It’s been a long time since I’ve read a collection of short stories so when Lydia Davis won the Man International Booker Prize earlier this year, I decided to investigate her work. Over the last three weeks or so, I’ve been dipping in and out of this book which brings together four collections of her short stories: ‘Break It Down’ (1986), ‘Almost No Memory’ (1997), ‘Samuel Johnson is Indignant’ (2001) and ‘Varieties of Disturbance’ (2007).
Short stories are a very different form of art from the novel. For me, the most affecting are those which are able to tell the reader so much more than what is actually printed on the page, like ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’, the famous six-word story often attributed to Ernest Hemingway (or not, depending on who you believe). Davis’s stories definitely accomplish this. She has a real talent for picking up on the smallest detail of human life and behaviour and creating a gem from it.
Most of her stories really are very short – many of them are more like character portraits and some are flash fiction stories which are only a sentence or a paragraph long. It is hard to pick out favourites but one that stuck in my mind was ‘Companion’ which consists of just two sentences: “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.” Some of the stories are experimental and unconventionally structured in that there is rarely a beginning, a middle and an end but like ‘Companion’, they are sharply observed and often very humorous.
‘The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis’ is consistently exquisite from start to finish although it is best not to try and read them all in one go. I am glad that winning the Man International Booker Prize has given Davis wider recognition and I will definitely try and search out her novel ‘The End of the Story’ at some point.