Lydia Davis is best known for two accomplishments: translating to acclaim Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann and writing short stories, some of them among the shortest ever written. These would seem to be incompatible enterprises. Davis’s shortest stories, only a sentence or two long, float like little dinghies on the white of the page. They can’t be followed the way stories ordinarily are followed, nor are they “told” in the usual sense of that word. They belong to the class “fiction” but also to the larger class made up of all things isolated in time or space: specimen creatures in jars, radar blips that promise interstellar life, Beckett’s characters on a desolated stage, or John Cage’s notes dispersed across silence.
Most of Davis’s stories are longer than these very short stories, but not by much: I would put the median length around two or three pages. Why would a writer want to take up so little of our time? Don’t fiction writers take up time for a living? In Proust, as in the Arabian Nights, narrative is inextricable from the time it takes: these stories are about their own slow unfurling in time. This is why the only suitable way for Proust to conclude is to dream of writing the novel he is in fact finishing, “a book as long as the Arabian Nights but entirely different.” The appropriate response to finishing Proust is starting over from the beginning, since the beginning of the book is what the ending imagines as coming next. Part of the aversion to starting Proust is the fear that you will never be finished. Even those who finish it feel this.
Davis’s brevity is one consequence, not the only one, of some brilliant aversions. She dislikes clutter, and to her 90 percent of narrative convention is clutter. Description is clutter: Davis classifies instead. In fact she appears to reserve special scorn for the toile of grammar, the adjective: she is perfectly happy with approximates. Most of her stories happen inside her character’s heads, but she rejects the ready conventions for representing consciousness: she could have written these very same stories had Joyce and Woolf never lived. What interests her, up there inside our heads, are dilemmas of focused attention: how to translate this French verb, how to spell Nietzsche, what to make of a smudge on a note or a discrepancy in handwriting. Though she reads philosophy, all the abstract ideas in her work are lodged in secondary position. She writes not about thinking but about thinkers, weighing the social costs associated with running everything in life down such narrow channels of attention.
Most of Davis’s stories fall into two main types: first there are the specimen texts presented with minimal narrative frame (these are the very short ones); second, and widening the aperture just slightly, there are the…
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