‘The Mother’ by Lydia Davis

The girl wrote a story. “But how much better it would be if you wrote a novel,” said her mother. The girl built a dollhouse. “But how much better if it were a real house,” her mother said. The girl made a small pillow for her father. “But wouldn’t a quilt be more practical,” said her mother. The girl dug a small hole in the garden. “But how much better if you dug a large hole,” said her mother. The girl dug a hole and went to sleep in it. “But how much better if you slept forever,” said her mother.

I find that once I’ve read more than, say, five Lydia Davis stories in a row the effect is akin to eating an entire box of chocolates; this, for me, is testament to the complexity and intricacy of Davis’ craft. I’ve always pictured the tone of Davis’ stories as occupying a zone between a sort of humorist register – a sort of middlebrow unpacking of everyday foibles, best exemplified in the ‘letter’ stories – and an acidic shock of the kind that might accompany the downing of a shot of spirits. I come back to ‘The Mother’ again and again because of the vein of passive cruelty that culminates in that breathtaking final line, but the more I read and teach it, the more I’m aware of its strangeness. Why is she making a pillow for her father? What does the daughter’s muteness – or the muteness of everyone else in the story but the mother, for that matter – indicate? Is this a story about the perceived ‘uselessness’ of the art life? About the endpoint of practicality, as opposed to whim, as a life pursuit? And of course, being Davis, despite its brevity a whole world is conjured and dispelled in seconds.

Collected in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG/Hamish Hamilton, 2009

‘The Race of the Patient Motorcyclists’ by Lydia Davis

In this race, it is not the swiftest who wins, but the slowest. At first it would seem easy to be the slowest of the motorcyclists, but it is not easy, because it is not in the temperament of a motorcyclist to be slow or patient.

This slip of a story may seem like nothing more than whimsy. And yet like so much of Davis’ work, the image of the motorcyclists crouched on their powerful motors, seemingly motionless as the sun moves over their heads, concentrating with Zen-like stillness and intensity on moving as slowly as they can, will stay with you for years.

First published in Almost No Memory, FSG, 1997; collected in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG/Hamish Hamilton, 2009

‘What I Feel’ by Lydia Davis

A theory: the contemporary short story is defined by the opposing poles of two genius writers. Alice Munro is the great expansionist, Lydia Davis the great minimalist. It’s hard to choose one of Davis’s stories: they somehow work on you together, like the notes of a lovely dissonant chord. For instance the page-long ‘What I Feel’ – which teases a thought about solipsism almost to death – is enriched when read alongside the somewhat longer ‘Therapy’ and the even shorter ‘Head, Heart’. The best way to read Davis, I think, is to start one of her collections – or, even better, the Collected Stories – at the beginning and to finish, flushed and exhilarated, at the end.

First published in Conjunctions 17, Fall 1991, and available to read here. Collected in Almost No Memory, FSG, 1997, and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG/Hamish Hamilton, 2009

‘A Story Told to me by a Friend’ by Lydia Davis

I marvel at everything Lydia Davis writes, and this one is typical in that it is as much about what it doesn’t say as anything we read directly. Take the first line: “A friend of mine told me a sad story the other day about a neighbour of hers.” Her characters don’t even need to make the story their own for us to be intrigued, and of course, this distance becomes an important part of the story as we read on. Glorious. And heartbreaking. 

First published in Five Dials

‘Break It Down’ by Lydia Davis

Some years ago, somebody broke my heart. Perhaps this has happened to you. Perhaps you can still bring to mind the wasted, hollow feeling and the paralysing urge both to run and to burrow. Heartbreak is hard because it is acutely paradoxical; your greatest joy is causing you inexpressible pain, and you cannot even bring yourself to wish the pain away. At such times we cleverly turn to art, which, like god, we invented to help us cope with paradox. ‘Break It Down’ is a break-up story. In my case, it is also a story I discovered and enjoyed together with the person who ended up breaking my heart. It is dear to both of us, which made it all the more comforting/excruciating to reread in those hollow and wasted days. Much could be inserted here about Davis’s technical genius, about the effect of shifting from third into first and then second person, or the many exquisite images, or the particular line that may be the only time a short story has ever single-handedly brought tears to my eyes. But there’s no time to go into that, because I have to tell you what happened next. What happened next was that some time went by, and I met my girlfriend, Madeleine. And in the weeks after we met, I discovered during one of our long conversations that ‘Break It Down’ was extremely dear to her, too. So the story became part of the stories we told each other as we gradually unlayered ourselves in that way you do when you get to know someone special. I guess what I’m saying is that if one can be hoisted on one’s own petard, the opposite must also be true.

