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CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
BUY OR LICENSE »
The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being the letter is stopped midstream. ♦
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
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The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being the letter is stopped midstream. ♦
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
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The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
BUY OR LICENSE »
The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
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The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being the letter is stopped midstream. ♦the letter is stopped midstream. ♦ the letter is stopped midstream. ♦
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
BUY OR LICENSE »
The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being the letter is stopped midstream. ♦
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
BUY OR LICENSE »
The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being the letter is stopped midstream. ♦
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
BUY OR LICENSE »
The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being the letter is stopped midstream. ♦
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
BUY OR LICENSE »
The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being the letter is stopped midstream. ♦
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
BUY OR LICENSE »
The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
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The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
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The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being the letter is stopped midstream. ♦the letter is stopped midstream. ♦ the letter is stopped midstream. ♦
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
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The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being the letter is stopped midstream. ♦
CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY CHANG PARK.
Somewhere in the files of General Mills is a letter from the very-short-story writer Lydia Davis. In it, Davis, who is widely considered one of the most original minds in American fiction today, expresses dismay at the packaging of the frozen peas sold by the company’s subsidiary Cascadian Farm. The letter, like many things that Davis writes, had started out sincere and then turned weird. Details grew overly specific; a narrative, however spare, emerged. “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green,” she wrote. “We have compared your depiction of peas to that of the other frozen peas packages and yours is by far the least appealing. . . . We enjoy your peas and do not want your business to suffer. Please reconsider your art.” Rather than address her complaint, the company sent her a coupon for Green Giant.

The story that resulted from her complaint, “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” is only a couple of hundred words long and appears in “Can’t and Won’t,” which comes out next month. “Can’t and Won’t” is Davis’s first collection since 2009, when her “Collected Stories” was published: some two hundred pieces, amounting to just seven hundred pages, thirty years’ worth of work. (Her novel, “The End of the Story,” was not included.) Before then, she had been known, if she was known, as “a writer’s writer’s writer”—dismissal by hyperbole. Some said her stories sounded like translations, vaguely alien. The “Collected” surprised people; taken together, her work—cerebral, witty, well built, homey, homely, sometimes vanishingly small—had heft. It was the kind of book that could be used, as one critic attested, to jack a car and change a flat. In May, Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, Britain’s highest literary award for a noncitizen. Michael Silverblatt, the erudite host of the Los Angeles radio show “Bookworm,” says, “Literary people know that at the sentence level and the word level she’s the best there is.”

Davis is sixty-six, with chin-length once blond hair, pale lashes, and eyes the color of blue milk glass. Her eyeglasses are lined with pink, like a conch. She wears small earrings in flattering shades of blue, and the loose, dark clothing of a city shrink. She works from life, in the way that Samuel Beckett did—life’s interactions partway estranged from their contexts—with a notebook always secreted in her purse. Her subjects can be humble to the point of mundanity: lost socks, car trips, neighbors, small fights. (“He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her.”) According to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “She is the shorter Proust among us. She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us. But as it does so it leaves enough of a trace that when you read her you do it with a sense of recognition.”

Davis lives with her husband, Alan Cote, an abstract painter, in a tiny village in Rensselaer County, New York. Cote is large, warm, taciturn, and wears a mustache. Their house is a converted elementary school, built in 1930 by the W.P.A.: neo-Georgian, brick, with Boston ivy and fifteen-foot ceilings. He paints in the gymnasium; the bathtub is in the teachers’ lounge. On the fence outside, a sign made from found sticks spells “L’Ecole.”

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

But to be curmudgeonly was not the point. As she was noting the mistakes, she kept flipping to the back jacket to look at the author’s photograph: a relaxed, good-looking man, smiling openly at the camera. A little idea started to take shape, enough for a one-line story. “I just write down one sentence,” she said. “This would be me assuming a kind of yenta voice: ‘Such a handsome young fellow to write such bad mixed metaphors.’ ” She smiled. “It’s me feeling a little sorry that I’m writing down all his mistakes, because he looks so friendly and nice and in a way innocent. Some author photos don’t look so innocent.”

In the summer of 1973, when Davis was twenty-six, she and her boyfriend Paul Auster went to live in the South of France, as caretakers of an eighteenth-century stone farmhouse with a red tile roof and an enclosed garden. They had been in Paris for two years already, translating French novels and poems and art catalogues and film scripts—sometimes the pay amounted to five dollars a page—and working assiduously on their own writing.

At Barnard, where Davis went to college, she had been a distracted student, occasionally accompanying Auster to his classes at Columbia rather than attending her own. (They met in the spring of their freshman year.) They played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. “She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,” an old friend said.

Auster was sunken-eyed and soulful, with a cocked eyebrow, or, as he puts it, “a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.” Davis had gone to Brearley, and then to Putney, a boarding school with farm work, in Vermont. Her father, Robert Gorham Davis, taught English at Columbia—modern short stories—and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote fiction for women’s magazines and occasionally for The New Yorker. First they were Communists, then liberals (he was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities); always they were avid party-givers. Lionel Trilling came to the apartment, Erica Jong, Grace Paley, Edward Said. In memoirs, Auster portrays himself as helplessly impressed by Davis, loving more than he was loved. He writes, “For the most part you were the pursuer, and she alternated between resisting your advances and wanting to be caught.” Among their friends—“arcane, avant-garde intellectuals,” Mitch Sisskind, who was one of them, said—Davis was the eccentric. “We were all reading Kafka,” he told me. “She read Kafka, too—and you can see the influence—but she also read ‘The Making of a Surgeon.’ ”

In the country, Auster wrote poems; Davis struggled to write traditional short stories, of the kind her parents admired. (Later, they would say, Why don’t you write about your travels or something more cheerful?) She copied out lines of Beckett to understand how the sentences functioned, and tacked them to the wall. The stories, however, were too masterly to imitate. She read mysteries, weighed herself, threw pebbles in an urn. She tried to make herself stay at her desk till lunch. Auster, on the other hand, could easily work all day.

At the end of August, Davis happened to read a strange little book of very short stories by the poet Russell Edson. Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. “I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.” She started to enjoy herself. A month after reading Edson, she wrote “The Thirteenth Woman,” a hundred-and-thirty-eight-word story in two sentences, which she sees as “the first seminal story.” The same day, she wrote “The Transformation,” a page-long fable about a woman who turns into a stone. She worked in a plain cardboard notebook, with a studied hand. “Must conquer this afternoon malaise,” one late-September entry starts, followed by six stories. “She would get an idea, three or four sentences or a paragraph, and she would write it clean off the top of her head and that would be it,” Auster told me. “The stuff she labored over never turned out as successfully.”

Anything Davis wrote might turn, unbidden, into fiction. In her notebook, she composed a letter to her friend Jack LeVert (part of their Kafka-reading, touch-football-playing crowd), who was planning to visit them at the farmhouse:

If you were to look in on us, you would be amazed at the elegance in which we live. You would see us sweep into the driveway in a pale green station wagon, casually pat our thoroughbreds as we entered our restored, pre-revolutionary home with its thick beams and red tiled floors. . . . You would see us during the day with dreamy looks in our eyes writing poetry and little dibs and dabs of nothing, as though we had been born to idleness. Perhaps I would invite you to go sketching and we would take the folding chairs and our pads of sketch paper. Perhaps later we would listen to an opera from where we lounged beside the bright medieval fireplace, our Labradors sleeping at our feet on their deerskin rug. But as dinnertime approached you would notice that we grew nervous. At first it would be hardly perceptible, the smallest haunted look in our eyes, a dark shadow on our faces. You would intercept embarrassed glances. I would blush suddenly and turn pale and when dinner arrived, though the pottery were of the finest quality, hand turned, and the mats from Japan and the napkins from India, the beans would stick in your throat, the carrots would break the tines of your fork and you would recognize the taste of cat. How much more painful is poverty for the caretakers.

“The new piece of paper you like to keep on your desk came in.”
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The hardship was romantic, self-imposed. “We both came from families that had enough money to rescue us,” Davis said. “This was all our own choice, really. It was for our so-called art.” When they finally ran out of money, they returned to New York, nine dollars between them. Davis’s father helped get them an apartment on Riverside Drive, and they were married there in the fall of 1974. (Auster, in “Winter Journal,” a memoir: “Given the frequent changes of heart that had afflicted the two of you from the beginning, the constant comings and goings, the affairs with other people, the breakups and makeups that followed one another as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the thought that either one of you should have considered marriage at this point now strikes you as an act of delusional folly.” Davis: “I read about some town in Northern California, where the pastor at the church—or is it the law?—said you’re not allowed to get married without three or four visits to the pastoral counselor ahead of time to discuss your expectations or habits or needs. It’s worked out very well. People don’t get divorced.”) Davis briefly studied to become a speech therapist. Instead, she and Auster moved to Berkeley and published a collection of her pieces, “The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories,” in an edition of five hundred. The poets in their circle loved it.

The following year, expecting a child, they bought an old house in Dutchess County—a cursed house, according to Auster, who found “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a box on the back porch and a dried-up crow, like an omen, behind a chest of drawers. Their son, Daniel, was born in 1977, and when he was eighteen months old they separated. Auster moved back to the city, and, after they divorced, married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Eventually, Davis moved back, too, and lived a few blocks from them in Brooklyn to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth. Davis worked as a typesetter at a small Brooklyn newspaper; the checks the paper wrote her bounced.

The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot; sometimes people get indignant and ask her why she doesn’t call them poems or fragments. (She prefers the deeper associations of the word “story.”) Like thoughts, her pieces are reiterative; she sooner makes chronology a subject than a formal device. She says her work arises from a conjunction of humor, language, and emotional difficulty. Sometimes that means high culture, low culture, and animals; that is, a contradiction, plus the life force. Usually, she sets out to answer a single question and tries to stop between incomprehensibility (too little detail) and boredom (too much). Her longer pieces slacken and drift, but at fifteen hundred words the line is taut. As one of her narrators says, “You can’t tell everyone the truth all the time, and you certainly can’t tell anyone the whole truth, ever, because it would take too long.” Even poets find her concentration bracing. Matthew Zapruder, a poet and editor who keeps Davis’s “Collected Stories” on his shelf and turns to it whenever he needs a jolt, says, “It almost feels like a challenge to poetry. She can do this, why can’t we?”

