins in the late 1960s. Her first stories are relatively conventional, albeit after a fleeting fashion: an early work like ‘Ways’ has a recognisable setting (Buenos Aires), characters (a boy called Luis and his father) and even a conflict to be resolved. In another life, she might even have signed up to the ‘Dirty Realist’ movement that dominated American fiction in the late 1970s thanks to writers like Raymond Carver, Tobias Woolf and Ann Beattie. Davis’s precision, minimalism and attention to the smallest details of everyday life fit nicely with Bill Buford’s Dirty Realist manifesto which praised ‘the nuances, the little disturbances in language and gesture’.
For Carver, minimalism meant terse renderings of the language spoken by working-class American archetypes: the drifter, the downtrodden waitress, the outsider, the prostitute, the angry, incommunicative son. Davis, by contrast, is too playful, too sceptical about conventional realism, too middle-class and in the final analysis too un-American to play easily with Carver’s slice of fictional life. Instead, she took her cue largely from European experimentalists: she name-checks Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes, Beckett, Nabokov and Joyce, and latter-day writers like Russell Edson, Peter Altenberg and Robert Walser. One also detects the influence of Borges and Donald Barthelme, the playful American shortstory writer.
Davis’s ‘little disturbances in language and gesture’ take place not in the diner or dysfunctional home but on the page. Her ‘nuances’ are those of syntax, rhythm and punctuation. Take the one paragraph snippet, ‘What She Knew’:
People did not know what she knew, that she was not really a woman but a man, often a fat man, but more often, probably, an old man. The fact that she was an old man made it hard for her to be a young woman. It was hard for her to talk to a young man, for instance, though the young man was clearly interested in her. She had to ask herself, Why is this young man flirting with this old man?
If this has any sort of plot, it is the friction between two conceptions of identity. We are what we narrate, the speaker says, before a witty shift of perspective reminds her that identity is also narrated by the people around us. Davis keeps a pretty straight face even as the disjunction between private and public identities descends (or ascends) towards absurdist comedy. This is fiction inasmuch as we ourselves are fictions – characters imagined by ourselves and others. Davis is also alive to the limitations of those fictions: what we know, and don’t know, about ourselves and others.
In this survey of the minutiae of thought and experience, there is something of the essayist in Davis – perhaps Montaigne, Lamb and Hazlitt – or even, perhaps, the lyric poet – Keats, Whitman, Plath. Her subjects can be high and/or low, grand or small, personal or objective. Davis’s meditations include epic events like looking at a fish, knocking over a glass of water, watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. ‘Television’ describes the consolation, and eerie isolation, of watching Hawaii 5-0 in unspeaking silence with your family. At the same time, she is just as comfortable musing on Kafka and Dr. Johnson.
Davis is, then, a self-consciously literary writer. Her writing is also selfconsciously written. She exploits all manner of forms: the Q&A, the index, the sociology report, the journal, the dictionary, the French primer. ‘Southward Bound, Reads Worstword Ho’ channels the titular tale by Samuel Beckett through a series of footnotes (literally southward bound), which far outweigh the main text. In ‘A Mown Lawn’, the narrative is driven by language itself. Davis rolls the vowels and consonants of the titular phrase around a single paragraph with ever-increasing desperation: ‘moan lawn…a woman…long moan…raw war…more Nam…lawman… lawn order’. The effect is hysterical in all senses of the word. One detects a mind at once desperate to impose order on the world and also spiralling out of control. The concluding ‘lawn moron’ suggests a form of protest too: a ludic cri de coeur against the prevailing cultural and political philistinism of early twenty-first century America.
Like Donald Barthelme, Davis is very good at titles. ‘Passing Wind’ elevates the fart gag from farcical comedy of manners to a Beckett-like epistemological meditation. Two people and a dog sit in a room. One farts. But which one? No one is saying, not even the dog. Or are they? As the tension heightens (along with the stench and the uncertainty), the title shifts its weight from flatulence to suggest, first, the levity of Davis’s topic, and then the difficulty of discovering the truth.
Also like Bartheleme, Davis is very good at first and last lines. Here is the entirety of ‘Safe Love’:
She was in love with her son’s pediatrician. Alone out in the
country – could anyone blame her.
There was an element of grand passion in this love. It was
also a safe thing. The man was on the other side of a barrier.
Between him and her: the child on the examining table, the
office itself, the staff, his wife, her husband, his stethoscope,
his beard, her breasts, his glasses, her glasses, etc.
In only a few simple words, Davis conveys enormous amounts of information: marriage, motherhood, unhappiness, loneliness. Her prose is delicately imbued with a feeling of poised restraint – ‘There was an element of grand passion in this love’ – which perfectly echoes the protagonist’s poised attempts to restrain her feeling: about isolation, guilt, desire and illicit love, here reduced to the state of a ‘thing’. But feeling, no matter how restrained, will out – even if it is only in the imagination.
The final sentence listing all the barriers to romance is by turns resigned, comically pedantic (‘his stethoscope, his beard’ are literally between them) and slyly erotic. The barriers themselves increase the intensity of the day-dream. The rhythm of the prose makes the reader intensely aware of the character’s intense awareness. As the sentence jump-cuts between obstacles, the obstacles themselves become sexually charged.
The characters seem to move in for a kiss: ‘his beard, her breasts, his glasses, her glasses, etc.’ What should we make of that enigmatic and slightly flippant ‘etc.’? Is the woman wearily berating herself for falling into cliché? Is she describing the inevitability of inaction, or of action? Or is the prose averting its eyes from the continuation of the fantasy?
Davis’s often fastidious semantic precision has led some commentators to label her a cold fish: one critic even called her work ‘autistic’. While there is certainly a cool, detached surface to her prose, read between the lines – and especially the commas – and you excavate powerful emotion. Here is a later work, the lovely ‘Head, Heart’:
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even
the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.
These lines resound to ancient accents: the poetic dialogue, for example, as used by Andrew Marvell in A Dialogue between Soul and Body. While the intellect can draw on such antique wisdom, the heart is guided only by the immediacy of its feelings and hard-won experience. One could read it as Davis’s attempt to weight the understandings of classicism and romanticism (as Christopher Ricks once said of Larkin), between the consolations of the long perspective and exigencies of the moment. ‘Heart feels better, then’, but not for long. Davis resolves this gentle toing and froing with another delicately placed comma in the measured climax: ‘Help, head. Help heart.’ Here the tone modulates from plaintive to soothing. The ultimate answer to the divide, she seems to say, is a form of collaboration between mind and body, thought and feeling. Perhaps Davis is a metaphysical (prose-writer) after all.
It seems Lydia Davis’s time has finally come: no longer a ‘writer’s writer’, she is a ‘reader’s writer’ at last. Having wowed the world with The Collected Stories, she is due to publish her new translation of Madame Bovary in November. There are doubtless more stories to come: Davis has said she has spent some time turning spam emails into poetry. The Collected Stories is the best place to start reading her work in all its oddness, humour and variety. Davis’s writing nags at the imagination in pleasant and quirky ways. It may not change your life exactly, but you’ll never quite look at the world in quite the same way again. To prove the point, I’ll give Davis the final words.
‘Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room’
Your housekeeper has been Shelly.