Lydia Davis, the writer of brilliant and brittle short fiction, was born on July 15, 1947.
Davis’s stories are famously short (often only a paragraph or so), enigmatic, and usually fixated on mundane occurrences. She is credited as one of the inventors of “flash fiction.”
Despite their brevity her tales have the depth and characterisation found in longer stories. Amazingly, Davis manages to convey a lot of information and emotion in a very few words.
Here is a sample, a story called, “On the Train:”
“We are united, he and I, though strangers, against the two women in front of us talking so steadily and audibly across the aisle to each other. Bad manners.
Later in the journey I look over at him (across the aisle) and he is picking his nose. As for me, I am dripping tomato from my sandwich on to my newspaper. Bad habits.
I would not report this if I were the one picking my nose.
I look again and he is still at it.
As for the women, they are now sitting together side by side and quietly reading, clean and tidy, one a magazine, one a book. Blameless.”
Davis’s father, Robert Davis, was a professor of literature at Smith College in Massachusetts, where she was born.
Her mother, Hope Hale Davis, was a fiction writer who was published in the New Yorker and other magazines. She was also a devoted communist and a Russian spy, in the same cell as Alger Hiss and Whittikar Chambers.
In 1954 , during the height of the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts she testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and named her husband as a fellow communist, ruining his career.
Davis studied at Barnard College in the mid-sixties, where she met Paul Auster, who would go on to become one of America’s greatest writers. The pair spent time together working in France as translators and were married in the early 1970s. They have a son together.
Davis has had an award winning career as a translator of classic French novels. Her translations of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (2003) and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (2010) won great acclaim.
Davis’s short fiction was occasionally dismissed as being simply jokes or anecdotes. But, in the late 1980s the tide began to shift and her work was taken seriously. Her older books were back in print and Davis found a new, hipper audience.
Davis won the Mann Booker International Prize in 2013, and one of the judges, Christopher Ricks, said:
“There is vigilance to her stories, and great imaginative attention. Vigilance as how to realise things down to the very word or syllable; vigilance as to everybody’s impure motives and illusions of feeling.”
To make a long story short, I am a big fan of Lydia Davis’s work.