When Lydia Davis’s new collection hit bookstores this fall, New Yorker critic James Wood—known for his scant praise of contemporary fiction—exulted over the writing’s “combination of lucidity, aphoristic brevity, formal originality, sly comedy, metaphysical bleakness, philosophical pressure, and human wisdom.” He predicted that the compilation of four previously published collections spanning two decades would “in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions.”
But whether stories is the right term for her “distinct and personally crooked” oeuvre (as Wood puts it) is another matter.
“As soon as you say ‘prose poem,’ the person you’re talking to looks extremely bored,” Davis explains on the phone from upstate New York, where she lives with her husband and younger son. The writer, translator, and 2003 MacArthur Fellow speaks at a musing pace, her voice mellifluous. “And if you say ‘experimental’ or ‘philosophical’— anything—they will wish they were talking to somebody else. So I tend to stick to ‘story’—long, very long, short, very short, and very, very short— because everybody does love stories.”
Still, when readers encounter a “very, very short” specimen such as “Insomnia”—it reads in full, “My body aches so—/It must be this heavy bed pressing up against me”—they are likely to exclaim, “How odd that this supposed short-story writer has written only two lines!” Davis attests, “It’s the first thing they latch on to.” Later they may notice what else she leaves out besides words: scenes, place names, and all but the slimmest of plots. Plus, there is often only a single character, whose head we are locked inside. “I work from what a character is likely to remember,” Davis has said. “Our memories don’t usually serve up whole scenes complete with dialogue.”
In the seven-page “A Few Things Wrong with Me,” a woman contending with a sudden breakup is trying to figure out whether the ex-lover’s admission that “there were things about me he hadn’t liked from the very beginning” means he never loved her. Her hyperlogical obsessiveness is at once poignant and comical. In the one-page “Enlightened,” the narrator contemplates dumping a friend for being unenlightened, “although I know it’s not very enlightened to say that. But I want to say it, so I’m willing to postpone being more enlightened myself.”
Given that Davis’s characters are mostly women, does she see excruciating self-consciousness as a female trait? “I wouldn’t be distressed if someone said, ‘Oh, this isn’t limited to women,’” she counters. “I can think of men friends with the same brooding over themselves, and I can think of female friends who are oblivious. I once wrote a story where all I did to fictionalize something that happened was reverse the genders so that the woman became a man. And men would say, ‘I’m just amazed how you could put yourself in a man’s mind like that.’ It made me think there’s not as much difference as we would think.”
Both of Davis’s parents were writers. Hope Hale Davis wrote stories and Robert Gorham Davis—“the ultimate professor,” on the Columbia faculty from 1957 until he retired two decades later—published scholarly studies, book reviews, and stories too. Davis didn’t have to go searching for literature: it was all around her. The family lived adjacent to the Columbia campus, which she liked traipsing across on the way to the subway. She used the library and visited her father in his ample office at the very top of Dodge Hall, where by spooky coincidence she taught a writing class many years later. “The room was imbued with his presence,” she says. “It sort of freaked me out.”
Earlier, when she was at Barnard, he felt far enough away that she could major in his field. Davis has long worked as a French translator: her last project was Swann’s Way; her current one is Madame Bovary, to be published by Penguin this fall. But as an undergraduate, “I thought that if you wanted to be a writer you majored in English, it was that simple.”
And she still thinks it’s a decent plan.
Columbia’s Creative Writing Lecture Series presents the Lydia Davis talk, “A Beloved Duck Gets Cooked: Innovative Forms,” Thursday, March 25, at 7 p.m. arts.columbia.edu/cwls/32510.html
-by Apollinaire Scherr