#20Books of Summer: No. 3 – Lydia Davis

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, published by Penguin Books.

Lydia Davis is a law unto herself. Her short stories are sometimes so short – no more than a title and a line – that you struggle to give them a name. They are often fleeting observations, like a flash on a camera, momentarily drowning everything in its brightness, leaving you slighly blinded. Not all of them work, but when they do, they make you wince, groan, laugh and shiver in recognition. Some of them linger long after you read them. Davis wrote mainly poetry at college, and this shows in her prose, that ability to choose the perfect word at the perfect time. The deliberate choice of punctuation and line breaks.

I can’t say I read this book from cover to cover. Instead, what I do is periodically dip into it and see which stories attract me. For instance, when I first bought the book in 2017 and was struggling with divorce and trying to find a job, I found the earlier, more explicitly gender battle stories spoke to me more. There is a certain unravelling chattiness in her earlier stories which looks like the effortless transcription of a particularly breathless kind of self-torment, but which is in fact beautifully controlled. The only other writer I’ve known who can do this beautifully, combining the funny with the tragic, is Dorothy Parker.

The fact that he does not tell me the truth all the time makes me not sure of this truth at certain times, and then I work to figure out for myself if what he is telling me is the truth or not, and sometimes I can figure out that it’s not the truth and sometimes I don’t know and never know, and sometimes just because he says it to me over and over again I am convinced it is the truth because I don’t believe he would repeat a lie so often.

Picking up the book three years later, in very different circumstances, I was more attracted to the stories, which seem to experiment more with form and language or give voice to other literary influences. The very funny bilingual story French Lesson I: Le Meurtre, which starts off as a description of a farm pastoral for learners of French, including grammar and pronunciation hints, and then gets progressively more sinister. The simple description of trying to read Foucault and take notes on public transport in Foucault and Pencil. The manic energy and endless self-doubts and second-guessing as Kafka Cooks Dinner for Milena. Lydia Davis excels at mimicry and dead-pan humour.

I also enjoyed the very brief, less artfully constructed, more fugitive pieces. Simple observations that make you say: ‘Yes, why has no one every expressed that before?!’ They are very slight, but both amusing and often thought-provoking. For example:

Like a tropical storm,

I, too, may one day become ‘better organised’.

Or the one entitled Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room, in which the ‘story’ is shorter than the title.

Your housekeeper has been Shelly.

Many of the later stories seem to be more observational and feel more like non-fiction, such as What You Learn About the Baby, which anyone who has looked after a baby for any period of time will understand. One of them almost feels like a sociological study. Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality compares the lives of two elderly women, both born and raised in the US, one of African-American parents and the other the daughter of Swedish immigrants. The humour becomes more biting, and perhaps this time round I was more disposed to see the social satire in her work, such as in the perfectly paced and impeccably voiced Mrs. D and Her Maids.

I’m not yet done with Lydia Davis, I will no doubt return to her stories again and again. Who knows what aspect of them I will focus on next time? It is proof of the variety and depth of her short fiction that you never come away empty-handed. It is certainly a wonderful source of inspiration for any writer of flash fiction – although she remains inimitable.

17 thoughts on “#20Books of Summer: No. 3 – Lydia Davis”

  1. I have a couple of her books, but you do need to dip in and out as you note. You don’t think to yourself ‘OMG, that was a cliff hanger of a 6 word story if ever I read one. Where’s the next?’ But strangely, that’s because it can be no longer than the letters of the alphabet once over and still need to be processed in some why that means you have to stop. Is that it? Something like that, anyway.

  2. I completely agree with you on the dipping aspect. It would be easy to overdose on these stories, but spreading them out a little bit makes one appreciate them all the more.

  3. Agree with others and you about dipping. I read this collection some years ago, pre-blog, and remember the unevenness, but also the heights sometimes reached. I do like that expression ‘unravelling chattiness.’

    1. I think if she had been a less highly-regarded writer, some of those brief ‘quips’ would not have made it in this volume. But they are delightful and fun. And there are a few stories where the chattiness (thank you for liking the phrase I made up) becomes repetitive instead of meaningful. But, on the whole, such stylistic control!

  4. Wonderful review, Marina! I have read some stories from this book. Need to get back to it. Lydia Davis is such a wonderful writer. Such an unconventional writer. Loved all the quotes you shared, especially the one about the tropical storm. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

    1. She is very unconventional – and makes me want to try and experiment more in my own writing. However, I’ve noticed that when people try to imitate her, it comes out very wrong…

  5. They sound like very rich stories in just a few words, and that is such a rare skill. And I do love the combination of wit and insight. Something to dip into (yes, I’m in that club, too) and reflect on – I like it!

  6. Good review, but I’m not convinced it would give me the pleasure, interest, thrills – you name it! – I expect from reading…

    1. She can be a bit of an acquired taste. I believe AL Kennedy said she was the best craftsperson of the short story form, which I think was how I first discovered her.

  7. Davis’ name has popped up many times in pieces I’ve read extolling her writing’s virtues. I’ve finally added her to my list. That mention of Dorothy Parker has spurred me on.

    1. I wouldn’t want to mislead you into thinking she is very similar to Dorothy Parker, but this is possibly a bit like what Dorothy Parker might have written if she’d lived nowadays.

  8. This definitely sounds like a collection where dipping in and out works better than reading straight through. I like short stories very much, but sometimes get frustrated by very very short ones.

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