#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.