To call the American writer Lydia Davis experimental might scare off readers. They would expect her to take words to pieces and spill them back on us like peanut shells full of enhanced meaning for puzzle solvers. Readers have had over a century of those games and are likely now to sigh,“Enough—please.” And Davis writes a lucid, direct English respectful of all the do’s-and-don’ts that assail users of the language. Parallel to her life as a storyteller, she has been a translator. Encounters with Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust convinced her that being clear and accurate has a beauty all its own.
And yet, and yet, Davis the stalwart of clarity has been stupefying us since The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories of 1976. She writes in the first person, the dominant form in fiction today. But her narrator , her “I” sayer is only at times herself writing us a memo and just as often a wayward sister who leads a life of her own.
The novelist Siri Hustvedt, new wife of Davis’ first husband, Paul Auster, wrote a novel called What I Loved. It would be a stretch to take the tale of the rarefied Manhattan art-world as a roman-à-clef. But a character in it suggests Davis. Hustvedt describes her as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house,” which sounds like a negative view of how Davis relates to her own experience, especially after misfortune befalls her.
Davis herself gives a positive view of how in writing she distances herself from her lived life. It’s cool and plausible. She considers events out of their context:
“Just because a story uses material from the writer’s life, I don’t think you can say that it’s her life, or that the narrator is her. As soon as you select the material from your life, and arrange it and write it in a stylised manner, it’s no longer really identical to that life and that person.
“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality. One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.”
One of her narrators sums up Davis’ position:
“You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.”
One thing that surprises in Davis’ stories and risks their being stowed in the pigeonhole called experiment is their size. They can range from a sentence or two to rarely more than a dozen pages. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis of 2009, containing all her fiction done till 2008, counted 200 items in 733 pages. Our Strangers, 2023, her latest book, has 353 pages and 144 stories.
Reviewers of Davis have the rare luck of being able to quote the whole of some of her stories. This is Nietszche from Collected Stories:
“Oh, poor Dad. I’m sorry I made fun of you. Now I’m spelling Nietszche wrong, too.”
And When We Are Dead and Gone from Our Strangers:
“When we are dead and gone,
it might be comforting
to hear the quick knock on the door
and the voice from the far side saying,
though we won’t be able to open the door.”
That’s what one critic called the “wintry feel” of her last book. Its title story, Our Strangers, takes 16 pages and begins with Davis’ usual simplicity. It will finish with her just as usual astonishment at how different other human beings are from herself. There is no ordinary person for Lydia Davis.
“People are strangers to me. People I don’t know have habits that are nothing like my habits. These habits surprise me and yet they don’t surprise other people: they are taken completely for granted. Someone belongs to the Hunt Club. Someone else is fond of Dubonnet before dinner and always knows when it is time for a drink. These people are not like me and they are not really like each other, although they seem to me more like each other than like me just because they have in common the fact that they are all strangers to me.”
Winter Letter, at 21 pages, is a longer story from the new book. Its subdued excellence can be explained. The voice is that of an old woman, a mother who lives with her retired husband in the New England countryside. She is intelligent, like him a reader, with a patient interest in natural phenomenon.
“There are so many ladybugs in the kitchen. One will drop down on the counter. I never know if it is the same one. I like to watch what they do, how they walk around on their little legs….I like to watch the way they turn over, when they end up on their back. First they wave their legs in the air and try to catch hold of something, and when that doesn’t work, they open their wings out to the sides and kind of flip themselves over.”
We are left to guess that her husband was an academic of some sort and that she too had a working life. The fact that the mother is writing a letter to a daughter establishes the range of her vocabulary and the informality of style. Davis is rigorous in keeping to these bounds. In the end the woman narrator comes across as a finely drawn comic character unaided by belly laughs. There is even a hint of something mystic in her curiosity as she is confronted by a staring raccoon.
The story’s quiet force is in the way the woman faces up to the isolated life of a retired couple. It’s enriched by her interest in everything though, of course, she and we know that her end is in sight. She isn’t resentful, but tolerant, recognising her own quirkiness. Her feminism goes deeper than the conventional sort. Her sharp criticism of her husband doesn’t obscure her affection. The couple’s life comes across in depth, because the right details are chosen. As for the doubtless unexciting life of the village, her curiosity bathes it in interest .
The ambiguous relation that Davis has with experimental writing shows in her four dense pages in The Collected Stories that she calls Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho. Now Worstward Ho is a 47 page book of 1983 by Samuel Beckett that no one would deny belongs to experimental literature. Its speaker sets out on the impossible job of reducing all reality to nothingness by his manipulation of words. Readers of Beckett will recognise the artful effort of a humanitarian seeking, for reasons of his peculiar inner need, a general annihilation of being. Beckett goes about this using the simplest English words in contortions that disconcert.
In her reading, Davis doesn’t weigh up Beckett’s megalomaniacal objective. She ignores it, concerning herself with the sentences and phrases that please or displease her. She is delighted, for example, by a sentence like, “Wither once whence no return.” But she doesn’t like the string of words, “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.”
She goes so far as to parody Beckett’s text by describing her long minibus ride in his style:
“Van pointing south and moving, reads: So leastness on. Van turning off highway, sun behind, sun around and in window and onto page, does not read.”
To the parody she attaches notes that amount to another story, her bus ride written in her hallmark crystalline prose, full of her own peculiarity of adding unnecessarily accurate superfluous detail. It’s not clear what we are to conclude from her joining her two pieces. Is she saying that her kind of perfection is also an experiment but of a different kind than Nobel Laureate Beckett’s? Or is she saying that experiment is overvalued, a conceit taken too far? This would be strange coming from someone once dubbed “a writer’s writer’s-writer.”
In lieu of conclusion, readers may, dependent on their age, prefer to relish, from Our Strangers, her short-short story, Wise Old Men:
“In our society, old men are not considered to be wise, but, rather, odd, eccentric, opinionated, sloppy, foolish, forgetful, stubborn, weak, confused, clumsy, etc. This old man standing in front of me in line, that old man over there trying to open the door—what a bother, get out of our way, with your slow shuffling feet and your hesitation and your uncertainty, we say. Can’t you get all the way across the street before the light changes? In another society, it is different. He is an old man, they say, ask him.”