Posts Tagged ‘lydia davis’

The End of the Story

May 8, 2015

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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.

Can’t and Won’t

November 1, 2014

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It’s not unusual for a previously unheralded writer to win an international prize, but it is unusual for a previously unheralded American writer to win an international prize. Such was the case when Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, recognition that perhaps began with the publication of her Collected Stories in 2009. This obscurity is partly explained by her chosen form – the short story – but also by the very nature of those short stories, which force the reader to question the rules and boundaries of the genre. Can’t and Won’t, the title of her latest collection, seems a reference to this very fact, a stubborn refusal to be proscribed by expectations.

The most obvious eccentricity is the brevity of many of the stories. Here, in its entirety, is ‘Bloomingtom’:

“Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.”

While its single sentence format makes it one of the shortest stories in the collection, the majority of the stories do not exceed a page. Of course, you may well argue that it is simply too short to be a story, but it is difficult to justify such a proposition with anything other than prejudice. It contains, after all, character, setting and plot.

More interestingly, the stories seem unusual in their rejection of fiction (there is, for example, a considerable difference between ‘Bloomington’ and perhaps the most famous one sentence story, Augusto Monterroso’s ‘The Dinosaur’ – “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”). Davis’ stories in this collection are without exception in some way ‘found’ stories. Some even follow the pattern of found poetry, using an already existing text and editing it into a short story – those Davis has extracted from the letters of Flaubert. Davis explains the process:

“My aim was to leave Flaubert’s language and content as little changed as possible, only shaping the excerpt enough to create a balanced story, though I took whatever liberties I thought were necessary.”

The sensation that the stories are ‘found’, however, persists throughout, with those that do not originate in Flaubert’s life seemingly arising from Davis’ own. Another reoccurring series, for example, are letters of complaint which Davis says she has sent. ‘Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer’ complains that the peas inside the packet are much more appetising than those illustrated on the outside. Other stories are simply marked ‘dream’.

In this way the stories seem to create larger whole: not a narrative but a character which we can (no doubt inaccurately for you cannot, even if you should want to, put every aspect of yourself onto the page) equate with Davis. When she writes about her family in ‘The Seals’ we have no reason to think the story is not autobiographical. This explains why a number of the stories are about writing. In ‘Revise 1’ and ‘Revise 2’ she comments tongue-in-cheek on the process:

“A fire does not need to be called warm or red. Remove any more adjectives.
The goose is really too silly: take the goose out. It is enough that there is a search for footprints.”

More seriously in ‘Writing’ she says:

“Life is too serious for me to go on writing.”

This cumulative effect prevents the shorter or more humorous stories seeming trivial. Overall the collection develops a sense of death and ageing:

“When you’re very young you’re usually happy, at least you’re ready to be. You get older and see things more clearly and there’s less to be happy about. Also, you start losing people.”

This perhaps finds its best expression in ‘Local Obits’, nine pages of sentences from obituaries such as, “Helen loved long walks, gardening, and her grandchildren.”

This, then, is the perfect short story collection. Easy to dip in to – with stories to fill even a few spare seconds – but also rewarding a thorough read through.

Collected Stories

November 27, 2011

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.