With only a few words Lydia Davis creates stories that aren’t just exciting and entertaining but profound and impactful.
Readers generally brag about reading impossibly long books and sagas, and even some writers boast about the big number of words they can write in a day. Should we be impressed with that? Or have we finally stopped mistaking quantity with quality? An 800-page book won’t necessarily change your life or your perspective, and having to write too many words to convey a single idea usually means that it wasn’t a great idea in the first place. Luckily, literary history has proven that the best short story writers can create incredibly powerful experiences in just a few pages.
There’s one author that takes that brevity even further. Lydia Davis creates, with only a few words, stories that aren’t just exciting and entertaining but profound and impactful. Her stories can be one paragraph or a couple of sentences long, and they prove that we don’t need a big buildup to feel connected to characters and their experiences. In most cases, we don’t even get to know their names, but they feel close to us because their brief thoughts and observations are so insightful that they immediately become strangely familiar. In "The Mother," for example, she explains the entire essence of a complex mother-daughter relationship in just one short paragraph, and by the end we feel the daughter’s pain with absolute clarity. How is Lydia Davis able to achieve that?
The girl wrote a story. “But how much better it would be if you wrote a novel,” said her mother. The girl built a doll-house. “But how much better if it were a real house,” her mother said. The girl made a small pillow for her father. “But wouldn’t a quilt be more practical,” said her mother. The girl dug a small hole in the garden. “But how much better if you dug a large hole,” said her mother. The girl dug a large hole and went to sleep in it. “But how much better if you slept forever,” said her mother.
They are lost, but also not lost but somewhere in the world. Most of them are small, though two are larger, one a coat and one a dog. Of the small things, one is a valuable ring, one a valuable button. They are lost from me and where I am, but they are also not gone. They are somewhere else, and they are there to someone else, it may be. But if not there to someone else, the ring is, still, not lost to itself, but there, only not where I am, and the button, too, there, still, only not where I am.
She makes it sound easy, as if brilliance could be simply stumbled upon on a normal day: “Often, I immediately fictionalized something real in my own situation as practice, or as a way of starting on a story.” As she explains, she doesn’t feel the need to imagine other worlds or fantastic landscapes, because the world that’s in front of us is fascinating enough if we know how to pay attention to the details, and to the strangeness of our own thoughts and feelings. The uniqueness of Lydia's astounding world lies in her way of seeing and perceiving life while making an effort to describe it carefully and with the exact amount of words.
We are sitting here together, my digestion and I. I am reading a book and it is working away at the lunch I ate a little while ago.
"What She Knew"
People did not know what she knew, that she was not really a woman but a man, often a fat man, but more often, probably, an old man. The fact that she was an old man made it hard for her to be a young woman. It was hard for her to talk to a young man, for instance, though the young man was clearly interested in her. She had to ask herself, Why is this young man flirting with this old man?
The fact that most of her stories are realistic and describe perfectly ordinary situations proves how masterful she is. The situations are ordinary, but she describes them in a way that turns them upside down, specially when it comes to human relationships. In many of her stories, she’s able to dissect a totally common interaction to show its underlying motivations. For instance, in "Boring Friends," she hilariously synthetizes all of our social lives, and in "Happiest Moment," she compellingly shows us how deep is one man’s love for his wife without ever mentioning anything about affection.
We know only four boring people. The rest of our friends we find very interesting. However, most of the friends we find interesting find us boring: the most interesting find us the most boring. The few who are somewhere in the middle, with whom there is reciprocal interest, we distrust: at any moment, we feel, they may become too interesting for us, or we too interesting for them.
If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.
After reading these short stories, you’ll definitely want to read more, and you’ll become fascinated by the possibilities of language once again. Remember that this is only a glimpse of her incredible body of work, which is the reason why she received the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award in 2003, and the Man Booker International prize in 2013.
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