Guestbook

Below is my guestbook! Please take the time to sign my book and let me know what you think!


NameRiakor
Emailriadot com
Commentslah shu sep ei ka por leh dost

Namevny
Email
CommentsGood.... I rly njoy

Namevny
Email
CommentsGood.... I rly njoy

Nameciril
Email
CommentsSuper macha...

Nameciril
Email
CommentsSuper macha...

Nameharshini joshi
Email
Comments

Namebriyjdidjdhh
Emailhi
CommentsAbcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

NameIzzy
Email
Comments😂

NameWHO DO YA THINK
Email
CommentsN-A-Y-U-S-T-U-Y

NameWHO DO YA THINK
Email
CommentsN-A-Y-U-S-T-U-Y

Namemadison
Email
CommentsLove this... 👌

Namesurryaa bhandari
Email
CommentsGo to hell......

NameSuzanna
Email
CommentsI love this website 💕

NameSuzanna
Email
CommentsI love this website 💕

NameHaley
Email
Comments

NameI'm a person
EmailNot telling u
Comments

NameSomeone Awesome
Email
Comments

NameGigi
Emailumm ok
CommentsLOL what

NameKenzie
Emailomg
CommentsI cannot believe you just put me through that!!!!!!!!

NameKenzie
Emailomg
CommentsI cannot believe you just put me through that!!!!!!!!

NameMorgan
Email
CommentsI hate you now loll jk

NameAngelina
Email
Comments

NameAidan toland
Email@bruhthatwassolong
CommentsIt took me forever to do it but it was funny 👌😂

NameGrant
Email
CommentsYour an asshole

NameAlliso n
Email
Comments

NameJacob
EmailLetsgocaps11
CommentsI love tacos!!!!🍻

NameCharlie
Email
CommentsI have no life

NameJacob Marquez
Email
CommentsHi

NameYour mom
Email
CommentsCarson where have I gone wrong

Namejoolz
Email
Comments10/10 would click again

NameAndrew
EmailAsham
CommentsI must say that was the most irrotating time of my life!! But some how I kind of enjoyed it.
I SURVIVED!
See you at school Aydin.

NameAndrew
EmailAsham
CommentsI must say that was the most irrotating time of my life!! But some how I kkind of enjoyed it.
I SURVIVED!!!!! 😃
See you at school Aydin.

NameHeidi
Email
Comments

NameTaine
Email
CommentsI survived

Nametolman
Email
Comments

NameDiksha Agarwal
Email
CommentsWhat ws this

NamePadmini
Email
Comments

NameRoberto acosta
Email
CommentsEsta entretenido la vdd pero siento que tenía que tener algo mas

NameRenuka
Email
Comments

NameHannah
Email
Comments

Nameshyam sundar
Email
CommentsBeing human

NameMaddie
Email
CommentsThat was pretty fun you should do more it kept me from not being bored so thanks😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😜😜😜😜😜😜

NameVenu
Email
Comments

Namefoxx
Email
Comments

Namesrivel
Email
Commentshi

NameAakash
Email
CommentsWaste of time....!

NameRajesh
Email
Comments

Nameprathamesh shelar
Email
Comments

Nameprathamesh shelar
Email
Comments

NameRivu Biswas
Email
Comments

NameBen Greenwood
Email
CommentsYEET

Namenitesh
Email
Comments

Nameyourwish
Email
Commentswow , , amazing and also wasting my time also but i like it .........and also after finish i laugh

Nameelary
Email
Commentshell yah....

NameKayla
Email
CommentsYou rock!

NameKael higgins
Email
CommentsHahhaha that was so funny I actualy light out loud!!!😂😂😂

NameFrancisco
Email
Comments

NameJoshua law
Email
CommentsWow. All I can say is wow.

Nameadrian
Email
CommentsTIP:USE CHROME

NameMyranda
Email
Comments💁

NameKatelin
Email
CommentsIts not a real email

NameHey
Email
Comments:) Luv u all!

NameAnna
Email
CommentsThat was really annoying

Namelupito
Email
Comments

NameZainab
Email
CommentsErmmmm...confused here....?

NameZara
Emailim not putting this on here
Commentsyou suck ass

Namewow
Emailwhy
CommentsFuck you.

NameFaith Lee
Email
CommentsHeeellllllooooooo

Namejamiel lee
Email
CommentsHey click ok

NameAlayah
Email
Commentsssshsklakagsfgfihagvfkvhailyhfvsoauif

Namevaibhav vidhate
Email
CommentsNice

Namejackolis
Email
Commentsyweeeeee yeeee mf!

NameMiranda Dianovsky
Email
CommentsI WAS BAMBOOZLED

Namerahul
Email
Comments

Namecupcakesparklelove
EmailLol
CommentsHehehehehehehehe did this on sis iPod and broke it coz i throw it @ wall coz nice lik tht :) xo Luv you n dis web ;)

NameLauren
EmailJ
CommentsAll that for nothing

NameJacqueline
Email
CommentsHahah stupid fun

NameCole Schroeder
Email
CommentsWow the effort u put into wasting my day is amazing

NameCole Schroeder
Email
CommentsWow the effort u put into wasting my day is amazing

Namesaiteja
Email
Comments

Namearchana
Email
Comments

Namedileep
Email
Comments

Namehdhdh
Emailhsuxhdhd
CommentsEUeud

Nameteehee
Email
Comments

NameMax
EmailProplr
CommentsWow

NameMax
EmailProplr
CommentsWow

Namebayader
Email
Commentslove you

Namemukul
Email
Comments

NameSushma netha
Email
CommentsWt is this Prajwal. ...

