The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 740 pp., $30
These days, when literature springs from mere experience and memoirs are justified by a change in eating habits, it seems fitting to remark on the heritage of Lydia Davis. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, was a literary critic and author. His criticism appeared in the New York Times, the Partisan Review, the American Scholar and many other publications. His stories appeared in the New Yorker. He taught literature at Harvard (where he urged Norman Mailer to submit his first short story to Story magazine), Smith (where he taught Sylvia Plath) and Columbia. A couple of short-story anthologies he edited were widely used in college literature classes. He died in 1998. Davis’ mother was also a writer whose stories appeared in the New Yorker. She was an active feminist and communist. She died in 2004. Davis’ first husband is Paul Auster.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of the headline on this article incorrectly called the book “The Collected Short Stories of Lydia Davis.”
There’s more before we get to the text. Davis studied writing the way painters study painting: copying the old masters -- favorite sentences from her favorite authors, especially Beckett but also Kafka and Proust. She became a translator, of Proust, Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault and others. She has written seven short-story collections and one novel. Her translation of “Swann’s Way” (Viking, 2003) is clear and true to the music of the original French.
This volume contains the stories from four collections: “Break It Down” (1986), “Almost No Memory” (1997), “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant” (2001) and “Varieties of Disturbance” (2007). They are shocking. Be prepared for a level of self-consciousness (remember, Beckett). Be prepared for narrators with disorienting levels of discomfort (remember, Kafka). Be prepared for moments of beauty that are sharp and merciless (remember, Proust).
Every story, whether one sentence or 20 pages, betrays an active mind. Sometimes too active. A reader might dig his heels in, doubt the narrator, refuse to follow her circular logic: “If I’m confused about all this,” the narrator in “Thyroid Diary” admits, “it may be because of my underactive thyroid. Slow thinking is one symptom of an underactive thyroid, but I can’t tell if I’m thinking more slowly than I used to. Since my brain is the only thing I have for observing how I am thinking, I can’t be truly objective.” In some stories, like “Kafka Cooks Dinner,” it is easy to be hypnotized, dazzled, by what seems like trance writing. Do what you can do; go as far as you can go. If it’s any consolation, you are an instrument being played by a master. Davis alternates sharp and soft notes; great wide context and individual events: “They stay this way wrapped in nearly complete silence, and they are nearly motionless, only the man’s gentle thumbs move over the cat’s skull and the woman sometimes lays her cheek down against the man’s fragrant soft hair and then lifts it again and the cat’s eyes are shifting quickly from point to point. A motor starts up. . . . " As interior as these stories are, the world is always breathing down the backs of Davis’ characters.
Each of the four collections has its own feel. “Break It Down” is full of loneliness. The narrators are on the left side of love’s learning curve. Here is “Safe Love,” in its entirety: “She was in love with her son’s pediatrician. Alone out in the country -- could anyone blame her.
“There was an element of grand passion in this love. It was also a safe thing. The man was on the other side of a barrier. Between him and her: the child on the examining table, the office itself, the staff, his wife, her husband, his stethoscope, his beard, her breasts, his glasses, her glasses, etc.”
“Almost No Memory” is full of the tensions involved in creating families and dissolving relationships. In the story “Glenn Gould,” the narrator, who has moved out of the city and spends her days watching her baby and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” is heartened to learn that pianist Gould also loved the show. “The intensity is gone now,” she thinks. “In the late afternoon, the sun comes in the window almost horizontally across the living-room floor, there are wooden blocks everywhere on the rug, the baby is often playing beside me, I play with him to keep him busy, and I look up at the screen as often as I can.” Later in the story, the narrator takes walks and looks hard for things to think about. The beauty of this picture lies in its clarity and lack of judgment. The reader is free to create her own picture, maybe sad, maybe calm, maybe nothing.
“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant” is enigmatic, buoyant, rebellious. This collection contains some of the shortest of Davis’ flash fiction; the raw elements of story. Some, like “Information From the North Concerning the Ice” (“Each seal uses many blowholes and each blowhole is used by many seals”) are pure shards. These are some of Davis’ most playful stories. In “Special Chair,” the narrator, a professor, writes that she has been waiting all her professional life for a chair and gets, instead, an actual chair abandoned by a colleague who is leaving. In “New Year’s Resolution,” the narrator, who has been studying Zen, resolves to see herself as nothing. “It’s so confusing. You spend the first half of your life learning that you are something after all, now you have to spend the second half learning to see yourself as nothing. You have been a negative nothing, now you want to be a positive nothing.”
In “Varieties of Disturbance,” Davis has achieved an angelic, objective distance. Set down carefully, the words in these stories reverberate, like nodes. In “Grammar Questions,” the narrator looks at her father’s dying, considering the grammatical angles: “I don’t know if there is a ‘he,’ even though people will say ‘He is dead.’ But it does seem correct to say ‘he is dead.’ This may be the last time he will still be ‘he’ in the present tense. Or it will not be the last time, because I will also say, ‘He is lying in his coffin.’ I will not say, and no one will say, ‘It is lying in the coffin,’ or ‘It is lying in its coffin.’ ” Here is the translator/fiction writer revealing the possibilities (and impossibility) of objective language. In “We Miss You,” a sociologist analyzes 27 letters written by fourth-graders to a fellow student who is absent due to illness. The story is willfully emotionless.
For a translator, one imagines, words can be immutable, eyeless or feverish and laden. We are in a period in literary history when accuracy, clarity and faithfulness seem transgressive. But that -- shorter, faster, more changeable -- is only culture. Davis, with her family tree and her rich soil, answers to a higher god.
Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.