In which Netty delves into Lydia Davis’s politics of the personal – and finds it much more enticing than that dross they dish up in Canberra …

August 17, 2014

Another month, another volume of short stories written by an American woman …

Regular readers may recall that just last month I was particularly scathing of Mary Gaitskill’s Stories. Not long after I blogged I got a message from Andy opining that I was “harsh” and wondering if I’d reconsidered after reading his glowing appraisal. It took all of a nanosecond for me to realise that no, there was no reconsidering to be done. I stand by my verdict on Gaitskill, harsh or otherwise.


Lydia Davis seems to really like cats. I won’t hold this against her …

Lydia Davis, on the other hand …

While Gaitskill was my choice – mistaken identity or not – Andy has been pushing for Davis for a couple of years now. So it’s a pity that she did not live up to his expectations. Me, I went in thinking just about anything had to be better than ol’ Mary, so maybe that reflected in my extremely favourable reaction to Davis. Maybe. Or maybe she’s just the bomb.

What neither Andy nor me realised going in was Davis was once married to Paul Auster, a firm ANRC favourite. I am not sure how long the union lasted – they wed in 1974, but Auster was married to another novelist, Suri Hustvedt, by 1981, so presumably not long. Like her ex, Davis is also a proficient translator of French literature (most notably Proust and Flaubert); and their writing careers follow a similar timeframe and trajectory. I kept wondering as I read these stories, particularly the earlier ones, if the “ex” to whom Davis’s narrators referred was actually Auster. Possibly this somewhat interfered with my perceptions – Auster is certainly a formidable literary figure, but then so is Davis. Also, Auster doesn’t have a Man Booker International Prize (which Davis won in 2013). Not that this is a game of bookish tit-for-tat or anything like that!

I’ll keep the Gaitskill references to a minimum, because she and Davis, stylistically, are very different writers; the former is only my immediate touchstone because she is my most recently read. Although Davis was first published in the mid-1970s and has around a dozen collections to her name – some of which overlap – The Collected Stories (published in 2009) starts, somewhat confusingly, with the 1986 selection Break It Down and takes in 1997’s Almost No Memory, 2001’s Samuel Johnson Is Indignant and wraps up with 2007’s Varieties Of Disturbance (there have been a couple of post-2009 collections, the most recent of which was published just a couple of months ago).

As Andy noted, Collected Stories is more than 700 pages long, comprising 199 stories (I counted them!) You could argue that “stories” is a misnomer in a lot of cases – some of these stories are very short, a page, a half-page, even a sentence. I liked that a lot – I admire economy in writers, and sometimes a story can absolutely be finished in a sentence. To wit: the title story of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant.

Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:

that Scotland has so few trees.

See? It’s perfect. It’s so simple, yet so perfect in its succinctness – and so funny. Davis is really funny a lot of the time, although it’s rarely obvious humour. It’s more the dry-and-wry variety. And that suits me just fine.

Another thing about Davis is she is an absolute master of what I call politics of the personal. She can cut to the core of any male-female relationship, from both sides of the equation, and distil its very essence in just a few words, sentences, pages. And that was, far and away, what impressed me most about her writing. It is chock-a-block full of fundamental truths of male-female dynamics that we rarely, if ever, admit to anyone else, including our partners – let alone ourselves. Trust me – you will laugh and cringe at the same time as you recognise yourself, your partners, your friends in these pages, in these tales.

From the opening story (called, uh “Story”), about a woman obsessing about the intricacies of her, possibly nascent, relationship, it is writ large, front and centre. The level of unnecessary miscommunication between the pair over the course of a few hours at night provides the comedy, but the underlying uncertainty and fear of mind games provides the uncomfortable recognition factor here: “The fact that he does not tell me the truth all the time makes me not sure of his truth at certain times, and then I work to figure out for myself if what he is telling me is the truth or not, and sometimes I can figure out if it’s not the truth and sometimes I don’t know and never know, and sometimes just because he says it to me over and over again I am convinced it is the truth because I don’t believe he would repeat a lie so often”.

Who among us hasn’t stayed up half the night twisting themselves in and out of knots as they grapple with the perceptions and misconceptions of and within a relationship? Davis gets this, and she nails it just about every time she steps into this territory. This is the sort of revelatory writing in which few authors really, rarely suceed. Davis does it effortlessly, time and again, with her incise and incendiary prose.

In his Gaitskill blog, Andy noted he had already ordered her other books on the strength of Stories. I will be doing the same with Davis. I can’t recommend her strongly enough, but I recognise that she won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. And certainly, not all of these stories work. But, oh boy, when they do … and much more often that not, they do – and in spades.

My literary find of the year, so far. What a smart, savvy, switched-on female voice – stunning stuff. Highly recommended. Oh, I said that already, didn’t I?


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