NameMarek
Emailmarekamirkhizi@ymail
Comments

Namepoulami
Email
Commentsbags

Namemashayla
Email
Comments

Namebob
EmailBob da builder
CommentsI'm cool

Namebob
EmailBob da builder
CommentsI'm cool

NameReal
Email
CommentsTHe illest

NameMELONMAN
Emailvn dbvj h
Commentsyay melons

Namerushil
Email
Commentsi will kill you mr fluffyboy

NameMaggie
EmailDon't wanna tell
CommentsHaha I the skeam😎

NameOliver h
Email
CommentsFuck you

NameABBY UNDERWOOD💋
Emaillol@no
CommentsI just did it to sign the guestbook lol

NameMackenna
Email
Comments

Nametaryn
Email
Comments

NameAlyssa👋 @alyssa.13
Email
Comments

NameWalker
Email
CommentsHey it will be a while

Namelkajdflkdsa
Email
Commentsfdsjfewasfrdsjfkldsjfgkaldsgnkldsjkldsjtgklsfnglk;dfjgkldsafgkldjswklgfdskljgl;kdsjgkldsfjgklfdjglkfdmjgnkldfhgklfdhyjgkhdfjksghfdjkghlfjkdh;gldfgsdf

NameLindsey boyer
Email
CommentsThat was dumb. But so am I for going all the way through...

NameEmily
EmailHughes
CommentsUhhhhhhh taken forever

Nameswapnil
Email
CommentsBakwas and an absolute waste of time


NameNathan Geddes
Email
CommentsYay

NameBored person
Email
CommentsI actually clicked ok about 100 times, my eyes are flashing

NameSHANKARLAL PATEL
Email
CommentsFine

Namehridoy
Email
CommentsWhats this?????

Nameneha
Email
Comments

Nameramesh
Email
Commentsnice

NameRamesh
Email
CommentsNice ... very funy

Namehitesh raut
Email
CommentsIts a Boaring......

Namesilence
Email
CommentsBored and ....

Nameprince
Email
Comments

Nameanand
Email
Comments

NameDilip nikalje
Email
Comments

Namesubhadas
Email
Comments

Nameanon
Emailymous
CommentsThat was quite fun but mwha you will NEVER FIGURE OUT WHO I AM!

Nameanon
Emailymous
CommentsThat was quite fun but mwha you will NEVER FIGURE OUT WHO I AM!

NameWade K
Email
CommentsHahahahahaha that was so fucking stupid

NameWade K
Email
CommentsHahahahahaha that was so fucking stupid

NameWade K
Email
CommentsHahahahahaha that was so fucking stupid

NameJess
Email
CommentsWow. Just wow.

Namesachin
Email
Commentscant

Namekeval
Email
Comments

Namekeval
Email
Comments

NameBalveer sihag
Email
CommentsHii

NameLiv Spaulding
Email
CommentsYou are an evil genius and if I could I would be you're bestfriend.

NameAllie
Email
Comments

NameSKMukherjee
Email
CommentsCool!

Namepradip
Email
Comments

NameMimin
Email
Commentsno comment

Namearyan
Email
Commentshawa

NameAnna
Email
Commentsthat sucked

NameMonet
Email
Comments

NameMonet
Email
Comments

NameLiam R
Email
CommentsWow, just wow😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂

NameLiam R
Email
CommentsWow, just wow😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂

Namefranky
Emailstines
CommentsHey guys

Namemilly garcia
Emailyamilette@gmail305 com
Comments

NameRaina
Email
CommentsWell that was fun 😂😂

NameIzzy
Email
Comments.....

NameIzzy
Email
Comments.....

NameHailey
Email
CommentsHiiiiiiiiiiiii









Byeeeee

NameHailey
Email
CommentsHiiiiiiiiiiiii









Byeeeee

NameMaria
Email
CommentsCool I guess

NameCole Rabe
Email
Commentsthis is so aweseome!

Namesanjeet shrestha
Email
Comments

NameIdiota Is Sean Clifford
Email
CommentsPoop you

Namemegha
Email
Comments

Namemahi
Email
Comments:P

Namemanjula
Email
Comments

NameVinay
Email
CommentsI won't try to be awesome, awesome tries to be me.

NameRia Banga
Email
Comments

Namechetan
Email
Comments

NameHappiness
Email
CommentsWTf is this?

