In 1984, a six-year-old girl who fancied herself a writer attended a school she didn’t like with a crotchety teacher she liked even less. The adults in her life convinced her that she should learn to fit into this school-shaped hole and find something other than writing stories to earn real money, because money was so important in real life. In that same year, a grown woman on the other side of the world published a paragraph-of-a-story about a fish. It took thirty years for that story to find the girl, by which time she had become a woman who was still learning to own herself as a writer, and as a person. This story would skew her relationship with fiction, breaking and re-forming her neural connections in a way that began with Etgar Keret a decade beforehand.
This is the story of how I acquired Lydia Davis as a mentor, through her interviews and works.
It really did start in 2014 with ‘The Fish’, and ‘The Fish’ led me to seek out The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis — a compendium of four short story collections. I borrowed this doorstop of a book from my local library and renewed it, borrowed it again. Because this is not a volume to be read all at once: each story must have its space.
Reading snippets of Lydia’s life concurrently with her tiny fictions, I discovered that she received both the Man Booker International Prize and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit medal in 2013. And, as well as writing essays and fiction, Lydia translates classic works from French. She does this so well in fact that, in 1999, the French Government made her a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters for her translations, which include Proust’s Swann’s Way and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
For a few moments, she grew my personal list of unattainable should-haves: I should have spent a goodly proportion of my twenties in the south of France; I should have been writing two very short stories every day at the age of 26; I should have learnt another language fluently enough to translate important texts… [That one I might still achieve.]
Fortunately, she is a forgiving mentor: “That’s the interesting thing about writing. You can start late, you can be ignorant of things, and yet, if you work hard and pay attention you can do a good job of it,” she tells me, via The New Yorker.
Lydia may not be prolific with word counts but she has produced volumes of stories that translate well into present consciousness regardless of when they were written. ‘The Fellowship’ and ‘Can’t and Won’t’ speak of the uncertainty, resilience, subjectivity, and internal dialogue involved in writing for recognition by others; ‘Suddenly Afraid’ and ‘Men’ suggest questions of identity, agency, and safety as a woman, issues raised to recent prominence with feminist sensibilities and the emergence of #metoo.
Her material is ordinary; its expression is anything but.
Lydia’s stories possess a memoir-like quality, which isn’t surprising when you consider her material is “stylised” from life, and they give a feeling of unendedness, as though they are each a chapter of a constant journey. It’s as though somewhere in the words from all those stories channelling that same wry voice, the wafting threads will find a way to weave themselves together. Only they don’t. In Lydia’s ongoing narrative, the end of the story never comes — except in the title of her one and only novel.
Lydia’s unforced language speaks to me of a writer who transcribes onto the page directly from life. She is humorous, a master of spare prose, and the audaciousness of her experiments in form and structure inspire new patterns of thought.
Even so, with pieces such as ‘They take turns using a word they like’, I can not help but wonder if she sometimes writes just to see how much she can get away with. In her case, that would be a lot — and I admire that about her too.
Yet none of the above explains the depth of my connection to her prose. When I think back to my first encounter with ‘The Fish’, I realise that, by picking up this story, I inadvertently picked up an invitation. Was it intended for me? Maybe not, but I would not let it out of my hands; I claimed it. This fish was mine. It is my story, my life, with my gaps to fill.
Aguilar, A. & Fronth-Nygren, J. (2015) “Lydia Davis, Art of Fiction No. 227” in The Paris Review. Available online via https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6366/lydia-davis-art-of-fiction-no-227-lydia-davis [last accessed: 19 March 2018].
Blumberg, N. (2018) “Lydia Davis: American Writer” in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available online via https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lydia-Davis [last accessed: 19 March 2018].
Davis, L. (2009) The collected stories of Lydia Davis, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
Davis, L. (2014) Can’t and Won’t, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
Halford, M. (2009) “The Transcript of Our Live Chat with Lydia Davis” in The New Yorker. Available online via https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-transcript-of-our-live-chat-with-lydia-davis [last accessed: 21 March 2018].
Hendrix, N. (2013) “De Appel; Bourgeois Leftovers” in Lost Painters. Available online via https://www.lost-painters.nl/de-appel-bourgeois-leftovers/ [last accessed: 18 March 2018].
Keret, E. (2001) The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God: And Other Stories, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, New York.
Martin, R. (2014) “Lydia Davis’ New Collection Has Stories Shorter Than This Headline” in National Public Radio, Inc. Available online via https://www.npr.org/2014/04/06/299053017/lydia-davis-new-collection-has-stories-shorter-than-this-headline [last accessed: 18 March 2018].
Winters, D. (2014) “Like Sugar Dissolving: on The End of the Story by Lydia Davis” in The Quarterly Conversation. Available online via http://quarterlyconversation.com/like-sugar-dissolving-on-the-end-of-the-story-by-lydia-davis [last accessed: 19 March 2018].