“By fiction now I just mean a construct that’s a little different from reality,” Davis told me. “One aspect of that is a narrative voice that’s a little artificial, not quite my own.” As a person, Davis is tactful if particular; the speakers of her stories tend to be grand and hysterical, flies in bottles, frustrated by obstacles they can’t see. The woman who goes over and over a sequence of events, trying to establish whether her lover is being unfaithful; the man who calculates the cost per hour of a ten-day affair. (Those two examples come from “Break It Down,” her first full-length book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986. That author photo—her frank gaze—gave rise to at least one come-on letter.) “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling,” Lorin Stein, who worked with her on two later books at FSG and is now the editor of The Paris Review, says. “You have the sense of characters who have a strong motivation to do something absurd and unproductive.”

“I see people sometimes who remind me of my narrators,” Davis said. “I’ll see a kind of mousy, earnest person at a reading, a woman with limp, long, dark hair, kind of very woebegone and sincere.” Some of her narrators, she thinks, are desperate to be understood. “That’s why they go into too much detail,” she said. “ ‘In case you didn’t quite get it, let me explain further.’ ”

When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous; now they are philosophical. “The Two Davises and the Rug,” in the new collection, is the story of two people named Davis, who “were not married to each other and they were not related by blood.” They are kindred nonetheless: “They were both indecisive people, or rather, they could be very decisive about some things, important things, or things to do with their work, but they could be very indecisive about smaller things, and change their minds from one day to the next, over and over again, being completely decided in favor of something one day and then completely decided against the same thing the next day.”

In the story, “this Davis” decides to sell a red-white-and-black wool rug at a yard sale to benefit a good cause. The rug has been lying in her son’s room, but her son doesn’t live at home anymore. At the yard sale, “the other Davis” considers buying it but doesn’t. By the time he has decided that he wants the rug, this Davis has decided to keep it. For the next twelve hundred words, this Davis worries extravagantly: should she, who had not really valued the rug until someone else desired it, keep it, or should she let the other Davis, whose house is “clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged,” have it? Which one of them deserves it?

Davis did the same thing with a rug a few years ago, after Theo, her son with Cote, went away to college. “With that story, I’m not leaving out anything relevant,” she says. “But the obsessive quality is exaggerated. A lot is true, the ins and outs of reasoning, but a lot of normal life went on the same. In the story, you get the impression that the rug was the only thing happening. In real life, it’s just one strand. It’s, O.K., let’s see what happens if this rug and this dilemma becomes everything.”

For a contemplative, Davis is remarkably social. When Daniel was a baby, she joined a softball team; later, when Theo was young, she took a line-dancing class. She escapes herself, and the house, given half an opportunity—to collect stories for an oral history of the village, to sit on a town zoning board. “I don’t go into it thinking I need material,” she says. “I follow my interests pretty—I don’t like the word ‘intuitively.’ I follow them in a kind of natural way, without questioning them too much. Alan tries to be the brake on my impulses.”

Cote’s reservations have not stopped Davis from running for a seat on the governing board of her village. One snowy Saturday morning in late January, she had plans to go door to door collecting signatures with “the other Davis,” whose name is Bill, and who was running for reëlection. For her nominating petition, she needed signatures from five per cent of the previous election’s voters, which amounted to two or three people. (The village has a population of five hundred and seventy-one.) The mayor told her they didn’t really pay attention to Democrat or Republican, and suggested she make up her own affiliation, so she is running as a member of the Schoolhouse Party. “I’m interested to see on a small scale how people get along or don’t get along,” she said.

The temperature was ten degrees. Davis got a clipboard and a notebook and put on her winter coat. She was excited. “But they’re all people you know,” Cote said. When Bill Davis arrived, they drove half a mile down the road, to Helen and John Mullaly’s house. John, once a teacher at Davis and Cote’s schoolhouse, had recently celebrated his ninety-first birthday. Helen, a former head nurse, was in her late eighties. The Davises stayed for more than an hour, listening to their stories, in an overheated dining room crowded with clocks and photographs and figurines. Twice, John showed them a picture, cut from a newspaper, of Davos, Switzerland, where he had been during the Second World War. “Cleared the summit, met the Pope, pushed back the Germans,” he said. When Helen mentioned that the house had been owned by a doctor, who kept a log which she had found in the attic, Lydia’s eyes shone. The different clocks ticked out of time.

Later, Davis said, “I’m kind of always working, in a sense. Sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.” Two things had struck her particularly: the objects in the dining room, and Helen’s remark, as they left, that she loved driving in snowstorms the way some people love skiing—the opposite of a cliché about an old lady. (Davis, unexpectedly, plays tin whistle and Ping-Pong, and several years ago publicly sang scenes from “The Magic Flute” dressed as a witch, in a cast made up mostly of teen-agers.) “I’m not bored,” Davis said. “I don’t like the high-powered literary life. I’d rather sit and listen to Helen and John and their stories than be at a cocktail party in New York.”

On their rounds, the two Davises had stopped in at Bill’s place, a white clapboard house with a single dormer window. “See how clean and nice it is?” Lydia said, entering a dining room with an open fireplace and a Shaker rake on the wall. Susan Shapiro, Bill’s wife, was inside. Naturally, the rug came up for discussion. “Where would it have gone?” Lydia asked. “We had picked out a spot in Mark’s room,” Bill said. “Now I feel guilty!” she said. The rug was still upstairs in her house, in Theo’s rarely used bedroom.

Both Davises asked Shapiro for her signature. Shapiro looked at them wryly and said, “The Two Davises and the Village Board.”

Evasion is the shadow side of overwrought explanation: dwelling on minutiae can mask a problem of unspeakable magnitude. In “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” when Davis objects to the company’s use of the portmanteau word “cremains” in reference to her father—before his death, the company had called him her “loved one”—distress over vocabulary stands in for mortal rage. What is left out gives the shape to what remains. Fictionalizing real events, Davis says, has to do with the selection of material, in the way of a teen-ager recounting to her mother how an evening was spent: “We went over to Joan’s house and hung out and listened to music, and then we went to McDonald’s.” Not the part about the vodka in the orange juice, not the part about the making out. Not a lie, just a different story.

For the most part, Davis leaves her children out of it. They represent a grammar problem in “A Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” In “Selfish,” which Davis calls “a tongue-in-cheek monologue about parenting that’s less painful,” her children, unnamed and featureless, are faint but pervasive, stubborn as ghosts. “The useful thing about being a selfish person is that when your children get hurt you don’t mind so much because you yourself are all right,” she writes. Difficulty arises from not being quite selfish enough:

If you are just a little selfish, you take some trouble over them, you pay some attention to them, they have clean clothes most of the time, a fresh haircut fairly often, though not all the supplies they need for school, or not when they need them; you enjoy them, you laugh at their jokes, though you have little patience when they are naughty, they annoy you when you have work to do, and when they are very naughty you become very angry; you understand some of what they should have, in their lives, you know some of what they are doing, with their friends, you ask questions, though not very many, and not beyond a certain point, because there is so little time; then the trouble begins and you don’t notice signs of it because you are so busy; they steal, and you wonder how that thing came into the house; they show you what they have stolen, and when you ask questions, they lie; when they lie, you believe them, every time, because they seem so candid and it would take so long to find out the truth.
Incomplete selfishness, like a vaccination that doesn’t take, cannot protect against suffering. The only foolproof approach is to be totally selfish, to the point of being “privately relieved, glad, even delighted, that it isn’t happening to you.” In an e-mail, Davis wrote to me, “The narrator takes a pose. Or I take a pose through a confident narrator—in the beginning. Then—as so often happens in actual conversation—once one begins discussing a situation in detail, reliving it, one’s emotions change, one’s relation to the material changes. And that’s what happens in the story. When the narrator goes into detail, about the stealing and the lying, then she loses some of that confidence. She ends up pushing the difficult material away, saying, Don’t let it get near me.”

That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel. As a teen-ager, he started going to clubs in New York City and became deeply involved with drugs. In 1996, when he was eighteen, he was present in the apartment when a dealer named Andre Melendez was murdered by Michael Alig, a former club promoter, and his roommate, Robert Riggs. Auster was given three thousand dollars of Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence, and later pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and served a five-year probation. A decade ago, Hustvedt published a best-selling novel, “What I Loved,” which reimagines the events with all the obliquity of an episode of “Law & Order.” The story features a troubled boy whose mother, a poet, produces work that is “scrupulous, concise, and invested with the comedy inherent in distance.” Hustvedt describes the poet herself as “all boarded up and shut down like a condemned house.”

Lifting from life, Davis is cautious. She tends to ask her friends for permission before including them in stories. “I don’t really want to offend people, so I try to avoid it,” she said. “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.” Her mechanisms can be subtle, though—a change of gender, or of name, or less. Mitch Sisskind recalled being in a bookstore, leafing through a literary journal. “I started reading this story and saw that one of the characters was me, by name,” he said. “I thought I was losing my mind. I’ve never known anyone else that did that. I was flattered, but I was surprised.” She had referred to him as Mitchell, which no one does, thinking that it would disguise his identity.

A few years ago, when Harper’s was preparing to publish “Varieties of Disturbance,” a story about Davis’s mother, who was then still alive, Davis asked Daniel’s advice. (He lives in Florida and works at a performance space.) He suggested a small cut to spare his grandmother’s feelings. When the piece was collected in a book of the same name (a finalist for the National Book Award), she had died, and Davis restored the damning phrase, also at his suggestion.

