The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis specialises in wry glimpses into the restless and uncertain thoughts of nameless characters in unnamed places. Her stories rarely span more than a few pages, and are often less than a paragraph long. Davis writes in the kind of language you use to talk to yourself.

You may never learn how her characters look, or where they live, but their feelings almost seem to be a part of you. There are nearly 200 of these little packages of concentrated emotion in this collection.

Davis has described Samuel Beckett as an important influence: "What I liked was the plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; the intelligence; the challenge to my intelligence; the humour that undercut what might have been a heavy message; and the self-consciousness about language." All of these elements are evident in her prose and, like Beckett, she has, over time, become increasingly extreme in her brevity.

The earliest stories here, many of them written in the late 1970s around the time of her divorce from the novelist Paul Auster, often focus on difficult or dissolving relationships between men and women. Failures of understanding between the sexes are always present in her work, but in later stories other themes take precedence - mother-daughter relationships, friendships, individuals' neuroses: "Like a tropical storm, I, too, may one day become 'better organised'," runs "Tropical Storm". (That's the story in full, by the way.)

At times, it is hard to think of Davis and her characters as distinct from one another. Writers appear frequently, as do academics and translators - the jobs from which Davis has made her living. "Took out Foucault and pencil but did not read, thought instead about situation fraught with conflict," confides one narrator who, you might imagine, is also a translator of Proust and others, just like Davis. "Almost No Memory" opens with the line "A woman has written a story", before describing in turn each element of the narrative and the difficulties encountered in writing it.

But often what interests Davis is much more universal. A woman who receives a letter from her estranged husband tests the smell, examines the handwriting and the postmark as carefully as the letter's content. Another, after a successful round of therapy, wonders how she can find the strength to stop going. Whether or not you have ever had a husband or a therapist, the variations on anxiety that she evokes are instantly recognisable. However, Davis is never overly sympathetic towards her characters, and her dry wit allows her to play with form in ways that would seem earnest or gimmicky in another setting. Among the strongest pieces in the collection are "French Lesson I: Le Meurtre", styled as a beginners' language course ("But where is le fermier? And why, in fact, is the chopping block covered with sang that is still sticky?"), and "We Miss You: a Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth Graders", written as a pompous yet somehow still moving sociological study.

Few writers could put 200 of their ideas between the same set of covers without seeming repetitive. Humour is part of the reason it works for Davis, but only because she accompanies that with such emotional honesty. When you get to the end of the anthology, it feels as if it might be time to go back to the beginning.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis
Hamish Hamilton, 752pp, £20

Alyssa McDonald is a contributing editor of the New Statesman