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 stories about people baffled by such texts. Since we spend so much time in position one, it can be hard, a little helpless-feeling, to occupy position two: often the characters in those stories don’t quite have the mental clarity, or the time, or all the information they need, to figure things out.
In “The Letter,” a woman who, like Davis, works as a translator receives a letter from an ex-lover who vanished a year before, owing her $300. She has trained herself to look everywhere for his old white Volvo with a K on the license plate: she sees similar cars everywhere, but that K (one of many letters in “The Letter”) never turns up. “The Letter” turns out to be a weird missive from the ex-lover consisting solely of a French poem by someone else copied in his, the ex-lover’s, hand, rife with illegibilities and smudges. The woman has no idea what to make of any of this: she can translate the French, but not the smudges, and not the guy’s intentions or feelings. There she is, suspended in her own story, unable to follow the plot. And that is where we leave her.
Because she seeks both the formal and thematic embodiments of these cognitive dead ends, Davis’s stories that resemble little boxes are often about feeling boxed in. “In a House Besieged” is a series of sentences that serve, like the house they describe, as both coop and castle:
In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. “The wind,” said the woman. “Hunters,” said the man. “The rain,” said the woman. “The army,” said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.
This “man” and “woman” (like many such men and women in Davis’s work, unnamed: these are estimates instead of individuals) have exchanged a home for a language box. Inside it, they talk about what they know: language. “Besiege” takes a preposition, “by,” and an object: you can’t be besieged without a besieger, but you will never find out the identity of the besieger inside the barricades that protect you from whatever it is. (The woman, a fan of Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy, thinks in classic literary terms; the man perhaps looked “besieged” up in the dictionary, which told him that it involved armies.)
The word “besieged” is a cliché—what we are nearly always besieged by, when we are besieged, is “doubts” or “fears” or the like. It’s what happens to characters in a badly written book; these are characters in a beautifully written book. This story is therefore about the dangers of thinking of oneself in language too threadbare to stand up to thinking. It turns out that much of spoken English would have to be described this way; therefore much of spoken English bugs Davis, especially when pains are taken to dignify it or dress it up. Few writers have made such profound art out of their annoyance with the demotic. But writing, it turns out, can make small gains on speaking: at the least it can project its absurdity, like a lecturer showing slides. Here in its entirety is “They Take Turns Using a Word They Like”:
“It’s extraordinary,” says one woman.
“It is extraordinary,” says the other.
Whatever “it” is, it’s clear from this story that it is not extraordinary, nor is it extraordinary. (“Extraordinary” is one of those words like “besieged,” used to add a little glamour to humdrum things.) Emotional precision turns on grammatical precision. When asked the obnoxious question “Do you want to have a child?” (after a certain age, the question is usually phrased “Don’t you want to have a child?”), one’s feelings about the matter are narrowed by the kinds of responses spoken English will allow. It takes writing things down to come up with “A Double Negative”:
At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.
The double negative—to say nothing of the future perfect infinitive, “to have had a child”—isn’t really permitted in speech; those who talk this way sound persnickety. But everything about what one feels (and in the end, does) about whether to have a child depends on making these hairbreadth grammatical distinctions. Parse it wrong and you are in big trouble: the orphanages are full of kids whose parents failed to parse their own complex thoughts correctly.
Davis is sometimes regarded as a cold writer, a kind of fictionbot. The novelist Ben Marcus charged her with “a nearly autistic failure to acknowledge the emotional heart of the matter.” He meant it as a kind of compliment, but failure is failure. The stories can seem like impersonal, even cruel personals ads, as though their author were paying for space by the word. The characters are people one might meet in the personals: an aggrieved ex-wife, a professor wanting to meet a cowboy, a single person eating take-out, a brother-in-law, all cast as types, all doing typical things to one another. It is possible to regard Davis’s interest in human beings as more forensic than empathic, as though she were running a clinical trial. But I think the days of regarding her this way are now over, with the publication of this magnificent volume. Joyce called his Dubliners style a “scrupulous meanness”: Davis is the heir to that style, and to another, earlier heir to it, Samuel Beckett. But this is one bright and comprehensive book of life, a kind of handbook of human paradox.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is unlike any other book I know for requiring, in the manner of a museum, rapidly consecutive acts of exclusive attention. But objects in a museum were created in isolation, over time, by many hands; and anyway, objects don’t talk. These object-like stories do talk, and so the human voices rattling around inside them take on great poignancy. And there are so many of them. This problem of encountering multiple competing claims—one after another little voice asking us to lend an ear or a shoulder—starts to affect the attention we pay to those claims. How hard it is to isolate from a long sequence of voices a single voice. The consciousness of time gets in the way; anyone who has tried to do a number of tasks in a short span of time, only to waste what time there was debating which tasks to rank first, knows this predicament.
