Since her first story collection, The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories (1976), Lydia Davis has been breaking rules.
She has taken everything a story is supposed to do or be—structural devices, plot points, character development—and put it through the spin cycle or the martini shaker, if you will. She has written stories with no plot to speak of, stories with too many characters, stories in the form of poems. She has written stories about the writing of stories, a cardinal sin of story writing according to Samuel Beckett.
In an interview many years ago with the author Francine Prose, Lydia Davis confessed that she knew she wanted to be a writer from a very young age. “But the funny thing,” she said, “was that it was more of a burden than a pleasure.” Of the core subjects in school, “I loved math, because there was only one way a problem could come out.” And of languages, after English her favorite was Latin. She hated history because “the events could have come out too many different ways.” In the end, she chose to make her home in literature. But given her aptitude for the analytical disciplines, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Davis’s work is revered for “defining problems precisely and economically,” for presenting in any given story “at least two ways of understanding any given situation” (Shelley Jackson for the Los Angeles Times Book Review).
In practice, Davis takes notes when the feeling moves her, when a story comes to her, when she sees or hears something interesting. These scraps of language and emotion, of idea and song, are tumbled over time in her logical and philosophical mind. On the page, her words find a rhythm. A seemingly simple story—sometimes just a sentence—reveals layers of complexity, as in “The Fly,” “At the back of the bus / inside the bathroom / this very small illegal passenger, / on its way to Boston.” A 40-page grammatical examination of fourth graders’ letters to a sick classmate applies a careful analysis to some very simple thoughts. And the thing that is only sometimes said about her in serious criticism but that is very true: she is awfully funny.
In addition to her four collections of short fiction and a novel, The End of the Story (1995), Davis is the translator of numerous French novels, memoirs, and volumes of literary criticism, including an award-winning translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way and an upcoming translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In 2003 she received a MacArthur Fellowship for writing. She is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Albany in upstate New York where lives with her husband, the painter Alan Cote. She has two sons, Daniel Auster (with her first husband, novelist Paul Auster) and Theo Cote.
Excerpt from “A Man from Her Past,” Varieties of Disturbance (2007)
I think Mother is flirting with a man from her past who is not Father. I say to myself: Mother ought not to have improper relations with this man “Franz”! “Franz” is a European. I say she should not see this man improperly while Father is away! But I am confusing an old reality with a new reality: Father will not be returning home. He will be staying on at Vernon Hall. As for Mother, she is ninety-four years old. How can there be improper relations with a woman of ninety-four? Yet my confusion must be this: though her body is old, her capacity for betrayal is still young and fresh.
Varieties of Disturbance (2007), a finalist for the National Book Award
Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2002)
Almost No Memory (1997)
The End of the Story (1995)
Break It Down (1986), a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award
Story and Other Stories (1983)
Sketches for a Life of Wassilly (1981)
The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories (1976)
Davis was named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government for her translations of:
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
Hélene by Pierre Jean Jouve
The Madness of the Day and Death Sentence by Maurice Blanchot
Vol. 1 of Ethics, Essential Works of Foucault by Michel Foucault
Rules of the Game, I: Scratches by Michel Leiris
The Spirit of Mediterranean Places by Michel Butor