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
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
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
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
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
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
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)