First published in the Paris Review 88, Summer 1983, and available to subscribers to read there. Collected in Break It Down, FSG, 1986. You can also hear James Salter read the story on the Guardian podcast, here

‘Nancy Brown will be in Town’ by Lydia Davis

I first came across Lydia Davis in a piece on experimental fiction, although I had an uncanny feeling of having encountered her before. She resists the label ‘experimental’ (in ‘From Raw Material to Finished Work: Forms and Influences II’, from her recently published Essays), since it ‘implies that the writer had a plan to test some preconceived writing strategy and see if it would work’. She doesn’t consider her stories to be ‘in any way experimental’, then, since she prefers to start them without much of a plan or process. I take her point, but doubt there is a better term, currently, for work that subverts the form, as hers so often does.

Another essay (Forms and Influences III, on ‘Sources, Revision, Order, and Endings’) includes a fascinating analysis of the genesis (a group email) and evolution of ‘Nancy Brown will be in Town’. Here is the finished product:

Nancy Brown Will Be in Town
Nancy Brown will be in town. She will be in town to sell her things. Nancy Brown is moving far away. She would like to sell her queen mattress.
Do we want her queen mattress? Do we want her ottoman? Do we want her bath items?
It is time to say good-bye to Nancy Brown.
We have enjoyed her friendship. We have enjoyed her tennis lessons.

First published as ‘Susie Brown will be in Town’ in Five Dials; collected in Can’t and Won’t, Hamish Hamilton, 2014

‘Break It Down’ by Lydia Davis

I first read Lydia Davis when I bought her Collected Stories the year after I finished university. She completely changed the way I thought about writing, about what stories and sentences could be, and of what was worthy of being written about. Shortly thereafter I changed how and what I wrote, writing with more purpose, and more often, and the first fully-formed short story I wrote as an adult was a poor rip-off of ‘Break It Down.’ It continues to be one of the most formally exciting and moving pieces of prose I have ever come across. 

Originally published in The Paris Review, Summer 1983 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Break It Down, 1986, FSG, and in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG, 2009/Hamish Hamilton, 2010

‘The Centre of the Story’ by Lydia Davis

This comes close to the end of the story as it is now, but she can’t really end with the devil and a train ride. So the end of the story is a problem, too, though less of a problem than the centre. There may be no centre. There may be no centre because she is afraid to put any one of these elements in the centre – the man, the religion, or the hurricane. Or – which is or is not the same thing – there is a centre but the centre is empty, either because she has not found what belongs there or because it is meant to be empty: there, but empty, in the same way that the man was sick but not dying, the hurricane approached but did not strike, and she had a religious calm but no faith.It was so hard to choose just one Lydia Davis story, because they have such an incredible cumulative effect. I chose this one because the ending of it – this paragraph – is taped above my desk. 

First published in Grand Street, Vol. 9, No. 1, Autumn, 1989. Collected in Almost No Memory, FSG, 1997/Picador, 2001. Also in the Collected Stories

‘City People’ by Lydia Davis

I first read ‘City People’ without any knowledge of the literary phenomenon that is Lydia Davis, which is an embarrassing admission. Unsurprisingly, I adored it. Another Davis story written expressly for me, or for the me that might struggle after leaving the city for the countryside. So many of her stories seem to have been written expressly for me, something I suspect is true for many others, damnit. They are sharp, dry and, usually, funny. And often very, very short. In ‘City People’, which at 130 words is shorter than this paragraph, a couple struggle with their move to the countryside, feeling uneasy at the strange noises and quarrelling more. “They cry, or she cries and he bows his head.” Everything is wrong, although not necessarily with the countryside. “We’re city people,’ he says, ‘and there aren’t any nice cities to live in.’”