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” Davis told me one evening, sitting in the kitchen with Cote. “A husband—you can hurt a husband. He does have to O.K. everything.” She turned to Cote. “You veto. But of course it’s not really fair to him, because then he’s called on to be gentlemanly.”

“There’s certain private stuff I don’t think is relevant,” Cote said.

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

“He’d have to think it’s a good piece of writing,” she said. “But the children are off limits.”

In her twenties, in Paris, Davis got about two-thirds of the way through “Swann’s Way,” in French, carefully writing down vocabulary and making notes. For the next thirty years, she earned a living mostly through translating. In a talk on the subject, she described her body of work as “books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and no interest . . . including a sentimental biography of Marie Curie, various histories of Chinese politics, art catalogues, the strange novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, and several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot.”

In 1997, Davis agreed to translate “Swann’s Way” for a new edition of “In Search of Lost Time.” She had never read the version by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, whose enhanced Edwardian style may be the reason most readers in English flag after a volume or two, and she didn’t read it then. She started working through the French, page by page, not skipping ahead to see what came next. “Just the way I wouldn’t write anything, even an e-mail, if it wasn’t decently written, the translation has to be good right away,” she told me. “I write it quickly but well, so that some of the time I would feel like a sieve or funnel, or maybe ‘pipeline’ is a better word.”

When she finished her draft, she looked carefully at the previous translations, particularly Scott Moncrieff’s. “Proust is plainer in his language and more straightforward and in a way more contemporary than the translation,” she says. “My aim was to stay very close.” The response to what one critic called Davis’s “sans-serif version,” published in 2003, was reserved: some reviewers felt that her accuracy—which kept intact word order and punctuation, and often preferred an obscure cognate to a flashier English rendering—came at the expense of felicity. The Times, however, praised her “fine rigor and exactitude.”

The book’s success is as important to Davis as that of any of her fictions. “I’m more jealous, almost, of my translations,” she says. “I really want my Proust to take the place of the Scott Moncrieff, because I think it’s closer.”

Davis’s downstairs office has rose-pink floor-length curtains, a space heater, and a cat. Small shelves are filled with books—“Studies in Lowland Scots,” “Famous Dogs in Fiction”—relevant to “Bob, Son of Battle,” a children’s book, published in 1898, that she read as a child and is now “translating” from tricky Victorian English into language a present-day Brearley girl could manage. Her desk is two file cabinets with a board laid across the top. Above it, on a bulletin board, is a homemade family tree that traces her connections to an ancestor whose description of life in a nineteenth-century New England village she has fashioned into verse. A photocopied page from an old notebook serves as another kind of genealogy, some two hundred years’ worth of fiction writers, from Swift to Hemingway. “I found it and thought, Well, that’s worth looking at every now and again,” she said. “I don’t really have the picture in my head. I probably did it when I was quite young. I was always trying to learn and remember.”

It is not only the act of writing that forces Davis to write fiction; reading is a danger, too. “I don’t need to go to other writers to get excited,” she says. “The problem is almost the opposite. Certain kinds of writing will give me too many ideas. I have to keep stopping and reacting.” She recently got a collection of lectures Roland Barthes gave at the Sorbonne. “I found that there were so many interesting ideas in one paragraph that I almost couldn’t read it.”

E-mail can be equally threatening. In the office, Davis opened up her account to a folder of messages from the Listserv at Bard College, where she used to teach occasionally and where Cote was on the faculty for three decades. Material, practically ready-made. Here was a message from a woman named Lisa Hedges, wondering if anyone had seen her glasses. “I loved her name,” Davis said. “This is what it started as: ‘Round, faux tortoiseshell glasses, bifocal lenses, lost sometime Friday, between the Nursery School, B Village, A Sacred Space. It would be great if somebody has found them and they aren’t in a place covered in a foot of snow!’ ”

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

They are possibly
covered by snow.
“This is very vestigial,” Davis said. “Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.” Sometimes the longer something sits, the more finished it seems. A little while later, she said, “When you’re spying, when you’re looking, when you’re on the alert for a story, part of it is seeing the thing in isolation, apart from the normalizing context.”

Found objects emerge frequently as source and as finished work. (“An Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room”: “Your housekeeper has been Shelly.”) Davis sees this repurposing as thrift. She says, “My grandmother, my mother, and me—we were always making do and saving, very economical. I like the idea that the writing would belong to that practical tradition.”

Even now, much of Davis’s writing has its first life in obscure literary magazines. All the editors have to do is ask. If she likes the cover letter, and feels she can trust them, she’ll send work. In small magazines she feels free to experiment. “There’s an opposition between what’s good for my career and what’s good for my writing,” she said, walking back into the kitchen, where Cote was waiting for his lunch. “What’s good for my writing is these little places.”

“You’re building your fan base,” Cote said.

“I don’t think I’d ever think of it as ‘building my fan base.’ I would never sit back and do that intentionally.”

“Then they go on YouTube and start talking about it,” Cote said.

“I really like being read by young people,” Davis said. “I love it that friends of my son Theo, who is twenty-five, will say, ‘Is your mother Lydia Davis? I love her work. ’ ”

In 2001, Davis published a book with McSweeney’s, after Dave Eggers wrote her a fan letter. New, young readers found in her work an idiosyncratic approach to the problem of storytelling, something handmade or unmade, each story like a cool thing from an old junk shop. The title piece—“Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”—was one line long: “that Scotland has so few trees.” (Humor, language, emotion.) “That’s such a radical act and so liberating to put that on a page and call it finished,” Eggers told me. “For those of us who are attracted to people who make room for new ways of defining a short story or who defy categorization at all, she was a real hero.”

By the time FSG published her “Collected,” in 2009, American fiction had more fully accommodated itself to the insubstantial. Everything is too hard to understand until it isn’t. For the first time, Davis’s writing was acknowledged as belonging to an American tradition. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of FSG, says, “People caught up with her.”

“I have to guard against the tendency—I could make anything into a story,” Davis told me. Several years ago, she started writing a long note to her literary executor, but had to stop when it began to take on a life of its own. “I was trying just to write instructions, you know, ‘My notebooks should go here,’ ‘You should look through my notebooks and make sure to take out any references to blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “But it began to get too elaborate, too detailed, too opinionated, and too irrational. It wasn’t a straightforward document any more. I didn’t really want it to be a story, because I needed it to be an actual letter to my executor.” She could not pull it back into real life, though, and for the time being the letter is stopped midstream. ♦

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Comments

NameMichael Catanese
Email
CommentsThat was a lot of buttons to press

NameKylee
Email
CommentsPoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooop

NameMaria
EmailBazaya
CommentsHi

Namehello person
Email
Commentswow thx

Nameperson
Email
Comments
<script language="JavaScript">alert("DON'T CLICK HERE.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("That's what it said.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("And you had to click it.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Why?") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Cuz you don't understand, that's why.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("So now, I will make you Suffer!!!!!!!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Let's see.....") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("YES!Let's recite the alphabet together!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("A") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("B") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("C") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("D") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("E") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("F") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("G") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("H") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("I") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("J") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("K") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("L") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("M") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("N") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("O") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("P") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Q") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("R") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("S") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("T") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("U") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("V") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("W") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("X") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Y") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Z") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Wasn't that fun?Let's do it again!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("A") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("B") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("C") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("D") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("E") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("F") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("G") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("H") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("I") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("J") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("K") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("L") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("M") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("N") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("O") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("P") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Q") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("R") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("S") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("T") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("U") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("V") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("W") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("X") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Y") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Z") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("HAHA!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Wasn't that educational?") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Not only was it educational, it was FUN!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("And we all love fun.Don't we?") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Now that we can do the alphabet,let do......") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("NUMBERS!!!!!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Ready?Let's Go!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("1") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("2") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("3") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("4")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("5") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("6") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("7") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("8")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("9") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("10") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("11") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("12")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("13") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("14") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("15") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("16")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("17") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("18") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("19") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("20")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("21") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("22") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("23") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("24")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("25") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("26") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("27") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("28")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("29") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("30") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("31") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("32")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("33") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("34") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("35") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("36")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("37") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("38") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("39") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("40")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("41") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("42") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("43") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("44")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("45") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("46") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("47") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("48")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("49") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("50!!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Wow.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("We just recited 50 numbers.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Should we continue?") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Until a hundred?")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("A thousand?") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("A million?") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Who knows, I might make you stay FOREVER!!!!!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("You will have to spend the rest of your life counting!!!!!")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Wouldn't that be fun!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Counting and counting") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("and counting and counting") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("and counting and counting")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("F-O-R-E-V-E-R!!!!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("MUahahahaha!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Evil.....") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("I'm getting bored.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("I think I will let you off now.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("NOT!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("HAHA!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Okay, forget that.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("You can go now.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Just remember, whenever you are bored, you can always click on the "Don't Click Here"link.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Byebye!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Yeah, bye!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Um.....byebye!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Come on, just go away!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("What are you still doing here?") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Stop clicking the OK button and just say bye!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("HEY!Just Go away!!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("...") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Still there?GO AWAY!!!!!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("SCRAM!!!!!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("SHOO!!!shooshooshooshooshoo!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("ARGH! Forget it.Byebye.PLease.Just go away.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Hahaha!Okay, Have a nice day!") </script>

NameMiriam
Email
CommentsDid it

Nameveronica seeling💟
Email
CommentsU r such a weirdo, u know that right???

Namerajesh
Email
Comments

NameTris
Email
CommentsThis made me lol

Namekito
Email
Comments

NameRohit Singh
Email
CommentsIts really oswem!!

