A Satisfying Clarity: Lydia Davis

On my shelf sits a fat volume of short stories that I have yet to finish, but which I love to revisit from time to time. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is a wonder. Most of its stories range in length from one line to three pages, with one or two approaching conventional story length. Because of the brevity of many of these works, it’s easy to think of them as flash fiction. Yet that snappy catch-phrase is inadequate. It doesn’t capture the brilliance and the depth of her stark and epigrammatic writing.

Davis is the author of one novel and seven short story collections as well as a translator of French-language texts. She’s a spare and eloquent writer who often reminds me of Samuel Beckett. Like him, she seldom hints at the particulars of time or place or physical description, paring down the clutter of words so that we might hear the soul speak. As with Beckett, that voice is often an isolated one, its desperation tinged with flashes of mordant wit.  Her one-sentence “Idea for a Short Documentary Film” leaps out of the blank page; it’s wry and very funny. “Happy Memories” is not. It’s a four-page story in which a woman wonders if she has accumulated enough happy memories to sustain her in her old age. Its tension lies in the narrator’s assumption that she will grow old alone. “The people in your happy memories have to be the same people who want to have you in their own happy memories…I should check now and then to make sure I am not alone too much, or unhappy with other people too often.” Like much of Davis’ work, its ruminative power builds in a way that is mesmerizing.

Even more so is “How Shall I Mourn Them?” written in the style of a litany, beginning with “Shall I keep a tidy house, like L.?” and repeating variations on this question, each crammed with mundane detail, in a stunning evocation of the everyday. It’s as if she’s saying that the best way to mourn and to live with grief is to enter into life itself. Yet there are moments when we cannot do this, and for those times, there is “Head, Heart” to speak the truth for us:

Heart weeps

Head tries to help heart.

Head tells heart how it is, again:

You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth         

              will go, someday.

Heart feels better then.

But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.

Heart is so new to this.

I want them back, says heart.

Head is all heart has.

Help, head. Help heart.

There’s much that’s poignant but also inspiring in this volume. Davis’ 18-page evocation of the scientist Marie Curie divides her extraordinary life into a series of compressed episodes that gain power through exact yet spare detail. Even in their brevity, they sketch for us a character of great depth. That same depth sneaks up on you throughout this collection. If you read enough of Davis. you’ll find that her writing has a cumulative, almost hypnotic power, along with a satisfying clarity.

The Collected Works of Lydia Davis (733pp) was published in 2009 in New York by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “A Satisfying Clarity: Lydia Davis

  1. Caro Soles

    Thanks for introducing me to this writer. I admire the spare style, althoughh I cannot emmulate it. I am too profuse, in many ways!

  2. pk

    Funny I read a James Woods’ piece the other day and he used a Lydia Davis excerpt. As I searched for the full poem I stumbled upon this blog.

    The most memorable elements of the Woods’ piece were the images of the father listening to his classical music on Sundays and the excerpt from Lydia Davis’s ‘How Shall I mourn them’. James Woods is an excellent writer. What is interesting to me is how the excerpt, not Woods writing, is what got me thinking and returning to this piece. I couldn’t remember who Woods was quoting, I had the poem stuck in my head, and it kept returning.

    Each morning as a I take out my cold stick of butter and attempt to spread it over brittle toast, I think shall I leave the butter out all day to soften, like… But I can’t remember like who? So I have to login to the New Yorker and find the piece and now I see, it’s C. But now that I know it seems not so important. What lingers is the following question:

    I wonder about excerpts that overpower one’s own writing, should we use them?

    This post is confused like my tenses.

    • Thanks for your comments. I also read James Woods’ piece and enjoyed it, but Lydia Davis’ excerpt is truly memorable. About the question of excerpts that may “overpower one’s own writing,” I think we have to leave that to our readers to decide. There’s so much incredible writing out there that might overwhelm our own efforts, but one reader may be riveted by a quote (as you were with Davis) and another might have paid more attention to the main text.

  3. Pingback: » Upon Reading James Woods ‘Becoming Them’ Philip Kreniske

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