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“The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis”

The Collected Stories of Lydia DavisThe American writer Lydia Davis is among the ten finalists for the International Man Booker Prize 2013. A translator of modern French authors (Proust, Foucault, Blanchot among others), Lydia Davis is best known for her short – often very short– stories. Ever since she published her first story collection (Break it Down, 1986), she has been considered an innovative master of the genre. Other collections followed: Almost no Memory (1997), Samuel Johnson is Indignant (2001) and Varieties of Disturbance (2007). A novel, The End of the Story, appeared in 2004.

The 733-page strong volume The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Penguin, 2012) includes the four collections mentioned above, covering about twenty years of Davis’s production. From such a thick book readers can choose now a shorter, now a longer story, depending on the time they can devote to reading (like their author did: in an interview she admitted that having to teach, translate and take care of her children she found the form of the very short story most suitable to her): some take up a certain number of pages, some are a page or a paragraph long, others consist only of a sentence. Some make sense only if read as a continuation of the title, like

Samuel Johnson is Indignant: (title)
that Scotland has so few trees. (text)

This is not the most peculiar of Davis’s stories. To me they feel so novel that I am impelled to read more and more of them. Some I would not even call stories, but elaborate thoughts, some sort of polished diary entries perhaps. Very little happens in them. Davies starts from casual thoughts and thinks them through. What is kindness? Why do we want to be kind with the people closest to us and never manage to do it? She measures ethical statements against logic and her experience of life (in Pastor Elaine’s Newsletter, or in Ethics, for example).

Other stories are ruminations over finished or difficult love stories. In Break it down, a man calculates how much money a week-long affair has cost him: per week, per day, per hour. How much pleasure and how much pain it has given him. Whether the pleasure has been worth the pain, and if it is worth starting again and again with new loves.

Some very short stories include sudden revelation for their protagonists or for the reader. In The Fish, a woman stands over a fish she has just cooked, reflecting on «irrevocable mistakes» she has done during the day. Suddenly the fish, boned, skinned and left to cool on a marble slab, appears to her as a lonely and violated creature, and the act of cooking it the last of her mistakes.

In Mildred and the Oboe, a woman who defines herself a «a sober person, a mother» complains about being surrounded by female neighbours that she pictures as «a circus of vaginas leaping and prancing» all the time. In the building – she says – there are «thirteen vaginas and only one penis, my little son».

Wife One in Country is about a telephone conversation between Wife One and her son, who lives not with his own mother but with Wife Two. Under the exchange on the phone Davis detects the pain beneath the accommodations of our lives.

Some stories are fantastic, read like tales or myths. Grandmothers whose old limbs grow into tree branches, «brothers-in-law» or women who live with a family, in a community, but are almost invisible and eventually disappear completely. Invisible like them are the mice hiding behind walls in country houses, cockroaches squatting in spaghetti boxes, always ready to vanish. Everything that is there around us, but whose presence we do not always perceive. Everything that is there somewhere but not where we are, not for us to see it, like in Lost Things.

Short stories like Davis’s may give the impression that they lack a centre or are uninteresting. In What is interesting, Davis makes a story out of it, out of one of her stories being insipid for the reader.

Other stories (like Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman) could be compared to very short novels, with very short chapters. A sentence, or little more, summarizes a phase of the character’s life. Such stories remind me of Virginia Woolf’s prediction about the novel that future female writers would write: shorter and more concentrated, due to the many tasks women are always busy with.

Eclectic, thought-provoking, interesting and well written. Davis’s stories are well worth reading.

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Indubbiamente interessante un libro di narrativa come quello descritto. S e lo avesse scritto un autore dei nostri, magari di quelli meno strombazzanti, lo troveremmo ugualmente interessante o passerebbe sotto silenzio? Scrittori di tutto il mondo, un consiglio. se vi capiterà di mascere un'altra volta, fatelo in America.

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