NameCece
Email
CommentsThis was the worst thing ever I have a headache 😂

NameBrooke
Email
CommentsThis was torture and tapped into my inner OCD

NameAnagha Nambisan
Email
CommentsAhhhhhh

NameAlexis
Email
Comments

NameAbigail
Email
Commentshow do I get this on my instagram bio

NameAbigail
Email
Commentshow do I get this on my instagram bio

NameNicole
Email
CommentsSo funny

Namenemi
Email
Comments

NameLogan McCormick
Email
CommentsThis was hilarious! I'm definitely putting this on my Instagram bio.

NameLogan McCormick
Email
CommentsThis was hilarious! I'm definitely putting this on my Instagram bio.

NamePanda
Email
CommentsMy friend told me to do this so ima get her back so bad ugh

NameAlyshea
Email
CommentsQwerty

NameAlyshea
Email
CommentsQwerty

NameMiranda
Email
CommentsCan't believe I did that

NameFaith Ann Hammond
Email
CommentsI did it hahahaha so proud of myself 😺😸

Namedaniella
Email
CommentsThis sucks 😝😩😔

Namehelen braybrook
Email
Comments

Namemolly rose
Email
Comments

NameJZ
Email
Comments

NameIshan Sharma
Email
CommentsHas!

Nameparamveersingh chauhan
Email
Comments

NameDaisy
Email
CommentsIt's a fun game

NameHunter
Email
CommentsHeyz 😜😜

NameGabe
Email
CommentsThis sucks

Namejj
Email
Commentsfuck this website, I did it on my phone

NameLiam Keaton
Email
CommentsVery funny 😄😃😀😊☺😉😝😙😁😁😜😁

NameKara Elizabeth buback
Email
CommentsUm what was the point of that whole thing I mean I liked it but it was kinda a waste of my time not trying to be mean but also funny 🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻

NameLosLobo_1963
Email
CommentsAwesome and thanks...have a support link for $$$

Namepoobumweehole
Email
Commentsthisistotallynotlivandjackbye

Namepoobumweehole
Email
Commentsthisistotallynotlivandjackbye

Nameabhi nair
Email
CommentsAaaaaaaaaaa i m thinkin

Nameabhi nair
Email
CommentsAaaaaaaaaaa

Namejohn
Email
CommentsIt was s***

NameOmaster
Email
CommentsThat is such a waste of my time

NameJake
Email
Commentsnice

NameKeyran
Email
Comments

Nameemma
Email
Comments

NameDee
Email
CommentsI went through all that to then actually pay attention and realise chrome has a button to stop websites doing shit like that hahahaha :L

NameElisa Nettesheim
Email
Commentsthis was shitty but i loved it anyway

NameLeny||Bora
Email
CommentsN It was already very funny ...uhm can you like a few Pictures from Instagram please? <3 My name is: balou_o

NameclaudiapootxD
Email
CommentsDUDE U WASTED 10 MINUTES OF MY LIFE BUT YOU ARE AWESOME TEACH ME HOW U DO THIS SENPAII xD

NameBeefsteak Charlie
Email
Comments

NameEmmanuel chevalier
Email
Commentshave I passed the test grand master wizard zack, am i ready to join the kool aid clan?

Oh praise thy zack for his inteligence and his wisdom, for thy shall watch over his putried pessants.

Blessed the zackorail kik

My you dreams come true

You will go far in life

Do stop till you get enough!!

Life is great in magog

The internet is evil



Namebickel yo
Email
CommentsYoyoyo boiio

Nametroll
Email
Commentstroll

NameJordan
Email
Comments

Namefckboy
Email
Commentsthis was so stupid

NameMR. POO
Emailsuckmythumbatbatsdotcom
CommentsThis is the most useless, time wasting thing i've ever done!

NameMia ramirez
Email
Comments😂👌

Namelol
Emaillol
Comments

NameJess
Email
CommentsThis was such a waste of time

NameSarah
EmailS.ammar02.com
CommentsThat not fun at all it was boring!😴

NameBob
EmailBobby the unicorn
CommentsThat was super annoying yet fun!!😂😂😂😂 did I tell that i love unicorns! They r amazing creatures!😂😂😂🍫🍫🍫🍫


Unicorn
Unicorn
Unicorn
Unicorn
Unicorn

NameChristian
EmailBentzen
CommentsDont you think that was alvor of fun???
I made this so Love me Very Much everybody.
Shal i make a new one???

NameVictor
Email
CommentsHahahahah

NameSarah
Email
CommentsOMG!!!!!!😫😫😫😫

Namekate
Email
Comments

Namedaniel Nilsson
Email
CommentsSo funny

Namedustin
Email
Comments

NameSuck my ass
Email
CommentsStupid. Suck my ass

NameJayde
Email
Comments

Namedenis
Email
CommentsCan i get a uhhhhuuu?

Namei like pi
Email
CommentsGGGGGGGGGGGGGAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Namei like pi
Email
CommentsGGGGGGGGGGGGGAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

NameOmnia
Email
CommentsGood one, mate!

NameMatthew knight doak
Email
CommentsHi

NamePaloma
Email
CommentsHahaha!!! This was long but funny..... Haha it's only took me 1 minute or 2.... /= but it was still fun....

NameMadyson tostado
EmailPowpowsucka
CommentsWow I really did that whole thing wow

NameMorgan Moran
Email
CommentsThat's was Amazon, and a waste of time! Like everything else I do with my life ha! -.-

NameCucake
Email
CommentsHi i did it YASSS

NameKristen
Email
CommentsWTF!!!! But it was funny to me 😂😂😂😂😂😂😈😈😈😈😈👺👺👺👺

Namevenkat
Email
Comments

NameemILY
Email
CommentsZayns dick will die in MY ASS

NameUr
EmailU
CommentsHa lol

Namelalalal
Emailhi.Gmail.com
Commentswho r u

NameI hate u
EmailI hate u dot com
CommentsU just wasted 10 minutes of my life. And now my briwser won't stop. U ruined my phone browser

NameMahalya
Emailmahalyabur
Comments

Namecris
Email
CommentsGood gob

Namenatalie orj
Email
Comments

NameGabi pont
Email
Comments

NameLOITY
Email
CommentsMWAHAHA I hate LIFE

NameChloe
Emailmyfingershurt.com
CommentsI someone else's website and then I put it on mine and I accidentally hit mine twice so I had to suffer three times😭😭😭😭

NameSara
EmailSara at gmail dot com
CommentsHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHA evil...

Nameck
Email
Commentsfun

Nameklara
Email
Comments

NameJake
Email
CommentsShaun fuck u

Namegrace mburu
Emailmburugrace80@gmail
Commentshahahaha

Namedaniel McConnell
Email
CommentsThanks that was fun MUahahahahahaha

NameChloe
EmailWray
Comments

Namesathish
Email
Comments

NameSigurd
Email
CommentsLOL

NameBreanne
Email
CommentsAmazing!!!!! 😂😂

NameOlivia
Email
Comments

Namearldon tiacha
Email
Comments

Namejason
Email
CommentsEh

NameJomar
EmailJomar
CommentsFuck you

NameKayleigh russell
Email
CommentsHi

NameNick
Email
Comments

NameYeap En Shao
Email
CommentsHi

NameCallum
Email
CommentsExtremely entertaining yet entirely pointless, or vice versa!

Namepremdeep singh
Email
Comments

NameAdamaris
Email
CommentsMade it!!

NameAly
Email
CommentsAnnoying but ha!!! Made it thru

NameMatt
Email
CommentsHaha

NameMatt
Email
Comments

NameAmani Ramos
Email
Comments

NameSavannah
Email
CommentsYou have a lot of free time don't you?

NameJasmine
Email
CommentsYeah

NameMariah
Email
Commentswelp

NameMichelle
Email
CommentsI hate my friend for this -.-

NameAudrey
Email
Comments

NameAnna loves Alyssa she's Funny
Emailhi
Commentscould everyone please follow @dm.shiness yes? thank you. and this was brilliant

NameKaleigh
Email
CommentsI would of thought that would be longer but it wasn't so I'm thankful.

NameSami poe
Email
Comments

Namemercy
Email
Commentshave a good night , a nyc day and make nyc food today just be perfect

NameUr dumb
Email
CommentsOmg fuk u ill poo on ur mum

NameKi
Email
CommentsYour hilarious

NameBRUH
Email
CommentsBRUH BRUH BRUH BRUH BRUH

Namekuldeep
Email
CommentsThis was pretty entertaining, lol. I love your account by the way.

Namekuldeep
Email
CommentsThis was pretty entertaining, lol. I love your account by the way.

Namekuldeep
Email
CommentsThis was pretty entertaining, lol. I love your account by the way.

NameAaron Ronny
Email
CommentsOne in all the various things that these establishments supply is that the day loan.http://www.fastloanvirtuoz.co.uk/
http://shortterminstantloans4u.co.uk
http://www.12monthloansboss.co.uk/
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NameWraith Hare
Email
CommentsLoved it!

NameEmerson
Email
CommentsThis is soo annoying...thanks a lot Anthony

NameInuOkami
Email
CommentsI love you

NameEmerson
Email
CommentsThis is soo annoying...thanks a lot Anthony

NameEmerson
Email
CommentsThis is soo annoying...thanks a lot Anthony

Namealaylay
Email
CommentsYOURE a wizard Harry

Namemia
Email
Comments😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂

Namesuzanne allen
Email
Comments💘💘

NameSierra lynch
Email
CommentsLovin it💁❤️❤️

NameLauren
Emailidk bro
CommentsWel that wasnt very fun

NameJordyn
Email
Comments

Nameshelby franks baxter
Email
Comments💕🔥

Namesuzanne allen
Email
Comments💘💘

Namesuzanne allen
Email
Comments💘💘

NameClaire💘👌
Email
Comments

NameHaley runaldo
Email
CommentsCHEESY BEANS

NameSHUTUP
EmailSHUTUP
CommentsSHUTUP

NameImmy
Email
CommentsI finished woo!😂
Follow my INSTA @hereziegler

NameLordquadfarsquad
Email
CommentsJesus

Name@its._.caleb
Email
CommentsYou guys should follow me

NameSHUTUP
EmailSHUTUP
CommentsSHUTUP

NameNAT SLAYS YEW ALL💜
Email
Comments

NameNAT SLAYS YEW ALL💜
Email
Comments

NameBella🙋
Email
CommentsVery intresting and long 😂😂😂

NameAustin
Email
CommentsWazzuuuuuuppp

NameAustin
Email
Comments

Namenoa
Email
CommentsI hate you for this website

Namethe you the I
Emailgood the I
Commentsyeah to the to I to the to I to the to I to

NameLannah
Email
CommentsThis was so much fun

Namehi
Email
Commentsso done

Namecharlotte
Email
CommentsLll

NameElizabeth
Email
CommentsAt least I can still touch myself

Name😛
Emaildont cum heer
Comments

NameEloise Estrada
Email
CommentsIt took a long time 😂 I didn't think it would end! ❤️ But it was fun.

