When Lydia Davis isn't writing her own stories, she is translating French literature into English.
Lydia Davis is an American short story writer whose work redefines the meaning of brevity. While a few of her stories are of a conventional length, most range from one to three pages, and many are shorter still, occupying as little as a paragraph or a sentence. Here, for example, is one of Davis's better-known but least voluminous works, "A Double Negative":
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
by Lydia Davis
At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.
And here, from her 2007 collection, Varieties of Disturbance, is "Idea for a Short Documentary Film": Representatives of different food product manufacturers try to open their own packaging.
As these examples suggest, Davis's stories often appear to be little more than snapshots of thought, records of fleeting amusement, bafflement or illumination. Lacking, as they do, much of what we expect from a story – a setting, sustained narrative, characters with names – it's tempting to doubt whether "story" is even the right word for them. Wouldn't some other term, such as philosophical reflection or prose poem, be more suitable?
When I ask Davis this – she is speaking from her home in upstate New York – she explains that while she can see why her work attracts a variety of labels, she is happy to stick with "story". "When I first began writing seriously, I wrote short stories, and that was where I thought I was headed. Then the stories evolved and changed, but it would have become a bother to say every time, 'I guess what I have just written is a prose poem, or a meditation', and I would have felt very constrained by trying to label each individual work, so it was simply easier to call everything stories."
Besides, Davis adds – and this is crucial – even if her stories don't appear to tell any sort of story, there usually is one, hovering in the background. "Even if the thing is only a line or two, there is always a little fragment of narrative in there, or the reader can turn away and imagine a larger narrative," she says. "I think as long as there's a bit of narrative, or just a situation, I can get away with calling them stories."
Davis, who is 63, published her first collection in 1976 (at the time she was married to Paul Auster) and has gone on to complete a further five collections and a novel, The End of the Story. She also translates French literature, and it is the time she spent wrestling with Proust that she holds responsible for turning her into a miniaturist. "I started writing the one-sentence stories when I was translating Swann's Way," she recalls. "There were two reasons. I had almost no time to do my own writing, but didn't want to stop. And it was a reaction to Proust's very long sentences. The sheer length of a thought of his didn't make me recoil exactly – I loved working on it – but it made me want to see how short a piece of fiction could be that would still have a point to it, and not just be a throwaway joke."
Davis has often been described as a "writer's writer" – shorthand for saying hardly anyone reads her. But that has begun to change. When her Collected Stories came out in the US last year, it received the sort of acclaim usually reserved for heroes of the mainstream. James Wood gave her a rapturous review in the New Yorker; Jonathan Franzen called her a "magician of self-consciousness". This month the book is published in the UK. And it is a revelation. Davis's stories are best read not in isolation from one another but cumulatively; the more you read her, the more you come to appreciate her singular mindset. All literature, if it's any good, makes demands of its readers, but Davis's is practically unique in the number of blanks it leaves us to fill in. Basic things, such as the identity of a story's narrator and his or her relationship to the other chracters, are often totally unclear. Before we begin to try to "work out" her stories, we must accept that we may never know the answer to such things.
The other great thing about Davis's fiction – which again takes time to appreciate – is how funny it is. From an oblique revenge fantasy such as "Idea for a Short Documentary Film" to the marvellously surreal "The Race of the Patient Motorcyclists", which imagines a motorbike race where the object is to go as slowly as possible, Davis's humour is of a kind to make you simultaneously laugh and think. Her work, like that of Kafka – whom she cites as her biggest influence – is a semi-comic, semi-tragic investigation of the oddness of existence. It is experimental writing at its best.