Nameshubham
Email
CommentsNice

Nameshubham
Email
CommentsNice

Nameshubham
Email
CommentsNice

Nameshubham
Email
CommentsNice

Namenandeesh
Email
Commentsthis is a support

Namepraveen
Email
Comments

NameMaya
Email
Comments

NameThomas
Email
CommentsBludy he'll that's over let's put it on Instagram

Namevignesh
Email
Commentsnice

Namevinit
Email
CommentsOk

Namevinit
Email
CommentsOk

Namevenkat
Email
CommentsYes

Namerahamthulla
Email
Comments

Nameanshul
Email
CommentsPeace :)

Namepiya
Email
Commentsdat ws so annoying..huhhh :/

NameDestynii Lesley
Email
CommentsIts Very Fun. I Think Ima Do It Againn. Lmfl

NameSamrat Ghosh
Email
CommentsThis was very annoying lol

NameKaitlyn
Email
Comments.......😳

NameKaitlyn
Email
Comments.......😳

NameBaker
Email
CommentsFun and interesting

NameAshe'/ Shay
Email
CommentsBruh😳😩😂🎿 for that

Namejaved
Email
Comments

NameJake sawyer
Email
CommentsThat was weird and fun at the same time

NameCaty
Email
CommentsOkkkkaaayyy thennn

NameValle
Email
CommentsThat was not fun

NameKaelin Smith
Email
CommentsThat was awesome what you did WOW

NameIzzy walker
Email
CommentsJOSIE REALLY

NameEden
Email
CommentsUr weird zoe lol

NameEden
Email
Comments

NameCameron
Email
CommentsI will shoot you

NameAimee
Email
CommentsYou are crazy!

Nameyo mama
Emailthis was annoying at i hate my life dot gov
CommentsOMG ANNOYING AS HELL

NameDevin
Email
CommentsTHIS WAS SO ANNOYING OMG

NameBlake Gammil
Email
CommentsSuck my dick man

Namearia
EmailF-O-R-E-V-E-R dot com
Comments😂

NameJOFO
Email
CommentsI dont have a life...

NameAkhil
Email
Comments

NameMadisen
Email
Comments

Namepraveen
Email
Comments*

NameImran Lunat
Email
Commentslmao

Namejosphinah njuni
Email
Comments

NameCarter fogarty
Email
Comments123456789101112131415161718192021232425

Nameamol
Email
Commentsace

NameNicki Minaj
Emailbigbutts.bux
Comments

Namevaibhav vidhate
Email
CommentsNice

Namemahesh pj
Emailmnahes
Comments

Namekalyani
Email
Comments

NameSantana
Email
Comments

NameSantana
Email
Comments

NameSantana
Email
Comments

NameSantana
Email
Comments

NameSantana
Email
Comments

NameSantana
Email
Comments

NameSantana
Email
Comments

NameSantana
Email
Comments

NameSantana
Email
Comments

NameSantana
Email
Comments

Namesanjid
Email
Comments

Namesanjid
Email
Comments

NameUranus
Emailoverthere
CommentsPoor Pluto

NameJaxon
Email
Comments

Namemukul borole
Email
Comments

NameGabby Hodge
Email
CommentsHail the lord, Satan

NameKyra
EmailHelms
CommentsI used your site as my instagram bio. A lot of people got mad at me lol

Nameraparthi alekhya
Email
Comments

Nameraparthi alekhya
Email
Comments

NameSmitha
Email
Comments

NameAlina Adams
Email
CommentsYour super funny!
Super PRETTY!!
And a fun friend to have!
See u later:)

NameIan
Email
Comments

NameEmily
EmailEmilylancaster829
CommentsThanks👊

NameSahar
Email
CommentsIlluminati-sahara-desert-loli-chan (:

Namepoop
Email
CommentsEveil...not

NameLayne
Email
CommentsI stayed till the end omg

Namebrynna
Email
CommentsForver

NameName
EmailEmail
CommentsComments:

NameGeorgia
Email
Commentshahahhaa

NameEddie Seybolt
Email612 214 3375
Comments

NameAlex wells
Email
CommentsEVIL

Namelisa
Email
Comments

NameSuzy
Email
CommentsHaha

NameBen
Email
CommentsWasted my time but was super funny 😂😂

NameJUS10 BEEBUR
Email
CommentsSHE FUCKED MY SMALL DICK

NameJUS10 BEEBUR
Email
CommentsSHE FUCKED MY SMALL DICK

Namejoshua
Email
CommentsJoshua gonzalez ok

Namesurrya
Email
CommentsHiii

Nameellie is smelly
Email
Commentsu smell liek pitas that r frankly. be my wief!!! ¢¾¢¾¢¾¢¾ luv spam my bf lolll noo bo

Namekatelyn
Email
CommentsBababqbqbbwbwbwhqhqhhqhqhqhq

Namesurrya
Email
Commentssomebady want sex

Namehi
Email
Comments

Namehi
Email
Comments

NameJenna
Email
Comments

Namenick
Email
Comments

NameRemy smet
Email
Comments

NameTapanga Bowen
Email
Comments

NameVartan Mirimanian
Email
Comments

NameVartan Mirimanian
Email
Comments

NameVartan Mirimanian
Email
Comments

NameTessa acres
Email
Comments

Namesatan❤️
EmailSuck my ass
CommentsFollow me on Instagram @satan

Namesatan❤️
EmailSuck my ass
CommentsFollow me on Instagram @satan

NameMahesh pj kadaba
Email
CommentsHmm

Nameastrid
Emaildallas💘
Comments

NameAditya
Email
Comments

NameSwagmeoutbro
EmailWhat's email
CommentsSweg.

