In Our Strangers, Booker International Prize-winning writer Lydia Davis once again offers us a diverse range of story forms: creatures of the habitat of her mind, or her notebook, which often seem interchangeable. She is also an esteemed translator of Flaubert and Proust, information given here not only as an indication of her precision as a crafter of language but also because of the way it serves as a type of ballast in her creative ship. Such technical skills – and the artisanal sensibility they prove – remind us to take careful note of what can appear at first glance to be a rather nonchalant approach to the art of fiction.
Davis’s stories could be described as literary ready-mades. Her point is that you won’t get the generic poignancy of “literature” without the resonant things that surround it: the detritus of personal foible, the display of middle-class laundry, the backstage pass and the opinion never uttered. The most ordinary moments of our inner lives, devoid of myth, become re-enchanted in Our Strangers as part of fiction’s ecology of motifs.
The small things in which Davis is interested unsurprisingly extend to insects – often her stories are insect-sized. Of late she has developed an interest in permaculture, in part as a response to the climate emergency. She has ensured Our Strangers is not for sale with online gargantuan booksellers and has sworn off plane travel for the rest of her life which, for an American writer of her reach, seems akin to giving up sneakers.
However, her small things can also just be thought processes or, as Joseph Beuys might put it, thinking as form – in this case narrative form. For Davis, our thought processes turn out to be signature things, particularly if they are about what we would typically regard as nothing much. As if to say, that’s how we are, and who we are, most of the time.
Ultimately, the creative act of fiction betrays each author’s choice of what qualifies for inclusion as being important, entertaining or interesting in life. Birth, death, tragedy, moral crusade, the glitter of light on water are all part of the standard equipment. What Lydia Davis decides is fit material for the art is another matter and her choices are often startlingly, even confusingly, real. Life, she tells us, is frequently plain and most often slight. In this she is kindred to Italo Calvino, who declared early his sincere ambition to be “a minor writer”. As a response to the lurid D’Annunzian fascism of his home country, Italy, this made complete moral and artistic sense at the time. In the booster economies of the 21st century, it still does.
Canongate Books, 368pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "Our Strangers".
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