“20 Sculptures in One Hour” is a little pre-Socratic essay on how to divide time. If we think of an hour as a long time, then the three minutes we get per sculpture seems very short; but if we think of an hour as a short time, then the fact that we get to have within it twenty three-minute experiences makes the hour we started with seem, as a consequence, long. The story begins by thinking of time as long, and ends, having run out of time, with thinking of it as short. I timed myself reading the story: it took three minutes.
Davis’s method has always been reiterative rather than narrative. Writing very short stories is a way of starting over again and again, and her longer stories are often just clusters of short ones, multiple views of a single event rather than a sequence of events from A to B. It is fascinating to watch her work within these conditions, which some writers would seize as a chance to be lyrical, rhapsodic, impressionistic—all of the things people mean when they call a piece of fiction “poetic,” intending, I suppose, praise. Though she has allowed that she considers some of her stories poems, it is really better to think of them as stories, or, better yet, as tactics toward—or perhaps against—the story.
One of the best things in this book (also, at twenty-five pages, one of the longest) is “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders.” The story proper is dispatched, with deadpan swiftness, in the summary that precedes the study: a boy, Stephen, was hit by a slow-moving car; his knee was injured, infection set in, and he was hospitalized with a quite severe condition called osteomyelitis. These events are almost identical to the ones that open that cliché of story-craft, Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” There are a few stray “narrative” details—the school is near a store “presided over by a matronly woman with a rather forbidding manner”—but they are false leads: neither the matronliness, nor the forbiddingness, nor even the woman herself is ever mentioned again.
Data about the get-well letters are grouped under subheadings—“Length,” “Overall Coherence,” “Sentence Structures” (“The letters overall contain a predominance of simple sentences (e.g., ‘There was a big snowball fight outside’) with now and then a compound, complex, or compound-complex sentence”). Here is an inventory of the letters’ content (included under the subheading “Content”), organized “under the following headings, within two or more general categories of expressions of sympathy and ‘news'”:
Formulaic Expressions of Sympathy
come back soon/wish you were here (17 occurrences in 27 letters)
how are you/hope you are feeling better (16)
miss you (9)
experience in hospital/food (4)
empathy: I know how it feels (2)
playing in snow (9)
Christmas/Christmas presents (7)
shopping with parent (2)
New Year’s Eve (1)
Stephen’s family (1)
That list is then analyzed:
Billy J. opens with “I hope you are feeling well,” closes with “I hope you will be back soon,” and adds only one sentence in between: “We are not doing much.” The words not doing much are smaller and more compact than the rest, perhaps reflecting the content of the remark.
And on from there. The story is funny and humane, a lab report on childhood itself—the assigned emotions, the infinitesimal, closed set of kinds of fun one is allowed to have, and worst of all, the bewildering conscription into the adult world—the last place, after all, a child would choose to go on one’s own.
At the story’s close we find this curious addendum:
Of interest, for comparison, may be a letter in Stephen’s own handwriting, on an unlined page, written after he returned home, in which he thanks a former teacher for a gift evidently received during his convalescence. His letter is a rough draft, including one misspelling and one usage error, and lacking certain punctuation marks, and may closely resemble the rough drafts of his classmates’ letters, if such existed. It is dated “Feb. 20 1951” and reads: “Dear Miss R., Thank you for the book. I am out of the hospital and I dont have to wear krutchs anymore Love Stephen.”
The only person who would be in possession both of his classmates’ letters and of the rough draft of his own thank-you letter and not the rough drafts—“if such existed”—of his classmates is, of course, Stephen himself—or perhaps his sister. In fact Davis’s brother Stephen would have been in fourth grade in 1951. This isn’t merely “personal” material—it is precisely autobiographical material, handled with rubber gloves.
What is moving in Davis’s stories is her refusal to exempt even herself from her method of herding persons into groups. Under these hasty aggregates, real people stir. Of course there is no reason not to assume that a story about kids in the Fifties is derived from the childhood of a writer in her sixties, but the pains taken to abstract and aggregate autobiography make finding it, as in a game of hide and seek, precisely the point. Davis’s characters get divorced when she gets divorced, have sons her sons’ ages, take jobs in her lines of work, live more or less where she lives, grieve for their parents when her parents die. These are not unique events: they lay the emotional foundation for all imaginative writing. In some ways it scarcely matters whether a writer visits triumph and catastrophe upon someone called “I” or upon someone called (plug in any name here, since that’s the point) Swann, or Malloy, or Malone, or Bloom. Or even X, Y, and Z, as in Davis’s story “Problem,” here quoted in its entirety:
X is with Y, but living on money from Z. Y himself supports W, who lives with her child by V. V wants to move to Chicago but his child lives with W in New York. W cannot move because she is having a relationship with U, whose child also lives in New York, though with its mother, T. T takes money from U, W takes money from Y for herself and from V for their child, and X takes money from Z. X and Y have no children together. V sees his child rarely but provides for it. U lives with W’s child but does not provide for it.