NameDaman
Email
CommentsYo

Namedaman
Email
CommentsYo

Namemukul borole
Email
Comments

NameSaleena basheer
Email
Comments

NameEricaaa
Email
CommentsLmao you had me so curious.

NameJasmine
Email
Comments

NameGargi kulkarni
Email
Comments

NameGargi kulkarni
Email
Comments

Namesukriti
Email
Commentsnice

NameMalachi Dennis
Email
CommentsThis was the funniest shit ever lol

Namesukriti
Email
Commentsi like it

Namesukriti
Email
Comments

Nameshwetha
Email
Comments

NameMr.Dinosaur (Josue Ibarra)
EmailDont have one
CommentsI love this ima get my friends to try this......MWAHAHAAHAHAH

NameMr.Dinosaur (Josue Ibarra)
EmailDont have one
CommentsI love this ima get my friends to try this......MWAHAHAAHAHAH

Namegaks
Email
CommentsEvil but fun good staf

Namedeepika
Email
CommentsIt's good funny

Namesunil
Email
Commentswow

NameDiego
Email
Comments

NameAlex
Email
CommentsThat was AMAZING it was entertained and educational

NameKotryna
Email
CommentsStupid ig bios

NameAlex
Email
CommentsThat was AMAZING it was entertained and educational

NameEmily c
Email
Comments

NameJacob
Email
Commentswow this is some stupid shit lol

NameCharlie Stuart
Email
CommentsI did it

Namejoy
Email
CommentsVry funnny................hahaha

Namejoy
Emailjoyghorp88@gmail
Comments

Namevulf
Email
Commentssupetroil

NameEddie
Email
CommentsXD

Namesham
Email
CommentsGooood

Namecool
Email
Commentsslkdjhtfao;ksiw nfuckoiug yiyu

NameLola
Email
CommentsThis was so funny omg but it was kind of error atone when you do the alphabet two times!!!

NameBala
Email
Comments awesome...

NameTugai Foryu
Email
Comments

NameTugai
EmailForyu
Comments#totallyworthit #bitches #suckmymotherfuckingdick #onamotherfuckingplane

NameKever MacDonald
Email
CommentsLol that was retarded

Namenagendra k
Email
Comments

Nameazka
Email
Comments

Namerahula
Email
Comments

Namelosarwar abhijeet
Email
Comments1ch no.....ka....da....k..

Namedeepak
Email
Comments

Namedeepak
Email
Comments

Namemahathi v
Email
Comments

Namemahathi v
Email
Comments

Namemahathi v
Email
Comments

NameCheese
Email
Comments

Nameparantapa
Email
CommentsAwsm

NameBanana
Email
Commentslol this was so fun.
tip: use google chrome to skip it lolz.

Nametahnee
Email
Comments

NameSexy person
Email
Comments

NameKaren / karebear
Email
CommentsHahah. ...hi. .d.. .... .... . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ....... . . . . ........ . . . . .... . . .

Namenatalie
Email
Commentshello

Namemumbi
Email
CommentsFun

Namekathy
Email
Comments

Namekassy❤️
Emailyaaass.
Commentsily

Namebineesh
Email
CommentsAm using lumia windows phone. I really loved that the form and style that worked in my mobile. Its funny... Can't get back.. Stucked in it........

Namesucker
Emailwhat
Commentslol

NameEtho
Email
CommentsFun

NameStephen Kojo Dadzie Forson
Email
CommentsGood

NameNoyb
Email
CommentsThat was fun

Namejazzy
Emailguzman
Comments

Namejazzy
Emailguzman
Comments

NameAlex
EmailUrnotthebombdotcom
CommentsBroski

NameKylie
Email
CommentsThis was annoying but funny at the same time.

NameKylie
Email
CommentsThis was annoying but funny at the same time.

NameArqam
Email
CommentsWell that was fun....

NameZoe
Email
CommentsCool

NameJosh McLaren
Email
CommentsHello, why did you send me this and what is it for?

NameJosh McLaren
Email
CommentsHello, why did you send me this and what is it for?

NameMacy
Email
Comments

NameHilary😘😘
Email
CommentsHi
Hi
Hi
Sip
*sup
😘
I
M
B
O
R
E
D
😜
D
G
E
Y
T
O
E
R
X
A
L
P
Random
Letter
Sss
💩
J
F
F
G
G
U
U
I
I
I
Have
A
Baby
Brooo
🙊👶
Sooooo
BYE 👋

NameJo
Email
CommentsI'm laughing so hard

NameJack Dooling
Email
Comments😘😂😘😘😘😘😘😘😂😂

Namepius karani
Email
Commentsi

NameCameron
Email
CommentsLol this is hilarious 😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂👌👌😂😂😂😂😂😂

NameCameron
Email
CommentsLol this is hilarious 😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂👌👌😂😂😂😂😂😂

NameFucker
Emailfuck at fuckmail dot shit
CommentsI've reported this website to the police for spam

Namekachancha
Emailur.mom.was.here.com
CommentsUr mom!!

