My only knowledge of Lydia Davis, before coming to The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, is that she was the translator of Marcel Proust’s Swanns Way, in the Penguin edition which adorns my shelves – and its one of the six volumes of Remembrance of Things Past which I’ve actually read (only three to go).
This is a lovely book, nice and thick (733 pages of text), and with countless short pieces which you can dip and out of. For while many of the stories are a few pages long, quite a few of them are just a paragraph or two, or even just a few lines, expressing depth with concision as with a Japanese Haiku.
The stories cover a vast range of subjects and it would be impossible to even begin to categorise them. A few samples might cover short portraits of a relationship, jury service, motorcycling, journeys, music and just about anything else you’d like to think of – its probably somewhere in there.
This is one of the few reviews when I can actually quote a whole story as an example of the authors work. This one is called simply “Love” –
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
Don’t worry, many of the stories are far more substantial than that, but they all share a rather quirky outlook on life which challenges the customary way of looking at things, as in the story, Our Kindness, begins –
We have ideals of being kind to everyone in the world. But then we are very unkind to our own husband, the person who is closest at hand to us. But then we think he is preventing us from being unkind to everyone else in the world.
As I read this collection, I realised that you have to read several at a time in order to appreciate Lydia’s unique view on life. She has the ability to look at things from a new angle so that her readers suddenly see the strangeness of things they usually take for granted. Once more, I can only quote examples. Take the story, “Interesting”: it is simply a few short paragraphs each of which uses the word “interesting”. “My friend is interesting but he is not in his apartment. Their conversation appears interesting but they are speaking a language I do not understand”. In each paragraph, we move through different ways in which the word can be used and then at the end we read of a handsome traffic engineer who is interesting because of his appearance, his fine English accent and his animation. We expect him to say something interesting when he is about to speak, but no, he is never interesting, because “yet again, he talks about traffic patterns”. There is so much that could be said about this story. Was it a failure in the observer that prevented her from finding what he said interesting? Was the man there specifically to talk about traffic patterns? (in which case he may well have been interesting to those who had come to listen). Or was he just a bore who couldn’t leave his pet subject for more than a few moments?
All Lydia’s stories can stimulate reflection in this way. They can’t be taken at face value, but have to be reflected on. The blanks have to be filled in. And yet, despite the brevity of many of the stories, they are not poetry. Lydia herself in the interview above says that she is happy to call them stories and I think she’s right. Terms like “prose poem” or “philosophical reflection” are just too laden with meaning for these precise, elegant pieces each of which has at least a tiny narrative flow to them which qualifies them as stories.
In her Guardian interview, Lydia Davis was asked about her short pieces and said, “it was a reaction to Proust’s very long sentences. The sheer length of a thought of his didn’t make me recoil exactly – I loved working on it – but it made me want to see how short a piece of fiction could be that would still have a point to it, and not just be a throwaway joke”.
I am pleased to have this book on my bedside table and will dip in and out of it for some time to come. It would make a great gift for any reader as I’m sure anyone would find something of interest in it.
As an aside, I was struck by the similarities of Lydia’s work with that of Andrew Keneally in his fascinating blog In Absentia Out. I know there is no connection whatsoever between these two writers, but look at his post Well-dressed or He, or perhaps a longer post like Digging, and you will see what I mean.
Title: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Author: Lydia Davis
Publication: Penguin Books Ltd: (5 August 2010), Hardback, 752 pages
Lydia Davis with William Skidelsky in The Guardian
A podcast on this book, including a reading of two of the stories is available on the New York Review of Books website