NameEthanB
Email
CommentsSomeone tricked me into this, I thought it was gonna be scary lulz

NameCatalina Marquez
Email
Comments

NameFluffy Swag
Email
CommentsEnjoy :)

NameHarry Styles
EmailI fuck Louis every night . Com
CommentsTHIS WAS SO ANNOYING ONFAGAHAHAH

NameCecilie Førland
Email
CommentsSO ANNOYING !!!!

Name wsdf
Emaildsaf
Commentsacjc

NameYour mom
Email
Comments

Nametoto
Email
Commentssent by instagram links ugh

NameAbbie
Email
Comments

NameDINNER
EmailYOULIKETOEATME@EVENING
CommentsI
Clicked
The
Link

Namenaz
Emailnngss
Commentsbbb

Namebethcarolina
Email
CommentsYOU DONT FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS WAT DID I Ssay?
Its a game continue

Namebethcarolina
Email
CommentsYOU DONT FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS WAT DID I Ssay?
Its a game continue

Namebethcarolina
Email
CommentsYOU DONT FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS WAT DID I Ssay?
Its a game continue

Name💩
EmailAndreeManinya&gmail.coom
CommentsThat was a BUTCHEEK

NamePenisFuck
EmailPenisFuck.gmail.com
CommentsPrevent additional dialogs ftw :3

NameNadia
Email
CommentsYou suck making us do that you suck

NameNadia
Email
Comments

Namekumar
Email
CommentsNothing is permanent

NameHunterrrrrrrrrawrrr
Email
CommentsHi

NameKenneth kinoti
Email
CommentsNyc joke

Nameellie
Emailthis is stupid stfu dot com
CommentsI
D
F
W
U

NameE
Email
Comments

NameElizabeth michele
Email
Comments

NameDaaaaarcaaaau
Email
CommentsGrrrrrrrr

NameEdward
Email
CommentsDon't have a brain anymore

NameLake Spradling
Email
Comments

NameTaylor Brewer
Email
CommentsThat was cool..... I think

NameHolly freakig Huynh
Email
CommentsWhy.

Namesydney garcia
Email
Comments

NameEmma
Email
CommentsHi

NameNo
Email
Comments

NameI your face
EmailYou didn't really think this through.com
CommentsPrevent this page from creating additional add ons.
P.S. im letting all my friends know about this

NameI your face
EmailYou didn't really think this through.com
CommentsPrevent this page from creating additional add ons.
P.S. im letting all my friends know about this

NameI your face
EmailYou didn't really think this through.com
CommentsPrevent this page from creating additional add ons.
P.S. im letting all my friends know about this

NameI your face
EmailYou didn't really think this through.com
CommentsPrevent this page from creating additional add ons.
P.S. im letting all my friends know about this

Namenobody
Emailsydn..
Comments

Namenobody
Emailsydn..
Comments

NameCharlotte
Email
CommentsWOW idek why I did this

NameERENXLEVI
Email
CommentsERRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEENNNNNNNNN AND LLLLLLEEEEEVVVVIIIII

NameBUMFLUFF
Email
Commentsy

o

u


s

m

e

l

l


l

I

k

e


s

h

I

t

NameBUMFLUFF
Email
Commentsy

o

u


s

m

e

l

l


l

I

k

e


s

h

I

t

NameBailey O'Brien
Email
Comments

NameBailey O'Brien
Email
Comments

NameBailey O'Brien
Email
Comments

NameBailey O'Brien
Email
Comments

Namerahul ojha
Email
Commentsdiporn randi from sangeet bhavan

NameAnna
Email
CommentsHi hello do you know my name well it..... ANNA A N N A THATS RIGHT WANNA count to five 1- 2- 3-4-5 ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ yea so anyways what's up I'm bored wanna hangout to bad idk you well I'm getting exashted so see YA later L A T E R

Namethomas
Email
Comments

NameMariam
EmailAmo
Comments

NameAriana
Email
CommentsThis was really annoying. Really annoying...

NameChris
Email
CommentsThat was ard I guess but FOLLOW MY IG @Chrisupnext__ and support lor scoota campaign #scootaupnext #ybs

NameReagan
Emailreagan.cooper.rc@gmail,com
Commentsi was talking to my friend through google chat and he was about to commit suicide tell i had to click on your shitty fucking virus, I couldnt keep talking to him in time. Now hes gone I hope your happy.

Nameramadhani
Email
Commentsnice

NameI'm actually unfollowing you now
EmailThat was so gay
Comments

NameCrystal
Email
CommentsNice website!

NameSxli
Email
CommentsIt wasn't that bad but it was pretty annoying

NamePoo
EmailPoo
CommentsU poo

NamePoo
EmailPoo
CommentsU poo

NameShannon
Email
Comments

NameVivi
Email
CommentsGosh this was stuipid but hilarious:)

NameEmma Rodgers
Email
CommentsWow just wow😂✌️

Nameanggita
Email
Comments

NameAshley Rodriguez
Email
Comments

NameLexie Kirby
Email
CommentsJesus that was intense.

NamePlamaDestiny
Email
CommentsThat was pretty funny.
BUT I SURVIVED! >:D

NamePlamaDestiny
Email
CommentsThat was pretty funny.
BUT I SURVIVED! >:D

NameMelissa
Email
Comments....

Namebella molina
Email
Commentslmao that was so stupid it was funny

NameKylie
EmailWhy would I tell you?
CommentsThat was hilarious!

NameJasmine
Email
CommentsYou got me

NameAlex
Email
Comments

NameGgggggc
Email
Comments

NameBenjamin Isaac Dalton
Email
CommentsI hate jazmin

NameKylie
EmailWhy would I tell you?
CommentsThat was hilarious!

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Email
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Email
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Emailgmaillololol
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Email
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Email
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Nameairy
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Emailyour stupid ^^^^
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Emaillol
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NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN.I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsUNICORN IS LOVE UNICORN IS LIFE

NameI AM UNICORN I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsBATMAN ON A UNICORNTURTLE

NameI AM UNICORN I AM LIFE
Email
CommentsBATMAN ON A UNICORNTURTLE

NameJassmine
Email
CommentsThis Guest Book Is Long Asf 0_0

Nameravinder
Email
Commentswhat is this

NameAndy
Email
Comments

Namekerry hardman
Email
Comments

Nameshubha mishra
Email
CommentsANNOYING VERY VERYYYYYY ANNOYING

Namenaveen
Email
CommentsSucksss

Namesahrifah
Email
Comments

Namesahrifah
Email
Comments

Namekelvin munyua
Emailkennelymuturi
Comments

Namesalsrang
Email
Commentsok have a nice day u2.. Hehe

NameAnand Vishwakarma
Email
Comments

Namemangsang
Email
Commentsnothing

Nameshubham mokal
Email
Comments

NameJoyce
Email
CommentsThis was hilarious😂 i loved it, my friend sent me the link and im sending it to my friends now😂 dont stop this😌👌

NameMaggie
Email
Comments

Namebailey
EmailBailey the beasts gmail.com
Comments

NameKaitlyn
Email
CommentsThis is why we can't have nice things.

NameKaitlyn
Email
CommentsThis is why we can't have nice things.

NameAlyssa c 😝🐨
Email
CommentsHey this was awesome!!😃😂👍

NameAlyssa c 😝🐨
Email
CommentsHey this was awesome!!😃😂👍

NameAndre Aroyan
Email
CommentsThis was not fun

NameAlicia Wilson
Email
CommentsThis is amazing how did u make this aha

NameAlicia Wilson
Email
Comments

NameMorgan💩👄
Email
CommentsHello

NameKaitlyn
EmailNope
CommentsThat was fricken torture

NameHunter
EmailMcPhee
CommentsShitty. On Android I can just disable the popups. Nice try though....

NameKaitlyn
Emailnine
CommentsOMG that was awful

NameElla
Email
CommentsOk wasn't expecting that.. Kind of annoying but you reminded me of A from PLL... I didn't it would end haha 😂 nice job😋

NameHarry xx
Email
CommentsLove it xx

NameHarry xx
Email
CommentsLove it xx

Namemakayla
Email
CommentsHAHAHA when it got to the numbers I didn't think it would end this was greattttt

NameHighOffCrayons
Email
CommentsI'm HighOffCrayons

Nameelliot
Email
Commentslike it ur like a real person face to face when i saw those words hah

NameRushabh Gala
Email
Comments

Nameshubham mokal
Email
Comments

NameColman
Email
CommentsAwesome site

NameJayc
Email
Comments

Namepooja
Email
Comments

NameViviaaaaaaaan 💘
Email
CommentsWtf was this

NamePayton Mogire
Email
Comments

NameBee roney
Email
CommentsThis is terrible 😐😐

NameTaylor
Email
CommentsThat was funny

NameDrake Lloyd
Email
CommentsUuuuuughggggghgggg!!!!

NameDrake Lloyd
Email
CommentsUuuuuughggggghgggg!!!!

