But personally, I enjoy these various forms of literature* because of their brevity. While they may be quick to read, that they are also capable of profound and emotive power as Lydia Davis clearly recognises in four of her short story collections, which are also available in:
|madness: a mad person not helped out of his trouble by anything real begins to trust what is not real because it helps him out and he needs it because real things continue not to help him||- 'Liminal: The Little Man'|
Recently announced the winner of the International Man Booker Prize, Lydia Davis has been recommended to me before for being a unique American writer and so, I found a copy in my local library to see what Davis had to offer. What I found reading these stories was a peculiar experience. In fact, I think it's inaccurate to describe them as stories; what Davis has written here are experiences, at one alienating and familiar snapshots of the lives of humans. Almost none of the characters of her stories are given names and nearly all are written in the first person, and so remarkably creates a version of the world purely through the viewpoint of one character. As such, there is a great variety within the collection. She clearly has a good sense of humour ('Television', 'Idea for a Short Documentary Film'), well-read and intelligent enough to pull off numerous pastiches ('Kafka Cooks Dinner' is just wonderful in every way and is probably my favourite of her short stories), and capable of deconstructions on the acts of writing and reading ('We Miss You', 'Grammar Questions', 'French Lesson I: Le Meurtre', 'The Centre of the Story').
She is clearly playing and experimenting with the short story form, with some of them being the shortest ever written. At times this leads to some incredibly poignant passages such as the following:
it occurs to me that I must not know altogether what I am, [...] and that others know certain things about me better than I do, though I think I ought to know all there is to know and I proceed as if I do. Even once I see this, however, I have no choice but to continue to proceed as if I know altogether what I am, though I may also try to guess, from time to time, just what it is that others know that I do not know.But while she creates incredibly emotional pieces, at times her experimentations appear to exist to solely show off her cleverness and technical skill. These pieces seem to have something missing and cause frustration - is she being deliberately alienating or is annoying pretentiousness part of her writing style? This latter problem is best seen in the shortest stories and are often bewildering rather than resonating emotionally ('The Senses' is the only example that springs to mind as really working).
- 'A Friend of Mine'
As such, I had an odd feeling about this collection when reading it and after I finished it. I wasn't sure if I liked it although, like Wolf Hall, I admire the ambition of the writing and using the consistent present tense to perfect effect - really capturing the essence of human life. But did I enjoy reading it? In a way, but Davis cannot escape the problem that every short story writer faces: not every short story is going to work or be as equally good as each other. But that's not my problem with it. Even those I enjoyed seemed to be because I was willing to deal with the pretentiousness of it all; that she's playing with technique and manipulation.
This is not a problem in itself though, and actually made me consider the question that sort of titles this post - is literature always pretentious? It's interesting that with The Great Gatsby film recently come out, people constantly discuss the original book as an accepted classic, no questions asked. While I agree that it is a wonderful book that is absolutely a 'classic' book that everyone should read, I'm not beyond accepting that to a degree it is pretentious. Discussion of the book is always about the symbolism, and Fitzgerald's use of language and imagery and dismiss the criticism that the characters are all thoroughly unlikeable (I do think this is the point, just as it is in The Catcher in the Rye).
While it is the technique that is most highly praised, it doesn't mean it is not a fantastic book. Just because it is often discussed in a pretentious manner or appears to be a pretentious book in itself, that does not mean it is a bad book. But of course, you can choose to dislike or simply not like a book that is very well written. And I think that's the case with Lydia Davis' short stories. I enjoyed some of them, but on the whole her writing is just a bit too artful for my tasted. But that's fine and I wouldn't put anyone off reading them for themselves. This collection is long at 600 pages, so I would recommend taking it one collection at a time. There's only four at the moment but my favourite story, 'Kafka Cooks Dinner' is in her latest collection, Varieties of Disturbance, although I did like her earlier stuff a bit more. Either way, you'll probably find out fairly quickly whether she is to your taste or not.
*My argument for why plays count as literature is for another blog post, but for now, consider that arguably one of, if not the, greatest writer is generally agreed to be a writer who wrote no novels and only poetry and, most famously, plays.