The Year of Reading Dangerously – Lydia Davis
Until the publication of her Collected Stories last year, Lydia Davis was best known in the UK as a translator of Proust and Flaubert. This was largely a result of the four volumes which make up her Collected Stories (stretching from 1986 to 2007) having (so far as I can see) never acquired a British publisher. Luckily, Penguin have remedied this in exuberant style with over 700 pages of Davis now available for a little over a tenner. (Actually, it struck me while reading that this is the perfect book for the Kindle, and not only in terms of weight – with many of the stories only a page or two long there is one for every conceivable spare moment).
It will obviously be impossible for me deal with Davis’ work in any detail in this short review – there are, after all, 199 stories to contend with, leaving me a little over two words per story. However, if you are at all interested in the form you should certainly get hold of this collection: Davis is a unique voice who has clearly refined her craft over the twenty years of writing it contains. She deals best with relationships, and I found myself frequently acknowledging the truth of her observations, sometimes with a smile, sometimes with something nearer a grimace. What she captures is not the spiritual profundity that we often associate with literature, but the just-beneath-the-surface reality that we recognise as life. This can be done briefly and humorously, as in ‘The Outing’:
“An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.”
This is the entire story, one of many that is less than a page, but it is undeniable that Davis pinpoints the essence of an experience. Her lack of characterisation allows the reader to identify with what is important; her refusal to suggest a deeper meaning validates ordinary life; her brevity suggests focus.
She is equally capable, however, at dissecting a relationship at greater length, as she does in ‘Old Mother and the Grouch’. In a series of short scenes Davis casts a cold eye on a married couple who spend most of their time in anger and resentment. Snatches of dialogue are intercut with passionless précis of their feelings:
“Grouch needs attention, but Old Mother pays attention mainly to herself. She needs attention too, of course, and the Grouch would be happy to pay attention to her if the circumstances were different. He will not pay her much attention if she pays him almost none at all.”
The repetition of ‘attention’ places emphasis on analysis rather than narrative. In fact, the short sections deny us clear narrative, and there is no progress or deterioration in their relationship by the end of the story. Does this make the story more depressing? It might, but we also sense that the relationship is enduring.
Davis deals not only with romantic relationships (though ‘romantic’ is rarely the word that springs to mind), but also with family relationships in such stories as ‘Two Sisters (II)’ and ‘The Furnace’. This focus on relationships might seem to imply that her palette is limited to domestic settings, but Davis seems to delight in undermining the limitations placed on female writers by embracing them and then filtering them through a postmodern lens. Take, for example, ‘Mrs. D and her Maids’, the story of a woman’s life told entirely through the servants she employs, with extracts from their letters and her advertisements. Mrs. D is a writer, but that does not mean she escapes Davis’ satirical eye:
“…the stories often have a vein of wistful sentimentality that works to their detriment.”
Immersed in domestic details as we are, we are also told:
“The cash often makes a difference in the family’s economy.”
The Kafka pastiche, ‘Kafka Cooks Dinner’, also deliberately juxtaposes the literary with the domestic. And then we have the wonderful ‘Idea for a Short Documentary Film’:
“Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging.”
Simply put, this is an entrancing collection that will entertain even the most of jaded of readers. Even its lightest moments (like the one above) let us see the world slightly differently.
Danger rating: Will you manage to limit yourself to one a day, or simply gorge yourself? The shorter the stories, the more difficult it is to stop.