NameBrittany g
Email
CommentsThat was okay but long and it got annoying

NameKenzie
Email
Comments

NameTaylor
Email
CommentsThat was funny

NameVictoria
Email...
CommentsAhaha now I am 200% smarter!

NameCandice
Email
Comments

NameCandice
Email
Comments

NameCandice
Email
Comments

NameCandice
Email
Comments

Namemerel
Email
CommentsJamai😵😵😵😵😵😵

NameKenny kane
Email
Comments

NameJasmine
Email
CommentsHhaaha jeg måtte gjøre det dere må gjøre det mohahhaha!!

NameClaire
Email
Comments

Namecolgate
Emailcolgate.gmail.com
CommentsBoring

NameHaider Stylioxx
Email
Comments

NameTyce
Email
CommentsI hate u u evil master

NameJessie
Email
CommentsYou touched the button
Why
Wow
You are dead
You will suffer

NameJeremy Lopez
Email
CommentsI like pizza

NameTrish Bobby
Email
Comments

NameChelsea
EmailNone of ur bizz dot com
CommentsThe the heck

Nameshivani
Email
CommentsDhsisjdbxjkanendksm

NameFuck you
Email
Comments

Nameolivia
Email
Comments

NameMakayla
Email
Comments

Nameanupriya
Email
CommentsDon't wait for none, let others wait for you.

Nameaiden was here
Email
CommentsFucka ducka

NameHrant
Email
Comments

NameVeronicaurquizo
Email
Comments

Namebunga
Email
Comments

Nameadzhar
Email
Comments

NameNick
EmailHellodotcon
Comments

NameKayla
Email
Comments

NameTruth
Email
CommentsIh was fun and annoying tho

NameShahHah
EmailNNmMnz
Commentsnn

Namepizzo bee
Email
Comments

NameMason
EmailRizzo
CommentsMAKE MORE

NameSammy
Email
CommentsThat was boring

NameBenedix ofosuhene
Email
CommentsI had a lot of fun aww hw i wish i could do dat agn

Namelolmannen97@gmail.com
Emailhalelulija
CommentsLololol

NameAndrew
Email
CommentsI made my own with 298 popups! link.andrewhb.com

NameHarry
Email
Comments

NameAbhishek Garg
Email
Commentsso much board.. :/ but will forward this.. :)

NameRohith Kumar.N
Email
Comments

NameRohith Kumar.N
Email
Comments

Nameherp
Email
Commentslolooolololololol

Namevyonna karey
Email
Comments

Nameroop rajput
Email
Comments

Nameroop rajput
Email
Comments

NameLaura C.
Email
CommentsThat was infuriating lol

Namejanani
Email
Comments

Namejatin
Email
CommentsLet's fun

Namelol
Email
CommentsI shouldn't have clicked.

NameBailey c:
Email
CommentsMother fucker XD this shit got me

Namedorito
Emailwww.twitter.com/pontifex
Commentsclever

NamePrinceaj
Email
CommentsWow.. I thought it will take 1 year t reach out here.. Btw nice site.. ;) hope I get ur reply soon.. <3

Namesandeep singh
Email
Comments

NameEmma
Email
CommentsThis is hilarious!😂

NameKailyn hoesman
Email
CommentsHow do you put the website on your instagram

NameBreanna
Email
CommentsIt was tiring but was really AWESOME 😝😝

NameBritney
Email
Comments

NameBritney
Email
Comments

NamePriscilla
Email
Comments

NameParis
Email
CommentsI did like it but too many clicks😒😣

NameParis
Email
CommentsI did like it but too many clicks😒😣

NameParis
Email
CommentsI did like it but too many clicks😒😣

NameFelixxx
Email
CommentsIt was easy

NameAbcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxwz
Email
CommentsMuch satisfaction 5/5 aardvarks

Nameemily
Email
Comments

Namebree
Email
CommentsHellow

Namearnold quincy
Email
Comments

NameLaura
Email
CommentsY.......y would I click on that......wtf am it doing with my life

NameSatan
Email
Commentsc:

Namebilly
Email
CommentsrEAlly

Namebilly
Email
CommentsrEAlly

NameMadge ,-.
Email
Comments//sighs// What has my life come to?

NameSeungju
Email
CommentsHey

Namedhivya
Email
CommentsFunny

Namemike tunechi
Email
CommentsI love this...

Namelashiyah
Email
Comments

Namesara
Email
CommentsI don't like eating chopoylate burrwatos

NameVivek Raj
Email
CommentsHappy New year 2015

NameHaley runaldo
Email
CommentsCHEESY BEANS

NameSatan but its pronounced Manny
Email
CommentsI like to get fucked in the ass and I like when old men piss on me while I'm stroking his dick.

NameRene C.
Email
Comments

NameAshley Quintanilla
Email
CommentsI like numbers 😃 and letters 😃

NameKaty Perry
Email
CommentsRawe

NameMr. Steal yo girl
Email
CommentsI'm about to make the best cookies in history. If you want one, email me!

NameKatie
EmailStanton
Comments

Namedanielle
Email
CommentsHi

Nameivy
Email
CommentsLove you catie♥♥♥♥♥

NameMarius
EmailUnnsyponline.no
Comments

Namehoni
Email
CommentsClick here

NameRyan ZX (Not A Real Name)
Email
CommentsI'm happy with it. Good job writing this. Rated 10/10.

You can send me replies by my E-Mail.

NameClaudia
Email
CommentsThat was kinda funny I mean I thought u were actually gonna count to a million😂😃

NameGatlyn baker
Email
CommentsWell this was fun!...

NameJoshkumar
Email
Comments

Namevijayashankaran A
Email
CommentsHappy New Year 2015 and For good success story to heard it.

Namekanchu
Email
Comments

Nameranjith
Email
Comments

Namejiya
Email
Comments

Namejob
Email
CommentsFunny

NameToby Erin Rogers
Email
Comments

NameEmma Labrada
Email
Commentsim queen af bye

NameKemmy
Emailjkemmy.com
Commentsoh really

NameSam
EmailHahsj@$/&:&:
Comments👌

NameMariam
Email
CommentsCool how long did this take to make:)

NameAbbijeet Raj
Email
CommentsSucking... :P

NameKimberly
EmailMarch
Comments

NameBradley moore
Email
Comments

Nametorry
Emailaghaat
Comments

NameNikhil Pratap Singh
Email
CommentsJust don't click !!

NameAshwini
Email
CommentsNothing

NameAbbie
Email
CommentsAhhhhhh that took soooo long

NameCruise
Email
CommentsSo Educational! 🍎

Namekathryn
Email
CommentsI CNT bliv I click it to this end.

Namekathryn
Email
CommentsI CNT bliv I click it to this end.

NameDaia
Email
CommentsThat was an interesting way to waste my time, but it was educational so👍👍😝😝😜

NameDaia
Email
CommentsThat was an interesting way to waste my time, but it was educational so👍👍😝😝😜

NameDJ.ABHISHEK
Email
Comments

Namemy mom
Email
Commentsgo away retard111111!221@!!1

NameIshant
Email
Comments

NameMarco Bodt
Email
CommentsThis is truly terrible
ACTUALLY
ITS NOT ///HALF/// BAD

NameMarco Bodt
Email
CommentsThis is truly terrible
ACTUALLY
ITS NOT ///HALF/// BAD

NameelmardKings
Email
CommentsLuv ya big eug baiby mwaa ;-)

Namenat
Email
CommentsCan't wait to see ya tomorrow

NameLeonix
Email
Comments

Namekelvin munyua
Emailkennelymuturi
Comments

Namekelvin munyua
Emailkennelymuturi
Comments

Nameleslie
Email
CommentsWhy am I on here jose!!!!!!

NameBonqueque
EmailThis. Was. Stupid. But. I. Was. Bored.
CommentsI can't believe I just wasted 10 minutes of my life on this.

NameJames
Email
CommentsSo fun...

NameJim
Email
CommentsHa Ha

Namejoy sau
Email
Commentstiresome

NamePrince adi smart
Email
CommentsTotaly fun am loving this page

NameMaurice
Email
Commentshaha that was one hell of an exercise....

Namechitra
Emailchitra.nihate.cn@gmail
Comments

NameRajab
Email
CommentsIt was fun

Namekrixx wanjie
Email
Commentsawsome

Namesue babz
Email
Comments

NameSophia
Email
CommentsNice website

NameDestiny Z
Email
CommentsThis was hilarious 😂😂😂😂

NamePetr Horace
Email
Comments

NameA.john joshva
Email
CommentsHai friends.
How r u?
Now I will
wish u
To
To
HAPPY NEW YEAR

NameTabitha Kahura
Email
CommentsHahahaha.... mind nag

Namecvnk
Email
Commentsnicee likd it..

NameEmmanuel Gyekye
Email
Comments

Nameimgay
Emailsowhat
Commentsmybutt

NameSuck it
EmailM.suckmyass@assdotco
CommentsThat was so horrific but I was so bored I did it anyway

Namekulfgdchcdfddddd
Emailgyuv hi bkb
Comments

NameSydney
Email
Comments

NameFuck you
Email
CommentsFuck you bitch!

Namebimal
Email
Comments

NameEmma
Email
CommentsI went throught that like 5 times in accident! 😂😤

Namemjinga wewe
Email
Comments

NameJoe
Email
CommentsYou monster, so evil

NameJoseph
Email
Comments

Name;)
Email
Commentsyou fucking twat.

Nameprithvi
Email
Comments

Namepooja
Email
Comments

NameSarah Githugo
Email
Comments???

Namereva
Email
Comments

Nameclennie
Email
CommentsHaha i will put it in my instagram

NameArvid
EmailIcanseeyou.com
CommentsHow did you do that? I Want a site like that too 😢

NameMegan Ksiezyk
Email
CommentsThis was horrific

Nameisabel
Email
CommentsThat wasn't hard. I was just tapping the OK button.

