Lydia Davis has devoted much of her literary career to the short story, a form she has reduced to little more than a sentence in some of her most concise works. Her stories function and thrive on their sparseness, which leaves wide open spaces in which readers infer their own meaning, resonance and often, plot. They eschew conventional means of climax and equilibrium, which are usually so central to the short story form. Instead, the stories present oblique gaps, lacunae in which the reader is left puzzled or bemused by an insinuation of meaning that is never made clear.
At times, Davis’ stories reflect the experience of modern life, in which snippets of information filter through to us without context or significance, and we are left to impute meaning from a fragment. Davis mines that typical modern experience, offering only tantalising glimpses of a story, of plot, character and progression. Her admission at the 2013 Hay Festival that she is considering writing fiction on Twitter thus makes perfect sense, as it is the ultimate embodiment of both the superficiality and frenzy of our current fetish for communication.
Davis is also famous as a translator, and has published translations of the first volume of Proust’s A la Recherché du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) as well as works by Flaubert and Blanchot. Her work as a translator perhaps informs her own writing’s acute clarity and carefully constructed form, and she has stated in an interview that she sees her style as a reaction to Proust’s long sentences. Whereas Proust layers meaning upon meaning, Davis scrapes it away, and leaves spaces which we must fill in as readers.
Davis’ work is experimental in the best sense of the word, in that it plays with the basic building blocks of literary meaning, reducing them to their more essential selves and letting them work without the scaffolding of plot, context or conventionally delineated character. However her short stories avoid becoming esoteric or difficult through their playfulness and subtlety, which gives them an accessibility that most experimental fiction lacks. Her humour is often ribald, sometimes ironic, and at times a side effect of her works’ own inscrutable nature. Her work is also deeply humanistic and concerned with the vagaries of perception and identity, and the compromises and negotiations that identity undergoes in an individual’s day to day existence.
In many ways her stories are closer to poetry and philosophy than to prose, sharing with poetry the capacity to imbue a line with more significance than its direct referent might suggest, and with a philosophical epigram the ability to provoke contemplation.
This was the quality that was cited when she won the Man Booker International Prize in May 2013; upon announcing the winner Professor Sir Christopher Ricks commented that ‘Lydia Davis’s writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind. Just how to categorise them? Should we simply concur with the official title and dub them stories? Or perhaps miniatures? Anecdotes? Essays? Jokes? Parables? Fables? Texts? Aphorisms, or even apophthegms? Prayers, or perhaps wisdom literature? Or might we settle for observations?’
This difficulty in categorising her works perhaps explains her relatively slow ascent to international literary acclaim. Born in Massachusetts in 1947, she published her first collection of short stories, The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories, in 1976, and went on to publish a succession of celebrated collections, and a novel, The End of the Story, over the course of the next few decades. These would garner her critical acclaim but not a particularly wide audience. She was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1986 for Break It Down and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1997. Throughout this period the slow burn of her growing acclaim continued and she developed a reputation as a ‘writer’s writer’, with current luminaries such as Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen citing the uniquely self-conscious quality of her work and her innovation within the strict confines of the short story form. The publication of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in 2009 saw this critical attention blossom and allowed her to find the wider audience she deserved. Being awarded the Man Booker International continues this steady rise and will hopefully reveal her playful yet powerful works to a new audience that will discover and appreciate the uniquely haunting and powerful quality of a Davis’ sentence.
By Thomas Storey