NameKayla 💕
Email
Comments

Nameansh
Email
Comments

NameBenito
Email
Commentswats this shit anyway

NameToby
Email
CommentsLol😂😂😂

NameYaseen
Email
CommentsTime wastee!!!!!!

NameMorgan Doherty
Email
Comments

Namepriyanka
Email
CommentsLife is cooool

Namechaithanyasiri01@gmail.com
Emailpriyatama
Comments

Namenaila
Email
Comments

Namerushikesh
Email
Comments

NamePoppy
Email
Comments... I hate this

Namekiranmai
Email
Comments

NameGirisha yv
Email
Comments

Namevivekhegde
Email
CommentsVivek is good boy

Namemanik
Email
Comments

NameRicardo Munez
Email
Comments

Nameshilpa
Emailshilpanalini96
CommentsGood

NameAyy
Emailhttp://frankly.pitas.com
Commentslol this is hilarious how do you do it I wanna make one

Namejitendra
Email
CommentsHiiiii....

NameMikayla
Email
CommentsWow

NameHj
EmailHjfff
CommentsHi

Nameyonas moges
Email
CommentsTry to be fast

Nameyonas moges
Email
CommentsTry to be fast

Nameashika
Email
Comments

NameNigga
Email
CommentsLemme smell yo dick

Namepoop
Email
Comments

NameBrooke
Email
Commentsthat was terrible 😂

NameMrs.Carpenter (JT)
EmailUh no. U thot.
CommentsThis was hilarious. It made me mad and annoyed but it was still really fun. Lol.

NameTurtle
Email
CommentsOh my god what did I just do

NameTurtle
Email
CommentsOh my god what did I just do

NameBexy
Email uh noo
CommentsLmao im confuzzled eff it :3

NameBexy
Email uh noo
CommentsLmao im confuzzled eff it :3

NameSophia
Email
CommentsThis was so funny

NameTrinity
EmailHewitt
CommentsLol I've done this 5 times 😏😜

NameLuna
Email
CommentsThis was so fun

Great site

NameDanelle
Email
CommentsHii !!! 🐯🐯

NameAmanda Luna
Email
CommentsVery creative. You can't get mad at fun that is annoying.

NameSelena Samaroo
Email
CommentsBest thing ever OMG 😂👌 this is the fifth time I did it lol it even went backwards once 😂👌❤️😘

NameTy Shepherd The Fifth
Email
CommentsLol just found the guest book

NameTy Shepherd The Fifth
Email
CommentsLol just found the guest book

Namezenyaspb1989
Email
Comments

Nameallieh
Email
Comments

Nameviveh Hegde
Email
CommentsGood boy nice nature

Namesoita dre
Email
Commentsam confused

Name😈
Email😯
CommentsHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA I DID IT

Nameshagufta khan
Email
Comments

NameRaj kjoehdgf
Emailu ery i5etr
Commentsfhgujreiteyuj

NameSonu
Email
CommentsHahahahaha,crazy was it,totally cool,I guess ppl should try it out,make more things like this,Plssssss.loved it anyways.

NameSonu
Email
CommentsHahahahaha,crazy was it,totally cool,I guess ppl should try it out,make more things like this,Plssssss.loved it anyways.

NameTaylor
Email
CommentsLove this

Nameanita
Email1234
Comments

Nameshalini
Email
Comments

Nameimran
Email
Comments

Nameimran
Email
Comments

Namevaibhav vidhate
Email
CommentsNice

Namevaibhav vidhate
Email
CommentsNice

Namesuman
Email
Comments

Namesamiksha
Email
Comments

NameHarshal
Email
CommentsLiked it

NameSantosh kumari
Emailsantoshimudragada555
CommentsI seen this book cpltly

NameCaitlin
Email
CommentsHey I put it on my website so funny people hate me for it

NameAmit Kumar
Email
Comments

Namevicky
Email
Comments

Namespandana
Email
Commentsso nyc

NameNishadh nazar
Email
Comments

Nametukaram dhage
Email
Comments

NameEsme
Email
CommentsThis is garbage

NameBruh buddy
EmailSecrets, ask meh in person
CommentsUr kewl

Namejuanka
Email
Comments

NameShit bag
Email
CommentsShit bag

Nameaniket
Email
Comments(y)

NameGrace
Email
CommentsGeez!! 😂😂😂🍔 funny though!

NameHarrison
Email
CommentsAdd more numbers

Name~Rodrigues
EmailYellow232@hotmail
CommentsThis was the funniest thing on earth it wasted so much time of my life but YOLO😂

NameAmy
Email
CommentsMy friends got stuck on this and literally failed their homeworker bc it wouldn't stop for them😂

Namelauren
Email
CommentsI cANT

NameWhyyyyy
Email
CommentsThis was was the best thing I have ever done

NameAram
Email
Comments

NameSelena Samaroo
Email
CommentsLol this is so funny I thought it would never be done hahah it will do this like a million more times 😏 you can never get rid of me 😈 lol byee ❤️😍😘 -Selena, 13😂👌✌️💩

NameHATE THIS
Email
CommentsThis shit waste your time like for real no offesne is annoying go yo hell bitch

NameMaddie
EmailPalmer
CommentsHï!!! You are supper fun!!!!! 😋😋

NameMaddie
EmailPalmer
CommentsHï!!! You are supper fun!!!!! 😋😋

NameMeads
Email
CommentsHad a lot of fun clicking.....

