Since the publication of her Collected Stories in 2009, followed by her award of the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, Lydia Davis had been recognised as one the finest living practitioners of short (sometimes very short) fiction. In 1995, however, she published her only novel, The End of the Story, now reissued by Penguin in the UK. I would like to think that the title is a nod to the form in which she normally writes, but it is also the subject matter of the novel, which concerns itself with the end of a relationship. She begins by trying to identify that moment when the relationship ended – the last time she saw him, the last time she heard from him, the last time she looked for him – but she is also attempting to identify the end of the story in a more literal way:
“This seemed to be the end of the story, and for a while it was also the end of the novel…Then, although it was still the end of the story, I put it at the beginning of the novel, as if I needed to tell the end first in order to go on and tell the rest.”
This, then – it will not surprise those who know Davis’ writing to discover – is a novel about a relationship, but also a novel about writing a novel about a relationship. It takes place in an identifiable present – the narrator is now in another relationship, with a man called Vincent, and lives with Vincent and his elderly father – which occasionally infiltrates the narrative:
“So much time has gone by since I started working on this novel that first I left my city apartment and moved in with Vincent, and then his father moved in with us, causing extra work and bringing a succession of nurses into the house to care for him.”
This in itself negates the title, making clear that the end of the story (of her relationship) is not the end of the story (of her life); just as the frequent references to the novel’s construction undermine the idea that the story (the written story) is ever truly finished:
“If I finish it, I will be surprised. It has been unfinished for so long now I am used to having it with me this way, unfinished – and maybe I will always find ways to procrastinate…But if I do go on, I know I will reach a point where for one of several reasons I won’t be able to change it any more even if it should be changed.”
If this makes the novel sound too clever for its own good, nothing could be further from the truth: far from seeming smug, the narrator constantly doubts her ability to write. She agonises over whether to tell the story in the third person, and, if so, what to call the characters. She worries over what to include and what to leave out (“It occurs to me that although I used to go to a lot of parties, I describe only two”). Similarly, she often doubts her ability to remember: the opening few pages are scattered with such phrases as “I can’t remember” and I’m not sure”.
Far from distracting from her dissection of the relationship, the honesty with which reveals her doubts over the novel itself intensify the reader’s belief in the truthfulness of her story – both ‘factually’ and emotionally. Davis is excellent in conveying the changing emotions of their time together in a way that might seem analytical if it weren’t for the fact that we know she is looking back on a relationship which will, much to her distress, fall apart:
“He was a distraction to me when I was not with him, and when I was with him, I was fascinated to look at him and listen to him. The sight of him, and the sound of him speaking, kept me still, or kept me near him. It was enough to be near him and watch and listen to him, half paralysed, whereas just a day or two before I had not known him.”
She is similarly open about her feelings at the opposite end of the relationship, unsparing of her refusal to accept that it is over:
“But then I said to myself that since I seemed to be cured of my grief, he and I could enter into a new kind of relationship, and in the joy of that feeling I went looking for him yet again. I fooled myself every time, because at such moments part of me became clever and the other part stupid, just as much as was necessary.”
Lydia Davis’ stories are so wonderful in their brevity that there was always a danger a novel would disappoint, but The End of the Story manages to be both clever and moving, artful and honest – exactly what you would expect.