Collected in Samuel Johnson is Indignant, McSweeney’s, 2001. Also, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador, 2010. Read online here

‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ by Lydia Davis

In this long and detailed story we follow a nineteenth-century British merchant, Lord Royston, as he travels around Scandinavia, Russia and central Asia. Lord Royston falls ill and then recovers. Various members of his party die. Finally he meets up with his friends Colonel and Mrs Pollen and they embark on a sea voyage back to England via Scandinavia. When I first read the story it reminded me of Mary Wollstonecraft’s account of her travels in Sweden or even the letters of Lady Wortley Montague. It’s a picaresque. But the last four pages move into a much more detailed account of the journey by sea and here the pace quickens. Their ship starts to take in water, and threatens to run aground fifteen miles outside Memel. An English sailor declares the captain to be incompetent. Tensions builds. The situation gets more and more desperate. And then the story ends. In the acknowledgements, it says that it’s based on a book published in 1838. The style, though, is all Lydia Davis’s: cool, dry and controlled. It’s the ending that has stayed with me, over-turning my expectations. 

First published in Almost No Memory, FSG/Picador, 1997. Collected in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG/Hamish Hamilton, 2009

‘A Story of Stolen Salamis’ by Lydia Davis

On the first day of the semester I forego preliminaries like ice breakers and syllabus details and close read this wonderful little story, told in a brief paragraph. The narrator’s son’s Italian landlord in Brooklyn cures salamis in a shed behind the house. One night the salamis are stolen, but when the incident is written up in a magazine as a human-interest story, the article calls the salamis sausages. When shown the magazine, “the landlord was interested and pleased that the magazine had seen fit to report the incident, but he added, ‘They weren’t sausages. They were salamis.’” 

We consider the narrative use of indirection, the dual use of “story” in English to mean both fiction and fact, and the text’s shifting of emphasis away from what could have been a dramatic event to the nomenclature of what was stolen (less stolen and more salamis). But above all we consider precise and imprecise uses of language: the glib, almost clichéd language of the magazine writer against the landlord’s stoic integrity.

‘A Story of Stolen Salamis’ is a perfect way to get the class started because it’s such an elegant parable of interpretation, of how words matter, how we must always respect the specificity of whatever it is we’re interpreting. Like my other choices, this story helps me to undertake this daunting but—to me, and, sometimes, to my students—enlivening task.

First published at Five Dials. Collected in Can’t and Won’t, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014. Read the story here

‘Oral History (with Hiccups)’ by Lydia Davis

Less than a page in length, this little gem illustrates the ability of a great writer to communicate the uncommunicable. The prose mimetically – and hilariously – reflects someone speaking with hiccups. Virtuoso story-telling. Perfectly judged sense of scale. Given that Davis was translating Proust around the time this story was composed, it is also a feat of aesthetic self-discipline. 

First published in Samuel Johnson is Indignant, McSweeney’s, 2001; more recently assembled in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009

‘Odd Behaviour’ by Lydia Davis

Davis begins this forty-six word story, “You see how circumstances are to blame”, and ends it with, “when I lived alone I had all the silence I needed.” Anyone else would have placed a novel between the two and still dealt with less along the way.

First published in Conjunctions 24, Spring 1995 and available online here. In The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Hamish Hamilton, 2009

‘To Reiterate’ by Lydia Davis

This tiny text folds in on itself like the paper fortune-tellers I make with my children.

You know the ones? You get a square of paper and fold in the corners until it becomes a smaller square. You open it out, turn the square over, fold the corners in again, and again, and you slide your fingers inside the pockets underneath to open it out. It looks like a mouth when you manipulate it.

On each face and under each flap you would typically write numbers or colours or messages. But in the Lydia Davis version of the textual game we’re constructing here, our origami fortune-teller would have only these four words on the hidden and exposed faces: read, write, travel, translate. It’s these four words that Davis interrogates, repeatedly, in ‘To Reiterate’.

Now, let’s invite Michel Butor, George Steiner, and Michel Leiris — writers who Davis invokes in the text, and who have their own ideas about reading, writing, travelling and translating. Whether we play this game with them or simply unfold the paper is up to the reader.

First published in Pequod, 1986; included in The Collected Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 2010