Lydia Davis’s Very Short Stories

Lydia Davis, who was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, has been publishing short stories utterly unlike anyone else’s for almost 40 years. Sometimes as brief as a sentence or several paragraphs, they dispense with conventional narrative and character in favor of astringent wit and aphoristic insight. Davis’s commentary on these two drafts of an early story reveals that every word is ripe for scrutiny. 

In those days (fall of 1973, age 26, living in the country in France), I would force myself to stay at the desk for a certain number of hours, giving myself admonitions (written in my notebook) like “Alright, let’s establish one firm rule: from when I get up—at 7 or 7:30—until, say, 12:30 … allowing one break for a modest, circumscribed, abrupt meal of porridge or eggs at about 10:30, nothing else will be allowable—no cooking, no cleaning, no walking, no talking or playing, etc.”

At the desk, I would write and write, in my notebook, whatever came to mind, as a way of working up to the point of writing something like a story. This would not be free-association writing—I never did that—but thoughts, descriptions of what was around me, always written carefully, revised. I might write something incomplete, possibly the beginning of a story, but possibly just a fragment:

Although the house seemed very bright, clean, and elegant, one could tell by the number of flies that swarmed in it, landed on the furniture, and crept up and down the windowpanes, that something about the house was rotten.

(This arose from observing the many flies that did indeed walk up and down the windowpanes in front of my desk. Often, I immediately fictionalized something real in my own situation, as practice, or as a way of starting on a story. In those days, I said that flies “crept,” whereas now, after reading Nabokov on flies, I would never say that—they do not creep, but walk.)

“In a House Besieged” grew directly out of my situation and the descriptions I wrote in the notebook. Just before starting the first draft of this story, I noted the “shots of hunters this morning (as I lay in bed still trying to order my thoughts),” followed by a lull. “And everything is silent and peaceful until there is another muffled shot.”

First Draft

1. The two dogs and two cats, as well as the mice, were part of my real situation, but I probably felt that they lessened the ominousness of the story, and certainly that the lack of “acknowledgement” of the mice was chatty and distracting. 2. The addition of “where they cowered in” adds explicit drama. Kitchen has comfortable associations (until one has to cower in it). 3. The change from smoke to rain replaces something inaudible with something audible. 4. Ending the story on the phrase in a house besieged is stronger than the rather anticlimactic and irrelevant in a house that belonged to someone else, which is confusing, adding new information, and beside the point. 5. By the time of the final version, I knew how to spell besieged.

Final Draft