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A world in a handful of words

Though Lydia Davis probably first came to the attention of English readers through her translations, she has been making a substantial reputation for herself in America with sharp, inventive and demanding short stories.

31 July 2010

12:00 AM

31 July 2010

12:00 AM

The Collected Stories Lydia Davis

Hamish Hamilton, pp.733, 20

Though Lydia Davis probably first came to the attention of English readers through her translations, she has been making a substantial reputation for herself in America with sharp, inventive and demanding short stories. Her field is awkwardness, social ‘leakage’, as sociologists say, and the often bad fit between acts and speech, language and meaning. There is a certain delectable inappropriateness in the fact that some readers (like me) will first have encountered her as one of the translators of Penguin’s 2002 Proust. She did an accurate job, but as a writer herself she could not be much further from that great but voluble and frequently casual writer (your punctuation, Marcel, your punctuation). She is precise, considered and laconic to an unprecedented degree; 30 of her short stories could go into one of Proust’s longer sentences.

Her reputation as a writer’s writer rests largely on those short stories where she reduces what must be told into a mere handful of words. (I am going to save time, and indicate by an asterisk when I am quoting the whole of a short story):

My body aches so — it must be this heavy bed pressing up against me. (* ‘Insomnia’)

Oh, poor Dad. I’m sorry I made fun of you. Now I’m spelling Nietszche wrong, too. (* ‘Nietszche’ )

He says, ‘When I first met you, I didn’t think you would turn out to be so . . . strange.’ (* ‘Almost Over: What’s the Word?’)

In some of them, she exploits the habit of the eager reader to embark upon the body of a story before turning back conscientiously to the title, where the solution to an ambiguity may be found:

At the back of the bus, inside the bathroom, this very small illegal passenger, on its way to Boston. (*‘The Fly’)

These ruthless miniatures are conscious of their relationship to other tiny genres of literature; to the epigram, or the haiku, for instance, in *‘The Busy Road’, set out in three lines:

I am so used to it by now
That when the traffic falls silent,
I think a storm is coming.

Their most recurrent resemblance, however, is to a single observation preserved in a writer’s notebook, waiting to be encased in a larger context. They often reminded me of the wonderful, pregnant observations that take place in the footnotes of that great sociologist and, surely, novelist manqué, Erving Goffman. Goffman records the fisherman coming home after a fortnight on a trawler and, on his first evening back, thoughtlessly asking his wife to ‘pass the fucking butter’. From the period before the mobile phone, Davis has this unassailable account of human wilfulness:

No one is calling me. I can’t check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. If I go out, someone may call while I’m out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in. (* ‘Lonely’)


There is a beautiful and funny story, too, about that very Goffmanesque subject, farting. A man and a dog are in a room with a woman when the dog, she thinks, farts. But how can she make it clear to the man that it is not her that has farted? And if, after all, it was the man who did the deed, how can she mention it at all?

The Goffmanesque sociologist, like the novelist, needs an acute awareness of nuance, as well as a way of rendering it in prose. Out of a precisely recorded shift in nuance, a whole implied narrative arises:

‘It’s extraordinary,’ says one woman. ‘It is extraordinary,’ says the other. (*‘They Take Turns Using A Word They Like’)

The shift between the drama-addict’s stress on ‘extraordinary’ and the sycophantic confidante’s stress on ‘is’ tells a story on quite a large scale.

Those unresolved dissonances expand into miniature stories that execute a swerve in genre, and just like the audience-foiling tactics we find in late Buñuel, require us to wonder why we sometimes extrapolate a particular mood or genre from a particular word:

I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly. Soon they will hide the neighbor and her screaming child. (* ‘Spring Spleen’)

* ‘Love’, one of Davis’s most accomplished and suggestive short narratives, makes you wonder why H.P. Lovecraft needed all those words:

A woman fell in love with a man who had been dead a number of years. It was not enough for her to brush his coats, wipe his inkwell, finger his ivory comb: she had to build her house over his grave and sit with him night after night in the damp cellar.

She often seems like a writer exclusively interested in speech and emotion, without needing to render the facts of the world, but when it suits her, as here, she can effortlessly summon a Gothic atmosphere with the antique and stagy properties of inkwell and ivory comb.

She has been matched in brevity by Augusto Monterroso’s ‘When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there’; and outdone only by Victor Hugo’s exchange with his publisher, inquiring about the sales of Les Misérables: ‘?’, Hugo telegraphed. ‘!’, the publisher replied.

The very short stories are not the whole of Davis’s work, but, unusually, when we come to her more extended pieces, we may find that we need the ten-worders to compare and elucidate her themes. ‘Story’, which begins this volume, is a narrative of expectation and presumption between two lovers who have argued, which she elsewhere chooses to do in a single paragraph.

The longer stories often require their length to execute a piece of formal inventiveness. A relatively celebrated story, ‘We Miss You’, is a 25-page analysis of some ancient correspondence that few people would have even saved, let alone looked at with such care. A child is hospitalised: his class, as a required composition exercise, all wrote letters to commiserate with him and to wish him the best. The full panoply of formalistic literary criticism is brought to bear on these ephemeral statements, with uneasy, hilarious effect:

Joseph O. also opens with what seems to be generous empathy: ‘I know how you feel.’ But he then continues with an apparent non- sequitur: ‘I am going to get a new coat with a hood.’

In another long story, ‘Mrs D. and her Maids’, a life, or a segment of it, is mapped out through the documentation of a woman’s relations with her domestic servants. In both of these, an apparent basis in autobiography is assailed by the experimental and systematic form. We have got so used to the idea that a writer can only tell the story of their lives in a single mode, that of the rambling realist memoir.

There are limitations here. Davis’s method is almost always to start from the particular consciousness, and enlist other facts only as that observing, embarrassable consciousness plays over them. A third-person narrative will often have the appearance of a concealed first-person account, and Davis’s frequent recourse to what looks like autobiography may limit the application of the narrative further. (A character in one of her stories is a woman who has translated Proust.)

As I said, though she frequently denies herself the indulgence of the physical trappings on which realist fiction depends, when she relaxes this austere principle, the result can be one of her most enchanting stories, as in ‘My Neighbors in a Foreign Place’. There is, too, the accusation that the systematic analysis of casual social exchange can give a decidedly cold effect, as in ‘We Miss You’; something to which the chilly gleam of the author’s photograph, I admit, can only contribute.

But to someone interested in the possibilities of fiction, Davis’s shortest statements have the air of enchantment, and frequently of wizardry. The very shortest story in the book is *‘Index Entry’, which reads simply:

Christian, I’m not a.

What does it mean? Well, I think she is linking the characteristic broken sentence of an index entry to the ancient Christian idea that no man knows the hour of his death. The speaker may have been broken off; and just as an index to a biography summarises the most significant facts of a life, so this one may state the one most important consideration, with gruesome comedy, at the moment of vital interruption. A four-word fantasy about someone who took the wrong side in Pascal’s Wager: that takes some beating.

The individual volumes in this collection did not make much of a stir in this country, even the enchantingly titled Samuel Johnson is Indignant. This extended and constantly entertaining demonstration of Lydia Davis’s range and acuteness ought to create a large, intelligent audience.


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