NamePrakash
Email
Comments

Namevinod krishnan
Email
Comments

NameLEO
Email
CommentsHappy NEW YEAR.

NameLEO
Email
Comments

Namegaurav Sharma
Email
Comments

Nameehat
Email
Comments

NameGrace
Email
Comments

Namehans
Email
CommentsNice

Namejadi Madeleine
Email
CommentsWeird and what the fuck !!!!

Namedamitta
Email
CommentsNyc 1

Namedamitta
Email
CommentsNyc 1

NameHollah@you
Emailstfu
Comments

NameSora
Email
CommentsThis is a lot of FUN (sarcasm)

NameCrudely drawn penis
Email
CommentsI'm so happy

NameMia
Email
CommentsHahah it was awesome

Nameaamit
Emaildot dot .
CommentsSo funny

NameKate
Email
CommentsThis was pretty fun

NameNo
EmailNo at no dot no
Comments

NameMia
Email
CommentsHow can I put the link in my bio

NameLol
EmailLol
CommentsLol

Nameasma.sanober@gmail.com
Email@password@
Comments

NameMichael
Email
CommentsOh my ghosh

NameColin Gitonga
Email
CommentsLol.....u shld mke another one....

NameColin Gitonga
Email
CommentsLol.....u shld mke another one....

NameZoe
Email
Comments

NameHaylie
Email
Comments
Oh.My.Gosh.

NameThomas the Train
Email
CommentsChoo chooooo

NameAwesome
Email
Comments

NameLauren
EmailLauren
CommentsI really liked this it was VERY funny

NameLauren
EmailLauren
CommentsI really liked this it was VERY funny

Namecharlotte
Email
Commentssup

Nameedward
EmailEdwardpenaloza1215 Edwardpenaloza1215gmail.com
Comments

NameRajesh kakkar
Email
Comments

NameCyrus
Email
Comments

Name@zoe_katharine
Email@zoe_katharine
CommentsLol sadie that was so funny

NameMaley
Email
Comments

NameAlex
Email
CommentsThis was fun

Nameashraf
Email
Comments

NameJOSH EDMONSON
Email
CommentsFuck this pussy boi

Namesamuel
Email
CommentsYour f***ing site.... That popup thing...

Nameseneng iyortyom
Email
Comments

NamePenny_da_boxer
Email
CommentsI am fat

NameOlivia Soble
Emailolivia blues
Comments

NameDesi
Email
Comments😂

NameAddyson
Email
CommentsThis is so stupid if it weren't for Karley and Emily i would have stopped but you know....

Nameselena
Email
CommentsIt was funny

NameMaddie
EmailLol
CommentsHi

NameAudrey Young
Email
Commentslol that was so weird

NameAudrey Young
Email
Commentslol that was so weird

NameAudrey Young
Email
Comments

NameMr I hate counting+The alphabet
Email
CommentsWHY DID U MAKE ME RECITE THE ALPHABET WHY?
WHHYY?
WWWHHYYYYYYYYYY?
THIS IS A RIP-OFF OF DAN'S WEBSITE """COPYRIGHT"""
#GetRektM8

NameAnika
Email
CommentsLol that was sooo fun!!😝😝😝

NameJONATHAN VELASQUEZ
Email
CommentsPretty funny but i just kept clicking ok until it stopped

Nametapu
Email
Commentsnice

NameCrapazodias
Email
CommentsInstagram is @crapazodias
FOLLOW ME PLEASE

NameMay
Email
CommentsWHYY WAS I SO CURIOUS!?!?! WHYY???!!!😫😫😫😭

Name@the.bunnies on Instagram
Email
CommentsHello people! Please follow me on instagram @the.bunnies for really cute pictures of Honey, Secret & Raz (my bunnies)!😘😄

Nameㅁㄴㅇ
Email
Commentsa

NameLilly Singh
Email
CommentsHey guys its superwoman.. Give a thumbs up to my latest video and don't forget to subscribe.. YouTube.com my channel iiSuperwomanii .. One love superwoman that is a rap and zoop!

NameLilly Singh
Email
CommentsHey guys its superwoman.. Give a thumbs up to my latest video and don't forget to subscribe.. YouTube.com my channel iiSuperwomanii .. One love superwoman that is a wrap and zoop!

NameLilly Singh
Emaillilly_si
Comments

NameThelma Lou the bunny on Instagram
Email
CommentsWHYYYYYY😫😫😫😫😫😫😫

NameFUCK YOU
Emailhi
Commentsyou stole this from danisnotonfire

NameMiranda Sings
Email
CommentsI love you all so much!!!!!?!?!?!??!?!!?!??:):):):):)):):):):)

Namejar
Email
CommentsThat was weak

Namesparta
Email
CommentsTHIS IS SPARTA

NameAye
Email
CommentsYour fucking satan...

Namenigga
Emailnigga at nigga for com
Commentsdamn U nigga

NameBoab
Email
CommentsI hate your buttt

Namepotato
Email
CommentsLol g8 m8

NameJoan libese
Email
Comments

NameSteven Navichoque
Email
CommentsVery clever

NameAngie
Email
Commentsyou fucking satanist

Nameabby
Email
Commentsis this satans website

Nameshan
Email
Comments

Nameshan
Email
Comments

NameSamir
Email
CommentsHi how are you I am having fun

NameSamir
Email
CommentsHi how are you I am having fun

NameMajed
Email
CommentsKarim You made me suffre

NameDunno
Email
CommentsMate wtf did I just do with my life

Namerahul cool
Email
Commentsmerrieee christmas

Namesumitapriyadarshini
Email
CommentsVery funny

Namesumitapriyadarshini
Email
CommentsVery funny

Namekristy haynes
Email
CommentsFunny

Namearman
Email
Commentsbruh

NameAnnabelle
Email
Commentswtf did I just do with my life

NameRuby
Email
CommentsWhat is this??😒😒

NameRuby
Email
CommentsWhat is this??😒😒

NameAlexis
Email
CommentsSame

Nameabby
Email
CommentsOooooooooooo

Nameabby
Email
CommentsOooooooooooo

Namefun
Email
Comments

Namesarah
Email
Comments

Namebailey
Emailbuck
Commentsnow where is my 100 more followers

Namexyz
Emailghkhffbj
Comments

Namemwuhahaha
Emailu dont know
Commentsmwuhahaha i finnished ur dirty little trick IM EVILLL

NameAshton Perry
Email
Commentsmuhahahahahahahaha

NameStacy
Email
CommentsHi I was really enjoyed by this but hahahahhahaha

NameMacie
Email
CommentsLol

NameHalie Daniel
Email
CommentsThat was so bad!! I feel stupid

NameFlamethehorse
Email
CommentsHi this is great haha 😂just great.............

NamePenis
Email
Comments

NameZack
Email
CommentsIMA BOSS!!!!

NameSydney_gazed
Email
CommentsThis is a highly strategical defence system that should be used as a "PRANK DEFENCE" for the military and confidential websites if you have a personal website then you should consider putting the up

NameHolland Peil
Email
CommentsAnnoying

NameChen
Email
Commentsthis is so fun after a test

Nameomagbemi
Email
CommentsFun....scary at first buh FUN

NameAmelia
EmailKonomos
CommentsDon't click this http://instagram.com/ameliakonomos/

NameReece
Email
Commentsbirvojfboriviofbiso

NameBob
Email
CommentsThat was awesome

NameObinna.
Email
Comments

NameEmma King
Email
Comments

Namejohanna
Email
CommentsWell. Hello. How are you doooooiiiing? I'm fine thank u. I told u to don't press it! What should be your suffer? Maybee... No...but-t hahahahahha that was fun....LAUGH! IT WAS FUN! okeeey,your suffer....idk...maybe to learn a new way to speak. Say blahblah....3000 times......MOHAHAHAHA,im bored now...bye😂👋

Nameamaka
Emailmissundo2014@gmail
Comments

NameJaden
EmailI H8 U!
CommentsI H8 U! I did all that clicking for this???????????????????? Why Sunrit Why????????????

NameCarly
Email
CommentsOMG this took so long! It's was fun tho.

NameCarly
Email
CommentsOMG this took so long! It's was fun tho.

Namedan
Email
Commentshi

NameMadison Dehais
Email
Comments

NameKim
EmailBrower
Comments*deep sigh*

NameBroadwaylife
Email
CommentsLuv this so funny

NameNik
EmailRed
Comments

NameAnnalise
Email
CommentsHey.... I made it...... Now I will go away... Lol not! Ok bye...

Namerachel the galactic cat
Email
CommentsThis I did because i had nothing better to do but it was fun 😋

NameMary nyambura
Email
Comments

NameMary nyambura
Email
Comments

NameSal
Email
Comments

NameLilly
Email
CommentsHi

NameMary
Email
CommentsOkay

NameCayden M
EmailI don't like to give out my email id
CommentsUse the tags
<script language ="JavaScript">
.alert("Don't click here")
.alert("")
You get the general idea.

NameJaide
Email
CommentsHello you don't know me but I'm Aliyah's sister she is the best she is awesome she is the best sister in the world no offense Shawdae and Porchia

NameCayden M
EmailI don't like to give out my email id
CommentsIt's awesome. However, one can put it using JavaScript as well, not only forms. Besides, who's gonna click on a submit button to take themselves to such a page? A form like that would be ridiculed.
But with JavaScript how you made it, it would be fun. Come on, I'm just 13 and still learning html and JavaScript and yet I noticed that.
Get real.
But, I like the sheer awesomeness of the idea.:-) :-)

NameYADDA YADDA
EmailYADDA YADDA @ GMAIL DOT COM
CommentsWhy? I just wanted to learn candy crush the proper way... WHYYYYYYYYYY?????

NameYADDA YADDA
EmailYADDA YADDA @ GMAIL DOT COM
CommentsWhy? I just wanted to learn candy crush the proper way... WHYYYYYYYYYY?????