Nameraj
Email
Comments

Namepooja
Email
CommentsWHOEVER HAS MADE THIS FUCKING WEBSITE PLZ KINDLY ADMIT URSELF IN AN ASYLUM. U R NT MENTALLY FIT TO USE INTERNET.

NameYaswanth
Email
Comments

Namelillian
Email
CommentsThis..Game Idea Is Really Cool...

NameUr ma
Email
CommentsThis is tha most annoying website I have ever see /read/fucking done I wish this website never existed✋

Namechandru
Email
Comments

Nameajay gupta
Email
CommentsCan u give me d source code???:-) loved it...

NameParineeta Ray
Email
CommentsDafaq!

Namearnold
Email
Comments

Namearnold
Email
Comments

Namemanoj
Email
Comments

Namepartha
Email
Comments

NameKelly carmack
Email
CommentsI can't believe you made me do that.

NameShirish
Email
Comments

NameTommy
Email
Comments

Nameseema sajwam
Email
Commentsdont read otherwise u will kill me

Nameajeesh
Email
CommentsWow.... its not funny.... its a killer funny.... big like (y)

Nameajeesh
Email
CommentsWow.... its not funny.... its a killer funny.... big like (y)

Namesadat
Email
Commentsno idea

NameCharlie Villanueva
Email
CommentsLol!!!

NameCharlie Villanueva
Email
CommentsLol!!!

NameCharlie Villanueva
Email
CommentsLol!!!

Namejoe
Email
Comments

Namesukriti
Email
Commentslyk it

Namesukriti
Email
Comments

NameKassidy
Email
CommentsOmg this is the 16th time I have clicked it on different people's amount.... I'm TOOPID.

NameEric Shawn Thompson
Email
Comments100 percent too much texting on the website!

NameEric Shawn Thompson
Email
Comments100 percent too much texting on the website!

Namedennis wanjala
Email
CommentsNot yet now

Namethe apple of justice AKA keely
Email
Comments*tearfully sings*
"Now i know my ABC's" :'(

NameChase burns
Email
Comments

Namefgt
Email
Commentsyo

NameKaitlyn G
EmailNunya
CommentsIt was annoying but it was interesting on why I felt the need to see what was at the end, the psychological obsession is real. Our subconscious needed to know what's the end and why endure this self inflicted torment.

NameMadi
Email
CommentsI love it💕

Nameviolet
Email
CommentsNo int

Name😕😕😕😕
Email
Comments

NameSarah
Email
CommentsI like it

NameSydney
Email
CommentsLol I fell for it😂

Namesriram
Email
Commentsawsm !!!!!!!

NameJake Flinerberg
EmailJakeFlinerberg.google.com
CommentsWhat the heck did I just sign...

NameSyerra Liptrot
Email
Comments

Namehaley
Email
Commentsnot cool

Nametarnish
EmailWilliams
CommentsBictch

Nameboobs
Email
Commentsboobs

NameMichel Cabrera Cordero
Email
CommentsQuiero saber todo acerca del tratamiento mandenme información porfavor.

NameERIC SHAWN THOMPSON 11
Email
CommentsThis is Very AWKWARD.

NameHubert cumberdale
Email
CommentsThis is the greatest page on the Internet.

NameBob
Email
CommentsOmg it was so annoying😫😫

NameBob
Email
CommentsOmg it was so annoying😫😫

NameJamie F doe
Emailjamiem_82
Comments

NameRana
Email😄
CommentsOmg this was stupid yet entertaning 😂😂

Namemorgan
Email
Commentsi freakin hate you for creating this

NameJinga
Email
Comments

NameJudy
Email
CommentsI like it

Namevishal chalak
Emailvish
Comments

Nameektaverma
Email
Comments

Nameviolet
Email
Comments

Nameviolet
Email
Comments

Nameralph ramirez
Email
CommentsMessage i like to take you out

Nameralph ramirez
Email
CommentsMessage i like to take you out

NameFred from Papa Gino's
Email
CommentsI like cheese

Namevinod
Email
Comments

Namedida
Email
CommentsI like your dialogue

NameSatan
Email666
CommentsThis was created by me for entertainment purposes

NameSmiles
Email
CommentsAhhhhhhh

Nameparveez
Email
Commentsshed mcfv

NameCaitlynn
Email
CommentsMuahhhhh

Nametomgrier
Email
CommentsYour the best skater

Namemaqsood
Email
CommentsAmzin fun

NameRose
Email
Comments

Namepriya
Email
Comments

Namemanju
Email
Commentsfwth3nlcaxdnmsa;d

Namepriyanka Bhati
Email
Comments

NameSofiLara
Email
CommentsAmazing

Namealicia
Emailnotgonnahappen.stalkers.com
Comments hilarious. follow me on ig. qlicia_mok ㄟ( ̄▽ ̄ㄟ)to the window!
(厂 ̄▽ ̄)厂 to the wall!


