‘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

‘Helen and Vi, A Study in Vitality’ by Lydia Davis

Davis was one of the first writers I read who showed me writing can play with ‘non-literary’ forms and this story takes the form of a sociological report. A reviewer in Paste Magazine wrote: “Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality” details the lives of two healthy, elderly, working-class women (and a shadowy third whose wealth and narcissism negatively affect her health,” which seems to me a slightly odd interpretation, as the two women named in the title successfully inhabit feminised social strictures which mean they are endlessly at the beck and call of others. I read the story at a time in my life where there was a strong possibility that if I continued as I had been, I might end up like Helen or Vi. Instead I decided I would rather be like the third woman, who is called “Hope”. Helen and Vi is unusually long for a Davis story. In an interview with the LARB she wrote: “Usually I don’t put a story in a collection if I think it’s not quite finished or if it didn’t quite work but I was very fond of this story. I decided to put it in anyway; I thought, ‘This one will be for me, even if other people don’t like it or are puzzled by it.’”

From Varieties of Disturbance, FSG, 2007. Also in the Collected Stories, FSG/Penguin

‘Grammar Questions’ by Lydia Davis

Whereas Tim Horvath’s narrator portrays his father as having departed this life, Lydia Davis zeroes in on the transition between life and death, the drawn-out process of departing. The result, ‘Grammar Questions’, reads superficially like a series of dispassionate inquiries into the appropriateness of diction and syntax in a series of statements about a dying man. “Now,” she begins, “during the time he is dying, can I say, ‘This is where he lives’?” But there’s anguish burning beneath the surface of every sentence, and by the end of the story it’s clear that there can be no better illustration of the slipperiness of language as the narrator repeatedly falls into the fissure between the words she speaks and the truth of what she sees with her eyes:

When he is dead, everything to do with him will be in the past tense. Or rather, the sentence ‘He is dead’ will be in the present tense, and also questions such as ‘Where are they taking him?’ or ‘Where is he now?’

But then I won’t know if the words he or him are correct, in the present tense. Is he, once he is dead, still ‘he,’ and if so, for how long is he still ‘he’?

The story is also a companion piece to Davis’s equally excellent ‘Letter to a Funeral Parlor’ (from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant), in which the narrator takes issue with the description of her father’s cremated remains as “cremains”. The two stories work together beautifully and poignantly, the one using bitter humour to offset the bereft grammatical analyses of the other.
From Varieties of Disturbance, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007; reprinted in The Collected Stories)

The One You Wish You’d Written: ‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ by Lydia Davis

I’m ashamed (or maybe a bit proud) to say I’d never read any Lydia Davis until a couple of years ago when I accidentally Won a Short Story Competition that I don’t like to talk about at every opportunity, and Lydia Davis’s was one of the names mentioned by someone trying to describe my Award Winning Short Story. And then I read ‘The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis’, and went “of course!” and “I am not worthy!” and also, sometimes, “what?”

Davis is usually ranked with Barthelme (that’s my Barthelme, remember) in the Whirlwinding Cavalcade of Fizzing Idea Fireworks! genre, which is fair enough because they are and she does and it is. But she’s less glib than The Donald, more rooted in real, complicated emotions and reactions to things (Davis does quite irritated better than anyone else I can think of).

And, like me, she loves, subtitles.

‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ is a story I wish I’d written, and one I’d have loved to write: a deadpan reconstruction – based on actual letters – of the real Philip Yorke, Viscount Royston’s 1806 tour of the Russian Empire, including his accidental death, full of delicious local colour and detail, told like an epic historical novel in miniature.

With the Help of Some Bark:
Over the Caucasus

As soon as he can sit on a horse he takes leave of his Georgian friends, and rides out of town. The snow and ice on Mount Caucasus, along with the help of some bark he gets from a Roman Catholic missionary, restore him to perfect health and strength as soon as he beings ascending the mountain.

Etc.

Is it a parody? A commentary? A narrative experiment? What does it mean?

Enough with the theorising talk, and shut up: it’s just a great story.

(In Almost No Memory, FSG, 1997 and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, 2009)

‘Break It Down’ by Lydia Davis

I bought the big doorstep of collected stories a few years back and wolfed the whole thing right down, fully agape, all in one go, so that my belief got totally suspended and for a few days everything became Davisworld:  totally deadpan and credulous.

I pressed this copy on a friend and never got it back and I was happy, actually, just with the impression that these stories had left. But then just recently I found a different collection of hers at my boyfriend’s house and I dipped into it one morning while he was making coffee and somehow it wasn’t the same at all. It seemed flat and puny, not at all like the stories I’d been carrying around with me all this time. So, I bought another copy of the collected stories just to check, but I’ve been too wary to open it until by chance I heard this one read by a kind American voice (a Judy Blume voice, a Sesame Street voice) on the radio a few weeks back and there I was all agape again.

First published in The Paris Review. Collected in Break It Down, FSG, 1986. Also in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davies, Penguin, 2009. Hear ‘Break it Down’ read aloud here

‘The Magic of the Train’ by Lydia Davis

The USA is a country which has largely turned its back on the train as a form of transport, which perhaps accounts for the paucity of the train story (the apotheosis, after all, of the short form) in the North American tradition. Davis (the most reassuringly European of American writers) knows about trains, and the strange effect they have on time. This story is an Einsteinian thought experiment, rendered comprehensible.

First published in Can’t And Won’t, 2014. Read it online here

‘Wife One In Country’ by Lydia Davis

Here, we are back to the tiniest of stories and another of the geniuses of the shortest prose, Lydia Davis, who takes everything we thought might have been “rules” of writing and breaks them, necessarily, purposefully, brilliantly. Once again, it’s hard to describe this piece, I’d rather you go and read it, to see what Davis does with language, how she chooses to name and unname, whose voices she brings us, and how. This is a perfect example of writerly choice – in showing us what she shows us, she opens up the world of this story, taking it beyond the very specific to the universal of human relationships, of families past and families present, of love and ex-love, of loneliness. Another piece I use often in writing workshops to give writers permission to let go of everything they think they “should” – isn’t the writing world full of “shoulds”? – do, to see what they might do, can do.

First published in Almost No Memory (FSG, 1997), also available in The Collected Stories, and available online here