I heard about Lydia Davis via coverage of the release of her Collected Stories her in the U.K. She is not a writer I had heard much about previously but it is clear from reading her first collection (her Collected Stories contains all of her collections) Break It Down that her reputation in the U.S. is well earned.
In her debut collection, published in 1986, Davis moves between dark magical realism (The Brother-in-Law), the minutely observed slice-of-life tale (Mr Burdoff’s Visit To Germany), the semi-autobiographical short story (Visit to Her Husband, Five Signs of Disturbance and many more) and some dazzling pieces of flash fiction taking in many sub-genres in between. This collection is impressive in its breadth of genre, style and subject matter.
The settings of the stories are largely domestic, with many of the protagonists either unnamed or give placeholder names (man and wife being most prevalent). This use of generic names or pronouns makes them at once everyman (or woman) and able to present her themes without clouding the ideas with too much character. It is her more specific characters that I find most successful though. For example, ‘Mr Burdoff’s Visit to Germany’ is a tender tale of a man struggling to connect to the world around him, his struggle emphasised in his efforts to learn a language in a strange country while simultaneously engaging in a love affair. His specificity lends Mr Burdoff a reality greater than that afforded to the other, less well defined characters or narrators.
It is a testament to the quality of Davis’ writing that only one story, the obscure ‘French Lesson 1: Le Meurtre,’ left me feeling unsatisfied. The french lesson of the narrative overshadows the story and reading it was tedious in comparison to the delights elsewhere in this book. Flash fiction fans and those attempting to master the form should put Lydia Davis on their must read list. There really are too many quality examples of the genre within this first collection and, I am sure, within her complete collected stories. I have marked a great number these stories for re-reading. Hopefully some of her daring with language and her control of the form will rub off on me. At the very least I might catch a glimpse of how the wizardry Davis displays is created behind the curtain of the page.
………And that (albeit a week late in the posting – I assure you I was on time with the reading) is that. 365 days and I have read more than 365 stories (especially if you factor in web stories I have read during this period). I’ll be posting my thoughts on completing this challenge later this week, along with a list of the best stories I read during this period, a kind of Best Stories of 2010 according to me. Until then, anyone have any short story recommendations from their recent reading.