October 2010

Arts & Letters

‘The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis’

By Michelle de Kretser

In the United States, Lydia Davis has long been acclaimed for her experiments in short fiction. Elsewhere, she is best known as a translator of French literature and philosophy; in particular, for the 2002 translation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where Davis provided the first volume. Her Collected Stories showcases a remarkable formal range, while preserving the impress of Davis’ second profession in recurrent strategies and motifs.

Several stories dissect a statement, an idea, a situation. Consider ‘Foucault and Pencil’: “Sat down to read Foucault with pencil in hand. Knocked over glass of water onto waiting-room floor. Put down Foucault and pencil, mopped up water, refilled glass. Sat down to read Foucault with pencil in hand.” Here the nouveau roman, with its minute scrutiny of objects and actions, is echoed and – along with Foucault – gently mocked.

In ‘A Position at the University’ the narrator works at a university, but “I am not the sort of person I imagine when I hear that a person has a position at a university.” This story is typical of many that circle around a difficulty in order to arrive at a conclusion that doesn’t resolve the problem but restates it in a more satisfying way. Such tales are metaphysical but also metaphorical. They enact the task of the translator in their quest for exactitude, their pondering of nuance and their final acceptance that some puzzles can never be settled but only pleasingly reworked.

Lovers, too, obsess about meaning, especially when love wears thin. Couples bicker throughout this book, talk at cross-purposes, baffle each other. In ‘Story’ a woman combs through her lover’s actions and assertions to determine whether he is deceiving her. The title suggests that her conundrum – the inscrutability of other people – is fundamental, an ur-story. In ‘The Letter’ a translator pores over a letter from her ex, trying to extract its significance by studying everything from the postmark to the smell of the paper. But she also acknowledges that the letter might have been sent “quickly with no clear intention”.

The probing of love’s minutiae brings Proust to mind but Davis’ most striking characteristic is her non-Proustian brevity. She specialises in micro-fictions, notable for what they leave out. ‘Index Entry’ comes in at four words: “Christian, I’m not a”. ‘Spring Spleen’ compresses a suburban dystopia into the haiku-like “I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly. Soon they will hide the neighbour and her screaming child.”

Davis models stories on documentaries, philosophical maxims, journal entries, letters. ‘Jury Duty’ is a Q&A in which the questions are left out. ‘The Outing’, a bravura text, consists only of a brief list. Stripped of character, plot, anything that resembles conventional narrative, Davis’ experiments can on occasion seem forced. But much of her work is wonderfully suggestive, hinting at concealed emotions. It doesn’t renounce the elaboration of psychology and setting but passes that pleasurable labour to the reader. Her best stories drop like seeds into the mind, branch out, blossom.

Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog, which won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

'The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis' by Lydia Davis, Hamish Hamilton, 742pp; $55.00
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