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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unique fiction: The qualities of Lydia Davis's short stories

I've read about her, I've read her translations ( think her translation of Swann's Way is extraordinary and her notes on translation are works of art in themselves), but had never read Lydia Davis's short stories, which are at the heart of the matter, in fact had kind of put off doing so for fear I would find them very self-aware and off-putting, but last night started her recent collection Can't and Won't and am very impressed. I think the best way to come at these is to loosen yourself of all expectations. They may be labeled "short stories," but that's for lack of a better term, at least in English. Each one is a little puzzle, an odd perception, a worrying of a set of facts, an encounter, a realization. The best word, probably, is the French, apercus - that's really what they are, moments of perception. Calling them short stories makes us focus on what they are not and what they have not: no plot, no arc (usually), no characters to speak of other than LD herself, the witty soul at the heart of these. They come off like a novelist's or philosopher's notebook entries: reminds me at times of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, broken down into minute grains. What are they?: some are actually translations of similar pieces by Flaubert, and it's no knock to say these are some of the best pieces (F's observations watching a widow in mourning at the graveside, his conversation w/ his cook who did not know that the French monarchy had been overthrown 5 years previous, leading F to note that he used to think he was smarter than she but now realizes he's a complete imbecile), others are drams as captured it would seem in a bedside notebook (these are the weaker pieces, who cares about someone else's dreams), some are more developed, not quite stories but more like a take on a situation, edging perhaps closer to a New Yorker shouts and murmurs, but  little too bristly and literary for that: a great piece about a "sign" she could wear warning others on a train not to sit near her, a little puzzle about a friend also named Davis and an awkward situation involving the rightful owner of a rug (hard to explain - which they all are, in a sense), some haiku-like moments, a funny short piece about nagging mother who at last appreciates sister when sister has audience w/ Queen of England (can this be true? - LD makes it seem as if these are personal essays, but perhaps they're more fictive that she lets on), a long, for her, piece about two difficult servants in a European (?) sublet. Read in sequence, in a long sitting, these don't in any way cohere into anything like a set of "linked stories" but they do provide us w/ access to the quirky, clever mind of LD - in a way, she opens herself up as much in these short pieces as any novelist, or memoirist.

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