The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Farrer, Straus and Giroux
awards: 2007 National Book Award finalist for Varieties of Disturbance; 1987 Pen/Hemingway Award Finalist for Break It Down,
Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections, the most recent
of which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is the
acclaimed translator of a new edition of Swann’s Way and is at work on a new translation of Madame Bovary.
with Lydia Davis
"If someone asks me 'Where does he live?' should I answer 'Well, right now he is not living he is dying'?
If someone asks me, 'Where does he live?' can I say 'He lives in Vernon Hall'? Or should I say 'He is dying in Vernon Hall'?"
Reviewed by Tania Hershman
Reviewing the 200 or so stories Lydia Davis' Collected Storiesis
a task that feels almost equal to writing a brief summary of the
Britannica in under 1000 words. I want to comment on every single
story, each one of which provoked a reaction in me, is memorable,
sharp, different. But that, clearly, is impossible!
fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel that this collection is
an encyclopaedia, of the human
condition, with much dark humour, as is necessary when examining the
ridiculousness of the ways we behave to each other. In many of these
stories, which range in length from several words to over 20 pages,
Davis approaches her subject - be it a situation, an emotion, a state
of bring - with almost scientific interest. Their titles reflect this: The Fish, The Mouse, Mothers, What an Old Woman Will Wear, Lost Things. These
are meticulous dissections, intricate descriptions of, say, what it
means to be right, or of betrayal, or the relationship of a mother and
daughter. But somehow she evokes more, she pulls the reader into the
stories - and they are stories - and her endings, whether it be after one paragraph or many pages, are breathtaking.
The best way is to illustrate this with examples from the stories in the four books collected here, Break It Down, Almost No Memory, Samuel Johnson is Indignant and Varities of Disturbance,
published between 1986 and 2007. Much has been made of her very very
short stories, sometimes less than a sentence, but this is only part of
Davis' repertoire, and looking across these four collections, they are
all a mix of stories of every length. An early story, The Fears of Mrs Orlando,
demonstrates what Davis will go on to write for the next 20 years - and
I do not mean this disparagingly, I mean this as a compliment, she
clearly found her voice very early on in her career. The story begins:
Mrs Orlando's world is a dark one. In her home she knows
what is dangerous: the gas stove, the steep stairs, the slick bathtub,
and several kinds of bad wiring. Outside her house, she knows some of
what is dangerous but not all of it, and is frightened by her own
ignorance, and avid for information about crime and disaster.The
tone here is unsentimental. Davis understands she doesn't not need to
show us what Mrs Orlando is feeling by bringing us emotions, she is
stating facts and these facts are about a situation a reader
understands: fear of danger and disaster. A lesser writer might have
added in that Mrs Orlando is frightened that the gas stove will
explode, that she will slip on the stairs or in the bathtub, but Davis
knows that she has said enough. And I think this is characteristic of
all her stories, she never says more than is absolutely necessary to
stir the reader.
The tone of this story is completely
consistent, never veering from an apparently simple stating of facts,
and yet the feelings we have for this woman, complex feelings, increase
as we read. The ending is perfect. A mix of open-ended - clearly Mrs
Orlando's fears are not going to be banished - and satisfying.
stories sometimes venture into more surreal territory, although still
probing a situation with this scientific eye. For example, The Brother-in-Law:
He was so quiet, so small and thin, that he was hardly
there. The brother-in-law. Whose brother-in-law they did not know. Or
where he came from, or if he would leave.
While having no use for overwrought language or verbal trickery, Davis often experiments with language and structure, different ways to tell stories, such as Wife One in the Country, which begins:
one calls to speak to son. Wife two answers with impatience, gives
phone to son of wife one. Son has heard impatience in the voice of wife
two and tells mother he thought caller was father's sister: raging
aunt, constant caller, troublesome woman.How much
information do we learn from simply this first paragraph! Not an adverb
in sight, nothing but the apparent stating of "facts".
And then there is this kind of Lydia Davis story which seem like a riddle but contains so much that is just spot on: Right and Wrong:
She knows she is right but to say she is right is wrong, in this case. To be correct and say so is wrong, in certain cases.
may be correct and say so, in certain cases. But if she insists too
much, she becomes wrong, so wrong that even her correctness becomes
wrong, by association.
It is right to believe in what she thinks is right, but to say what she thinks is right is wrong, in certain cases.
One of my favourite stories, although I have many in this collection, is Mrs. D and Her Maids,
which is told as if it were an encyclopaedia entry about Mrs D and her
household servants. It is divided into short sections with section
headings such as "Names of Some Early Maids, with Identifying
Characteristics", "One of the Earliest Maids is One of the Best",
and "Soon There are Problems, However". This is a 37-page story of Mrs
D's life, told through her trials hiring and firing maids. This is a
section entitled "Mrs D Tries to Be Honest in Recommending Her to
Our maid's name is Virginia. She may not turn out to be the gem for temporary work that I hoped I was sending you.
many stories here that I felt must be autobiographical, a poignant
story of a couple house-sitting in France who lose one of the
landlord's beloved dogs, for example. Or the piece, What You Learn About the Baby,
which details the situation of a new mother understanding how life has
now changed. But it doesn't matter, does it, what the source of the
material is? All that matters is what the reader makes of it.
She is not the sort who starts out like a whirlwind.
She has a sort of nervous shyness.
She is extremely slow on laundry but it probably wouldn't matter so much in your case since you send out more things.
can't catch up with the ironing. But if you take a firm hand it ought
not to be a problem. Also, you ought to make out a schedule for her.
This reader made a great deal of it, I could barely read more than one
or two stories at a time before I had to put the book down, no matter
what the length of the story. This is one of those collections that you
need on your bookshelf - if you are a writer, it will inspire you to
experiment, it will illuminate the beauty of minimalism, the power of
unsentimental writing. If you are a reader, you will enjoy these
stories, many of which are very funny, and you may also, I believe,
learn a little bit about your own idiosyncracies and say, as you close
the book, Do I do that? , and
laugh as you realise that we all do. Davis' stories tell us about
ourselves, in a way that is gentle yet firm. I am very glad of it.