To me Lydia Davis is a writer of contradictions: her deceptively minimalist short stories (some are a page long, some are just two lines long) contain both complex explorations of language and flippant funny observations. Read Lydia Davis in the wrong mood and you will be left asking what the big fuss is about, stories like Cows can seem almost dull in the plodding realistic descriptions of cows moving about a field. But read them in a more contemplative mood and suddenly such stories are suffused with meaning about the human condition, about how narrative is formed, about the role of the author. And this unique quality to take the mundane and make it profound, to take a specific everyday reality and turn it into something universally relatable and meaningful is why she is a great writer (and the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2013)
Often when people write about Lydia David that talk about her language skills, her career as a translator: she is someone who thinks very carefully about meaning and about specific meaning of individual words. (Read her interview in The Paris Review and you will never use an adverb again) But she is also a writer who cares about narrative meaning, and about narrative form. Take for instance Reversible Story which plays with the notion of consequence and sequential time to create two stories, with the same outcome (a neighbour is building a wine cellar for their house) but with different motivations. Always with Davis is the sense that she has observed something, something very everyday, something that you have probably thought about or seen and, by her own writerly gaze, titled our perspective so that it becomes a new thing.
She is a wry and clever in her observations: voicing common thoughts in ways that are unexpected yet familiar. So a standard bemoan about the duties of cleaning becomes instead:
Under all this dirt
the floor is really very clean
Writing, Davis shows, has the ability to put into sharp relief that which we know but have not yet verbalised. This is true also of one of the longer stories in the collection ‘Seals’ and is one of the most beautiful meditations on the nature of grief and grieving I have ever read. It dips in and out of a train journey (a favourite subject of Davis is trains, the oddness and closeness of human nature she nails with searing precision) of a woman recounting the death of her sister and father. The sense of loss and longing in sentences such as “The first New Year after they died felt like another betrayal – we were leaving behind the last year in which they had lived, a year they had known, and starting on a year that they would never experience.” are familiar sentiments to anyone who has lost a loved one. She moves from reminiscing about specific family details, to musing on the broader nature of grief and remembering those lost. The unexplained stories left by the objects they leave behind, the narratives without resolutions.
This is a dense and complex collection of stories and not everyone will like Davis’s pared back, hands-off approach in her prose (even I do not get on well with her ‘dreams’ series) but if given the time, if the reader is in the right almost meditative state (trains journeys are good for this), the stories in this collection will make you smile, frown, cry and most of all think. These are stories that are much more than the sum of their parts. Lydia Davis can and will.