Notes on Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis’ new volume of essays sent me back to her stories and the first volume of essays, which is my favourite of her books. She writes in almost flawless English and should be taught in business schools. If only emails and memos were written so precisely! By not trying to be a prose stylist in the fancy Martin Amis sense she has achieved a highly recognisable, almost unique, prose style.
It is really excellent how much she can make less than one page contain. Her concision is comprehensive. More than any writer I know, she realises fiction is a form of running thought experiments. Some of my favourite stories almost read like film treatments, if treatments were to become a serious genre. Despite this enforced plainness, she writes in many voices. With perhaps one intonation she has created many characters. What a strange ability, to be able to achieve so much variety through the art of consistency.
The Thirteenth Woman shows her in the tradition of Cranford as much as Kafka. In the Garment District shows that she knows how bored people experience their jobs but I do not know how she can know that. In one observational paragraph she sketches a psychology. She ends some stories in a conclusive suspense, like Cheever did. Compare Finances with Reunion. In fact, she often sounds more like Cheever than you might realise. And she is often longer than you expect her to be, too.
She claims not to be writing poetry but Hand is in direct competition with Keats’ fragment This living hand, now warm and capable. She often hovers between the comic, microscopic, tragic, and absurd. Many of her fragments could be the start of longer stories and it isn’t possible to be confident whether they would be tragic, comic, tragi-comic, or something else. You can learn a lot about these aspects of her work from her essays but that is not the same as learning from her stories.
She thinks, above all, in fiction, which not all fiction writers do.
On 5th April, I’m holding a discussion salon about Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko, a heartbreaking novel by a young Belarussian writer, that explores the bridge between the past and the present and the way history is lived out through individual lives. I do hope you can join me.