Tell me u found me on this website, and ill follow u back!

Namealicia
Emailnotgonnahappen.stalkers.com
Comments hilarious. follow me on ig. qlicia_mok ㄟ( ̄▽ ̄ㄟ)to the window!
(厂 ̄▽ ̄)厂 to the wall!


Tell me u found me on this website, and ill follow u back!

NameKeisi
Email
Comments

Namemanene khrasi
Email
Comments

NameMaria
Email
CommentsHahahaha

NameMaria
Email
CommentsHahahaha

NameZuzu
Email
CommentsHey pal

NameJinette faraj
Email
Comments

Namepego
Email
Comments

NameShakira
Email
Comments

Nameerikakothe
Email
Comments

NameKatelyn really likes animals ❤️❤️❤️❤️
Email
CommentsLol

NameJayna
Email
CommentsYou f***in suck sometimes, you know that?

NameOlivia Walker
Email
CommentsLol

NameJerk
EmailUrafuckingasshole
CommentsI hate u

Nameshirley mwima
Email
CommentsCool

NameOwen Willis
Email
CommentsWow that took me ages!

NameCat irwin
Email
CommentsPerf /:

NameCat irwin
Email
CommentsPerf /:

Namecfc_gibs -follow me on ig
Email
CommentsFollow me on instagram @cfc_gibs thx a lot luca for telling me about it follow him! @lucab1_ this website was annoying but pretty funny so....

NameDevon
Email
Comments

Namekanmani
Email
Comments

NameKatie
Email
CommentsWow!

Namekiki arya
Email
Comments

Namehotcrossbunz
Email
Commentsbitch niqqa plz

NameDeirdre
EmailNot gonna tell you
CommentsI hated this... THANK YOU VICTORIA!!!

Namens
Email
Comments

Namebitch
Emailbitch2.poo
CommentsNigga

Namebitch
Emailbitch2.poo
CommentsNigga

Nameniyati
Email
Comments

NameEmily
Email
Comments

NameFaZaLKh
Email
CommentsBullshit.....Go to HeLL

NameMony
Email
CommentsLOL

Nameshafayatullakhan
Email
CommentsLallu kI rabdi.

NameiT'sRaven!
Email
CommentslOLOLOLOLL

NameAllwyn
Email
CommentsNa

Namedeekshith
Email
Commentsdon't open it u will sufer!!!!!!!!!!!

Namekamal
Email
CommentsHaaaaaa

NameJack
Emailjcoop252eememem
CommentsFUCK YOU!

NameReal nigga
EmailRealnigga.com
CommentsReally nigga

NameLaila
Email
CommentsWhhyyyy

NameIsam
Email
CommentsYou should offer a rewarded nude picture of iggy for motivational finishes

Namemadeleine
Email
Comments

Namemadeleine
EmailDrew@mastkn
Comments

NameAlberto
Email
CommentsEvil! 😂

NameHeather
Email
CommentsI wasn't going to leave

NameHeather
Email
CommentsI wasn't going to leave

NameBob Saget
Email
Commentsfucking

NameHshs
EmailJsjsjs
CommentsCoooool

NameCarmen Mosley
Email
CommentsI literally did this 3 times already

NameCarmen Mosley
Email
CommentsI literally did this 3 times already

NameTakayla
Email
Comments😒😊😄😋😳

NameEmma
Email
CommentsThis was in the link on my friends bio and oh my god, I was watching dr who, I got so mad at her XD

NameBrie
Email
Comments

NameKayla
Email
CommentsHey

Nameaditya shawarn
Email
Commentshii

NameVictoria Olson
Email
Comments

NameClaire Fucking
EmailLittle
CommentsFuck you, fuck you right in the ass

Nameizzy
Email
Commentsfuck this

NameRonnie radke
Email
Comments

NameRonnie radke
Email
Comments

Namejamir
Email
CommentsWow that was annoying

NameCristian
Email
CommentsHahaha😂

NameCristian
Email
CommentsHahaha😂

NameSammy craven
EmailSammy.craven&yahoo.com
Comments

NameRosie
EmailNo.thanks
CommentsOmg. That funny😂 but wasted my time😑

NameAyush Mishra
Email
CommentsAwesome

NameAlvin Aron
Email
CommentsYou really made me suffer guys,,good idea guys,,my kids love you much they told me to tell tou that!!! Hahahaha i cant belive i did the ALPHABET!!!

Nameima
Email
CommentsAwesome

Namevinayak
Email
Comments

Namekelvin
Email
Comments

NameTyler z
EmailA
CommentsHate you

Nameasshole
Email
CommentsU made me suffer

NameBrianna bernier
Email
Comments

NameBrianna bernier
Email
Comments

NameBrianna bernier
Email
Comments

NameBrianna bernier
Email
Comments

NameBrianna bernier
Email
Comments

Namelizzybeth
Email
CommentsThat was crazy.