NameKayleigh
Email
CommentsIt was ok it was annoying when we had to count to 50 we only shoud count to 10
Or do the abc twice

Nameleonardo
Email
CommentsIt was really enjoiable and educational.

NameIra Olsen
Email
CommentsEVil lol nice pop up

NameStorm
Email
CommentsWell that was fun...

NameAziza
Email
CommentsThat was annoying asf

NameWyatt Kellogg
Email
CommentsNiko.......

Namezebrasurfing8
Email
Commentsi is a nice fgt :)

NameErika
Emailbeth
Commentsboo <3

Namedevika amaya
Email
Commentsfollow me on instagram @imma.arinator

NameHunzza
Email
CommentsThanks for wasting my time.
You are truely a piece of sh*t.
Hunzza x

NameKyra
Email
Comments

NameSharon
Email
Comments

NameKayla Eleysa Shayla Paige Nicole Katelynn Ellison Crossno Birchard
Email
CommentsHahahahhahaha
Kayla Eleysa Shayla Paige Nicole Katelynn Ellison Crossno

NameEmma
Email
Commentshowdy

NameEmma
Email
Comments

Nametwizzy
Email
CommentsNyc wan... F.L.Y.E.E haha

NameImad Shaikh
Email
Comments

NameMADAN ROY
Emailroymadan746gmail.com
CommentsSo sweet

Nameeileen
Email
Commentsthat was osm i knw m a fool nao

NameRyan Emerson
Email
CommentsHey what up

Namebig boss
Emailfranchizo @gmail dot com
Commentsbulshit

Namebig boss
Emailfranchizo @gmail dot com
Commentsbulshit

NameRhianna
Email
Comments

Nameomena
Email
CommentsTs fun buh extra tiresome..

NameMana
Email
CommentsIt really kept me busy

NameKyndall
Email
CommentsHow do you make one

Namesam
Emailgxtxh
CommentsI love this 4th time going here abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz 1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526w7w829303132333435363738394041424344454647484950

NameAngelina L
Email
CommentsLol Conor I figured you would do this becasue ur you and u are yourself and urself Is crazy just like Isy

NameButt McStuffins
Email
CommentsWow, for some reason I thought it was a good idea to see what this link did again, although I had this in my bio at one point😂

NameButt McStuffins
Email
CommentsWow, for some reason I thought it was a good idea to see what this link did again, although I had this in my bio at one point😂

NameOurouk
Email
CommentsA really usefull website

NameThisGirl
Email
CommentsI did it.

NameThisGirl
Email
CommentsI did it.

NameLizay
Email
Comments

Namepoop
Email
Commentsterds poop crap um anything else for poop o yea caca pooh

NameMahdan
Email
CommentsI will never do it again! (NEVER)

NameMahdan
Email
CommentsI will never do it again! (NEVER)

Namejeetu
Email
Comments

NameStop
Email
CommentsWhat is going on?!?!?

NameAlexander
Email
CommentsIt was funny..... NOT! 😂😂

Namedziks
Email
Comments

Namedziks
Email
Commentstuu

NameErik
Email
CommentsMuahahaah

NameErik
Email
CommentsMuahahaah

NameTerry
Email
CommentsLol

Nameiman
Email
Comments

NameDean
Email
Commentsbsssss

NameIdk
Email
CommentsHaha, wow! I survived! OMG! I did it TWO times! Omg

NameCaitlin💁👑
Email
CommentsMy goosh noosh✋😂👏

NameCaitlin💁👑
Email
CommentsMy goosh noosh✋😂👏

Namedaniel
Email
CommentsSuper

Namedaniel
Email
CommentsSuper

NameQaydes
Email
CommentsThat was bloody annoying but I'm bloody annoying too soooo that was fun :)

NameJ.K. ROWLING
Email
Commentsthat was fun!!!!!1!!!11!!!

Namefaith
Email
CommentsWhen it said don't click here I just clicked on my phone an option to "do not allow further popups" so yeah

Namemarienara
Email
Commentsayyyyy

NameZoe
Email
CommentsI survived!

NameZoe
Email
CommentsI survived!

NameDrew
Email
CommentsThat was halarious

NameMark
Email
CommentsHi

NameManayahtaylor
Email
CommentsHey follow me

NameAngelo papagni
Email
CommentsI love but it's bloddy annoying

NameLauren
Email
CommentsHahahaha

NameCash
Email
CommentsSo dumb

NameNathan
Email
CommentsLol when do the numbers end?

NameChica
EmailLinda
CommentsF U

NameZuzu
Email
CommentsWhat up

NameKrystian Maldonado
Email
CommentsNot funny 😒 bro

Namepradeep
Email
CommentsHello

Namejuice
Email
CommentsWhat kind juice is in the house

Namejuice
Email
Comments

NameÖöö
Email
CommentsYour weird

Namesebastian
Email
CommentsThat was funny

Namehaley
Email
CommentsWtf was this all about... Dumb shit I'm wasting my time ✋✋✋

NameIsabelle
Email
CommentsCongradulations Johnny and Urdella! Where are you two lovebirds going for your honeymoon?

NameAndrea
Email
CommentsI love that

NamePeter
Email
CommentsOh my gosh I can't belive I endured that! You are insane! But then again that was pretty funny

NamePeter
Email
CommentsOh my gosh I can't belive I endured that! You are insane! But then again that was pretty funny

NameJaveria
Email
CommentsYou succk motherfuckers

NameAngel
Email
Comments

NameEligh
Email
Commentsbruh

NameMiles brown
Email
Comments

NameMiles brown
Email
Comments

NameKimia
Email
CommentsLol

NameRebecca
Email
CommentsI didn't go away

NameHannah
Email
CommentsI really got so annoyed I thought I wouldn't get through it but I did!😂😂

NameRASHAN@RASHANDOTCOM
EmailRASHAN@RASHANDOTCOM
CommentsHOLA MI AMIGO POR FAVOR COMO ESTAS MI AMIGO/AMIGA

Name____nabeel_187
Email
Comments

NameAnna-Lee
Email
Comments

NameSaqlen
Email
Comments

NameSaqlen
Email
Comments

NameElias
Email
CommentsThis is a really fun site. ILYSM

NameNoah
Emailnononononoonk
Commentsu stupig

NameNoah
Emailnononononoonk
Commentsu stupig

NameChris
Email
Comments

Namebelton
Email
Comments

NameHannah Hercules
Email
Comments

NameIanbeaver
EmailFrankly.pittias.com
CommentsKaleb rafter told me about this

NameIsabelle
Email
CommentsWow this must be the stupidest thing I've ever done and I hate myself for loving every ok of it .

Namebailey
Email
Comments

NameHailey rich
Email
CommentsDon't press ok

NameMya Alexander
Email
CommentsIT IS YOUR FAULT I DONT HAVE MY FINAL FINISHED!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Lol. Jk. It was amazin!

Nameemily
Email
CommentsTHIS WAS SO ANNOYING

NameJenna
Email
CommentsLOVE THIS SO MUCH OMGG

NameJacob Oakley
Email
CommentsYou suck 😂

NameSam
Email
Comments

NamePoopLover69
Email
CommentsI love poop and 69

Namewako
Email
Comments

NamegeraRd way
Email
CommentsIlysm bb gurrrlll

NamegeraRd way
Email
CommentsIlysm bb gurrrlll

Namevikas
Email
Commentshmmm.....

Namefroll
Email
CommentsNice... I rager a litte bit 😄

Namemariam
Email
Comments

NameJoseph
Email
CommentsDONT CLICK

NameNurul Asyiqin
Email
CommentsLoL. What a funny site. It seems like i need to be the most patiece person. Hahaha.

NameKpt03
EmailTrålim
Comments

NameSharn Shekilla
Email
Commentskoz I got a blank space babie n I wil write ur neim....! I cn make a boy boy good for a weekend..♡♡

Nameniqolass thogo
Email
CommentsThe wost web developer av ever seen

NameLil Wayne
Email
CommentsU lil niggas fkn with tha wrong nigga

NameElmer Suarez
Email
Comments

Namefazul feisal
Email
CommentsHappy birthday gody,brandy,pajjy and Ruthlyn

NameBarack Obama
Email
CommentsGreat site man!!
Big fan!!

Keep it rocking!

Yours truly,

Barack Obama
President of USA

NameKatie
Email
Comments

NameRyan Case
Email
Comments

Nameregina
Email
Commentswhy would you do this to me

Namelindsey barker
Emailidonthaveone@hotmail
CommentsThis is funny

NameBreanna marini
Email
CommentsHow do you do this

NameJohna
Email
CommentsThis was boring and it too forever

NameBobby
Email
CommentsHi

Nameglen monteiro
Email
CommentsHehehehe

NamePaul😺😺😺
Email
CommentsI LOVE YOU

Namesanika
Email
Commentssooooo boring

Namesumit soni
Email
Commentsnyc

NameMegan
Email
Comments

Namecharly
Email
Comments

Nameaj
Email
Commentspussy likes girls, damn is my pussy gay?

NameElla
Email
CommentsUr the best ro ro!
I will see you at softball on thursday

NameMaddy
Email
CommentsUr awesome rosie ill see u at softball on thursday !!!!! :-):-):-):-)

Nameurdumbfool
Emailihateu at gmail dot com
CommentsI had to do this 5 times. bye

NameSydney
Email
CommentsHaha I win!

Nameyrsjyydtum
Email
CommentsGood job! That actually got me cause it was on this website i was on

Namechristian
Email
CommentsHi ur stuck here so have a great day

NameChelsea
Email
CommentsThat was weird

NameEricaaa✨
Email
CommentsUgh

NameMaya
Email
CommentsREALLY. I only did this so I could open safari. So bye!!!

NameMary marie dallas
Email
CommentsFuck u bitch

Namedieinahole
Email
Commentsjump in a 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