When you play hide and seek with a four-year-old, you have to hide the object right under his nose. This is sometimes Davis’s method. This easy encryption, the autobiographical “secret,” not a secret at all, totally retrievable on the surface of the story, makes a game of reading, but it is a game rigged in our favor. You could imagine a critique of this kind of thing: it lacks the Modernist hardness and hardness of heart: it is cozier by far than Beckett’s logic games; it lacks the resolved bleakness of Kafka. But it is in some ways much richer than either, since it invents and then employs an emotional algebra, a coherent and uncompromising way of regarding the elements of daily life—in this case, the balletic arrangements of intertwined parties, as well as the Rube Goldberg–like social contraption by which a child is, or is not, “provided for.”
This book grows more personal as it goes on, but not by unclenching its manner. In fact Davis’s continuity of manner, remarkably stable over the course of her career whatever the new or challenging matter she must face, is what, in the end, makes these stories so personal. And as in Proust, the story eventually catches up to and incorporates the storyteller. Some of the very best stories in this book are the elegies toward the end for Davis’s parents, Robert Gorham Davis and Hope Hale Davis, both distinguished writers in their own right. Many of these stories turn on the use or misuse of a single word. All that needs to be said about being the writer-child of writer-parents is encapsulated in the two-line story “Nietszche”:
Oh, poor Dad. I’m sorry I made fun of you.
Now I’m spelling Nietszche wrong, too.
That’s an empirical observation, but Davis’s decision not only to allow the misspelling to stand but to use it as the title to her story turns it into a vow, a statement governed by an implied “henceforth.” By the end of “The Furnace,” Davis has so thoroughly acquainted us with her father’s sensibility, now much compromised by illness, that when he uses the word “walker” in a letter she quotes (“I take a mechanical walker with me”) we hear him silently grimace, as he must have several times a day, at the misnomer, then clarify himself: “I don’t mean it has an engine that propels it. I do the propelling.” How ghastly that the word “walker” should apply not to the person straining to do the walking but to the object otherwise inert.
Perhaps my favorite story in this book is “Letter to a Funeral Parlor.” Unbelievably, the term “cremains” is the preferred nomenclature of the Cremation Association of North America (I looked this up). The story includes this remarkable passage:
As one who works with words for a living, I must say that any invented word, like Porta Potti or pooper-scooper, has a cheerful or even jovial ring to it that I don’t think you really intended when you invented the word cremains. In fact, my father himself, who was a professor of English and is now being called the cremains, would have pointed out to you the alliteration in Porta Potti and the rhyme in pooper-scooper. Then he would have told you that cremains falls into the same category as brunch and is known as a portmanteau word.
I read this book over the course of a month or so, making use when I could of small slivers of daily time, blocks of time on which one ordinarily expects to take a loss. It was possible even to pass the book around a small group of friends at dinner, collecting responses before the food arrived. I tacked “Letter to a Funeral Parlor” to the bulletin board by the mailboxes at my office; within a few days, I’d heard from a number of colleagues who had read and enjoyed it.
Davis’s stories fit snugly into those interstices of time they explore: you could read the story about jury duty while waiting to do jury duty. Reading one is in league with writing one, since both constitute what used to be called an improvement: a profit made from forsaken time inside forsaken time. Erasmus is said to have written The Praise of Folly on horseback, traveling from city to city to find preferment. It is possible to read an entire Davis story while stopped at a red light. I thought of Davis when I read in Robert Chambers’s strange and beautiful nineteenth-century Book of Days the following tidbit:
The Chancellor D’Aguesseau, finding that his wife always kept him waiting a quarter of an hour after the dinner-bell had rung, resolved to devote the time to writing a book on jurisprudence, and, putting the project in execution, in course of time produced a work in four quarto volumes.
There is something of the calloused and laconic Yankee in these stories (Davis, like Hawthorne, whom she resembles in several ways, comes from Salem sea captains). In its drive to redeem what Wallace Stevens called “the malady of the quotidian,” The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis belongs in a line that includes breviaries and prayer books, as well as almanacs, their secular equivalents. Davis is compared to Beckett, to Kafka, to Bruno Schultz, and to Robert Walser. But she is also an example of that American type, the born tinkerer, like Ben Franklin. She might have ended up the deviser of merely fascinating stories, gizmos and thingamajigs that brought off-kilter delight. Instead, and almost as if by accident, Davis has made one of the great books in recent literature, equal parts horse sense and heartache.
April 29, 2010