‘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

‘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