Thursday, May 24, 2012

on reading Lydia Davis' Collected Stories

Violet liked perfume and David gave her a bottle every year. Anniversaries were easy.


There was a bird calling somewhere to my left, piping away at a snatch of lonely repetitive melody. I listened to the bird and began to make an inventory of Captain Medhi’s physical attributes: his height, his narrow waist, his long fingers, his white teeth, his beard like a bear rug. I remembered uncomfortably that I'd made the same sort of list about Richard the night of our first date.


He smelled her breath, sweet with hard candy and soda pop. Her lips were pressed against his ear and she whispered to him in a slow Southern drawl, a voice of honey and vinegar.

or even

I'd bought the holy card at my parish office and felt like a criminal, smuggling it across town to my minuscule work space at the university, hiding the card between the monitor and the wall where only I'd be able to see it. It wasn’t even a pretty card. The saint looked like an emaciated Lawrence of Arabia, holding up a tiny angular red cathedral in her right hand. On the back of the card was a quote from John Henry Newman: God knows what is my greatest happiness, but I do not. I didn’t think much of the quote, or the idea that God was going to dispense happiness like Santa Claus handing out gifts. Cardinal Newman had probably been a difficult man to like.

None of the above is a Lydia Davis short story, but any of them might be one. There's the persistent first person point of view, either singular or plural, the lack of context, the lack of resolution, as if Davis had cut random passages from a novel and set them off as self-contained entities. That's all I've done here. Sometimes Davis' snippets are entertaining, and if I read one after another there's a sort of cumulative effect. Sometimes they are less entertaining, and I get the feeling that Davis is just playing, just fucking around with voice and the idea of an image and that there is nothing else at all going on.

I've been reading her Collected Stories for over a year now, taking them about 20-30 at a stretch to fill in the gaps when I'm between books. Right now I'm between books and I would like to finish off the Davis collection before I pick up anything else. I don't really know what to say about Lydia Davis and her writing. Some of the longer pieces seem like stories, in that something happens and there's a feeling of movement. Most of them seem like ideas that would be good if put into a story, but they aren't ideas that would look particularly strong if surrounded by pages of prose that form a unified narrative. Which is not a compliment. There are interesting things going on in Lydia Davis' work, but she doesn't write stories and I'm not sure I see the point of it. I am tempted to say that one could assemble as good a collection from the works of Tolstoy by picking random pages, sentences or paragraphs. Or from the works of Shakespeare or Nabokov; that might be better, and worth doing.


  1. And you're still gonna finish reading the collection?

    You are die-hard Scott :)


  2. Some of the longer pieces are good, and I'm enjoying them. The Walk is a perfect story. Anyway, I'm almost done with the book so I might as well finish it even if I don't see the point of some of the pieces. Hopefully it will all click and I'll understand why Davis is so influential.

  3. Damnit! I wrote a really long comment, only to lose it.

    1. Is this your writing? It's lovely. I like the bird excerpt a lot.

    2. I keep a collection of flash fiction by my bed and read it on occasion. It feels like looking at photographs, and that fills a certain need I have on some nights.

    3. When I write flash fiction myself, I really appreciate that it doesn't have to be a full story. It allows me to be more entirely sincere, whereas in a "story" I include additional scenes for completeness.

  4. 1. Yes, thanks!

    2. Sometimes I read Davis' collection and it's really cool; maybe yes, like looking through a photo album.

    Other times, it seems empty and meaningless and irritating.

    3. I don't write flash fiction. If I think too much about flash fic, I get irritated. Most of it seems like a premise without a story, and I think the writer's just being lazy. The bit of flash fiction by Hemingway that I often see used as a good example of the form ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn.") is not a story at all. So I just don't know.

    On the other hand, there's a long and respectable history of aphorism writing, and a good chunk of Davis' "stories" read like aphorisms. Or weird little poems. But I don't think they're stories. One reason I keep reading them is because I'm trying to figure out what she's doing, and why. Last night I read a long story ("The Walk") that was about a translator at a literary scholars' conference in Oxford. The story contained two different translations of a Proust passage, and the action of the translator's story was similar to the action in the Proust, and it was all beautifully written and cool. So clearly Davis can write; I just don't get why she writes a lot of what she writes. But why does that matter, eh?

  5. I'm probably insulting all of the poets in the world when I say this, but I think there's a close connection between poetry and very short fiction, and maybe that connection is closer than the connection between very short fiction and novels.

  6. I think that's a good observation.