Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis

Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation, explains the idea behind the Booker Prizes on the official website.  He wrote, "From the very beginning of what was originally called the Booker Prize there was just one criterion - the prize would be for 'the best novel in the opinion of the judges'. The aim was to increase the reading of quality fiction and ... The real success will be a significant increase in the sales of the winning book.”  As my listeners have heard several times, the Booker prize represents the best fiction written in English today since 1969.  The International prize began in 2004 and is awarded every other year – not for an individual title, but for a body of work.  The winners include Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, and American novelist, Philip Roth.  The winner for 2013 is another American, short story writer Lydia Davis.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis total 298 on well over 700 pages.  Some of the stories are as short as a few lines, which evidences her creativity and desire to break new ground in the venerable genre stretching back well over 100 years.  Not a book to be read in a sitting, but rather wandered through like a museum, stopping here and there to take in a particularly artful piece.

I hardly read any of the stories I did not like, but rather I sipped and enjoyed even the shortest pieces like a glass of fine Bordeaux.  Here is an example of one of these short-short stories, titled “The Fish Tank,” “I star at four fish in a tank in the supermarket.  They are swimming in parallel formation against a small current created by a jet of water, and they are opening their mouths and staring off into the distance with the one eye, each, that I can see.  As I watch them through the class, thinking how fresh they would be to eat, still alive now, and calculating whether I might buy one to cook for dinner, I also see, as though behind or through them, a larger, shadowy form darkening their tank, what there is of me on the glass, their predator” (172).

Most of the stories deal with ordinary people facing life’s difficulties and joys, getting by day to day.  Others seem to be sketches prepared while outlining a story.  Here is the beginning of “The Center of the Story”: A woman has written a story that has a hurricane in it, and a hurricane usually promises to be interesting.  But in this story the hurricane threatens the city without actually striking it.  The story is flat and eben, just as the earth seems flat and even when a hurricane is advancing over it, and if she were to show it to a friend, the friend would probably say that, unlike a hurricane, this story has no center” (173).

But my favorite is “French Lesson I: Le Meurtre”: “See the vaches ambling up the hill, head to rump, head to rump.  Learn what a vache is.  A vache is milked in the morning, and milked again in the evening, twitching her dung-soaked tail, her head in a stanchion” (103).  Clever and creative. 

I have always loved short stories, and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis has shot to the top of my favorites list.  Take a sip of Lydia Davis’ work, and you will have many hours of enjoyment.  5 stars


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