Duke Performances recently brought the medieval singing quartet Anonymous 4 to First Presbyterian Church in downtown Durham. On the program was love fail, a ravishing evening-length vocal piece by eminent composer David Lang. The topic was devotion, and the lyrics dripped heavily with medieval poetry.
But amid courtly verses by the likes of Marie de France and Thomas of Britain, some markedly contemporary passages let in refreshing draughts of levity and irony. One warily mocked a "rosy king" who at night became "a gray man ... who took offense, who was not reasonable." Another measured the subtle distance between being correct and being perceived by men as acting correctly. A third rattled off the "forbidden subjects" that a couple could no longer discuss for fear of repressed fissures irrevocably opening between them.
These striking passages came from a singular genius of American letters, Lydia Davis, your favorite writer's favorite writer. While visiting Duke from New York to lead a master class, she also gives a public reading from her work this Thursday night. The MacArthur-winning author of many fine translations (Proust, Blanchot) and one fine novel (The End of the Story), Davis is most celebrated for a quarter-century's worth of mutedly gemlike short stories, collected three years ago in an indispensable hardcover published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Whether or not they are actually stories in the usual sense is debatable, but we can all agree on the "short" part—Davis makes famously epigrammatic writers such as Borges look like 19th-century Russian novelists by comparison. Three or four of her tales could easily fit in this space, and that's disregarding many spring-wound anecdotes such as "They Take Turns Using a Word They Like," which goes in its entirety: "'It's extraordinary,' says one woman. 'It is extraordinary,' says the other."
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is done up in a radioactive-salmon color that belies the decisive eradication of flash in her unique blend of micro-fiction, prose poetry, philosophic inquiry, feminist critique and dark social comedy. The best literary precedent is Samuel Beckett, but this only gets you so far. In Davis' prose, empathy and broken-heartedness course below a cold, level surface, like a river rushing beneath a thin skin of ice. The appointments of narrative development in her stories can be almost brutally minimal. People read, chat, eat lunch, wait for phone calls. But mostly, they think. We spend a lot time in the minds of women as they parse the shades of an offhand interchange, rendered powerless to act by their own daunting powers of observation and contingent thinking. A distance is always closed between the first word and the last, though it may be as small as the leap between two synapses, or tightly looped, returning the narrator to precisely where she began.
All of this is related in a voice that is carefully flat, intelligent, plainspoken and funny, but also quietly incantatory and coiled with unnamable menace. The tone imbues modern neuroses and banal conversations with the dreamy, implacable weight of fairy tales—a quality that becomes overt in magical fables such as the stunning "The Thirteenth Woman." While most writers with strong voices are identifiable by their idiosyncrasies, Davis is marked by an almost total lack of them. The chiseled affectlessness of her prose is an amplifier for the emotional charge of its content, and fleeting rhetorical flourishes—"an oval cowrie, with white lips" in "Liminal: The Little Man"—go off like bombs. In a blurb for Collected Stories, Rick Moody called Davis "the best prose stylist in America," but she's more like the best anti-stylist, clearing away linguistic quirks from around the heart of the matter until the few that remain shine out with talismanic significance.
Over the chronological course of the Collected Stories, we witness what appear to be misgivings about the egoistic conventions of narrative padding—all the literary Styrofoam packing peanuts that safely usher a writer's true insights into the marketplace, as if they were delicate rather than durable—harden into a conviction. The early stories run at three to five pages and then start to shrink, becoming more enigmatic and aphoristic, though some longer pieces near the end suggest hyper-compressed novels, with italicized headings setting off paragraph-long chapters. But while Davis' style and concerns are honed down to finer points, they were in place at the very beginning. The volume opens with "Story," a blueprint for all that follows—in the lopsided love triangle it fiercely thinks through, in the half-mythic and half-diagnostic flavor of its title, and in some prescient words uttered by its narrator: "Maybe the truth does not matter, but I want to know it if only so that I can come to some conclusions[.]"
This article appeared in print with the headline "House of anti-style."
Correction: McClendon Commons is near (but not at) the Nicholas Institute.