Lydia Davis, now 63 and professor of creative writing at the State University of New York at Albany, has been publishing short fiction for more than three decades. Ample time, then, for a reputation to take hold. And so it has in the US, where Davis is often called a deft, if curious, writer, practitioner of an obtuse, super-short fictive mode of her own invention.
Many British readers, though, will come to Collected Stories without preconceptions. The book draws together stories from her four previous volumes, and by inviting us to read them in a few sittings, as a novel is read, it offers something remarkable. That is, the genealogy of an artistic vision, and a demonstration of how that vision has been relentlessly clarified. It's an experience that reveals Davis to be a writer of vast intelligence and originality.
The early works set the stage. In "Excerpts from a Life" – in which a violinist recalls his childhood, a voyage to sea, a Mozart recital – we find her ability to transmit much via a few, brief paragraphs. Already, a project is emerging: in stories such as "The Letter", about a divorce, we repeatedly return to unnamed, first-person, female protagonists, trying to draw some broken sense from their lives.
This is stripped-down fiction, devoid of the pillars that support conventional "realism", so we find almost no physical description, none of the mechanics – "he smoothed a crease on his shirt" – that convention dictates are necessary to bring scenes to believable life. Instead, these stories are entirely voice, or, rather, mind: take the first, characteristic line of "A Position at the University": "I think I know what sort of person I am."
Davis, then, is a writer intensely concerned with interiority. That also accounts for the way she is able to break one of the first rules of fiction writing: be specific. Time and again she chooses language that gives only a beautiful impression of felt experience: a sky is "spread out so softly behind and above the towers and the sharp upper edges of buildings".
The later stories see a final clarification. Now, her unnamed protagonists are consolidated into a single, fictional version of herself. In "Grammar Questions", this narrator ponders her father's terminal illness. Later, when "How Shall I Mourn Them?" lists small acts of remembrance, we know we are overhearing the same person. Even her much talked-about stories of only one or two sentences carry this narrative stamp.
Here, in these late pages, is a writer at last fully herself, freed from conventional plot and character; left, finally, with just the feeling of things. And able, in consequence, to write some of the most moving fiction – on death, marriage, children – of recent years.
There are deep, underlying reasons for late 20th-century fiction's push further into the mind: among them are our distrust of third-person narrators, and the immediate, vivid physical mimesis provided by film and television. Davis must be considered among those who have led that push. To read Collected Stories is to be reminded of the grand, echoing mind-chambers created by WG Sebald, or the autobiographical narrators of recent JM Coetzee. Now we have Collected Stories, her reputation should grow to match theirs.