Books of the year 2011: Karl Miller

Collected Stories - Lydia Davis

 

The American writer Lydia Davis is an admired new translator of Proust. Hers is a leaner Proust than the one shown in the inaugural English version. Leaner still, antithetical in some respects to her author, are her own Collected Stories of 2009(Penguin, £10.99), whose affinities lie rather more with Kafka and Beckett than with Proust. There is a minimalism here that makes several of the many stories a sentence long, if that; the impression is of a horde of diary entries that are also, to the hilt, stories, short stories and long.

The pieces are penetrating and witty - observant of others in a way that the self-enclosed can often be. There may be too much riddling and too many abstruse distinctions, but few neighbours have been so productively spied on. The paragraphs about the behaviour of her baby and the small treatise on sexual intercourse are especially good: "There is a description in a child's science book of the act of love which makes it all quite clear and helps when one begins to forget."

Davis married the novelist Paul Auster, by whom she had a child - a son who led a tormented life and got caught up in a drugs-related murder trial - and, after their divorce, he married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Her gift, and Davis's, and Auster's, and the pas de trois of these writers' lives, are discussed in John Sutherland's erudite and very enjoyable Lives of the Novelists (Profile Books, £30). These true-life family dramas are reflected in the fiction of the two wives - in Hustvedt's The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), a mystery set in small-town Minnesota, and, extraordinarily, in her What I Loved (2003), a New York mystery. According to Sutherland, Davis believes in a creative process of "compression to a diamond-like narrative crystal". Something of his flair for detail, for the atomistic, accompanied by a considerable breadth of focus, can be found among Davis's crystals, her "icy, glittering splinters".

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