Namelizzybeth
Email
Comments

Namegurupal
Email
Comments

Namefuck you
Email
CommentsFuck this duckingfuck siye

Namefuck you
Email
CommentsFuck this duckingfuck siye

NameSakshi Vikas
Email
Comments

Namehaushiram thorat
Email
Comments

Namereally? fun? yes it is!
Email
CommentsIt got me worried for first but it was fun to prank people. put this code in your twitter,emails,facebook,we chat,whatsapp,and many more. put this code to many website hotlink even post this as a sms code to prank people that you know! really fun prank.

Namereally? fun? yes it is!
Email
CommentsIt got me worried for first but it was fun to prank people. put this code in your twitter,emails,facebook,we chat,whatsapp,and many more. put this code to many website hotlink even post this as a sms code to prank people that you know! really fun prank.

NameBimin
Email
CommentsLol.....

Namejagan
Emailjagan
Comments

Nameashwini
Emailkumarashwini406@Gmail
Comments

Nameashwini
Emailkumarashwini406@Gmail
Comments

NameSanjeev
Email
Comments

Namekerry
Email
Commentshaha

Namehashir
Email
Comments

NameSukanya
Email
Comments

NameHarsh
Email
CommentsAwesome dude... It's a really eritted fun..... But I enjoyed it

Nameaparna
Email
Comments

NameCana
Email
CommentsI know how to count to 50 now!!!!

NameCassidy
Email
CommentsThis was SO irritating!!!! How do younp make these

NameCharles
Email
CommentsLol

NameIDC
EmailIhate this .com
CommentsThis is stupid😡

NameIDC
EmailIhate this .com
CommentsThis is stupid😡

Namekhairi
Email
CommentsOk

NameSophie
Email
CommentsIlyy

Namebuster
Emailwayne
Comments

Nameiszati
Email
CommentsThqt was hillarious. Again~

NameSome bitch :/
Emailmothafucka.com
CommentsStarving...

NameCaitlin
Email
CommentsWHAT AM I DOING HERE

NameCaitlin
Email
CommentsWHAT AM I DOING HERE

NameMolly Kate
Email
CommentsHi

NamenamakuAm
Email
CommentsHahaha it so fun

NameAmiyah Brown
EmailWhy.u.gotta.know?
Comments

Nameziegtumblr
Email
CommentsI didn't u follow but I'm a rebel ������

Namehannah
Email@hannahbredsmarting
Comments

Namemack attack
Email
CommentsKinda didnt know why the whole thing with the"dint hit the bbutton" but when I did hit it it was kinda fun reciting the alphabet...twice and counting to 50. SO MUCH FUUUUUN!!!!!!!

Namehi
Emailhi
CommentsHi

Name@ppp
Email
Comments

Namekyle
Emailkydlebits@gmail
CommentsHi

NameJustin
Email
CommentsBITCHEZZZZ

NameDj Vijay
Email
CommentsHi

NameEmily
EmailNon of your biz
Comments

Namekudin
Email
Comments

NameHadi
Email
Comments

NameKatie kirby-jones
Email
CommentsHahahahahahahahahahaha

Namehhh
Emailtygh
Comments

Namekarthika
Email
Comments

Namealeesha
Email
Comments

NameHardik patel
Email
Comments

NameCrocodile
Email
Comments

Namesuck my ass
Email
CommentsI just clicked " don't allow this website to give me more popups" :p

Namevahi
Email
CommentsHi

NameJoshua
Email
CommentsThis was so fun 👍👍👍👍

NameMadeline
Email
CommentsThis made my day
I'm laughing so hard
Thank you.

NameJayaram
Email
CommentsPodi lusu

NameShubh Singh
Email
CommentsFuckin awesome Guyz Work Hard!!

Namewashingtonkatierose@icloud.com
Email
CommentsAwesome!

NameMeredith
Email
CommentsBruh. This is so annoying.

NameAnnika
Email
Comments

NameAjay
Email
Commentshehhe kuch smj hi nai aaya :p

NamePriyanka
Email
CommentsNice idea to waste everybody's time and yours too

NameNupur
Email
CommentsIt was good... Good software

NameLauren
Email
Comments

NameBharadwaj
Email
Comments

NameDerek
Email
CommentsAbcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

NameTeenage Llama
Emailidk ask u mum
CommentsI didnt look at the whole but how did i get here ... the world may never know

NameYAH NIG DAQUAN
Email
CommentsI love ur ass

Namebmyers_115
Email
CommentsSo annoying

NameIzabelle Kortman
Email
CommentsWaste of my life

NameFinley
Email
Comments

NameD-Ham
Email
Comments

NameKelly
Email
CommentsThat was awful I only did it to see what I would get to and it was completely not worth it😒

NameKelly
Email
CommentsThat was awful I only did it to see what I would get to and it was completely not worth it😒

NameYolo Krassman
Email
CommentsOh la la

Nameok
Emailok
Commentsok

Namekikireed
Email
CommentsAwesomeness

Namethe one who will fuck U one day Mahaha
Email
CommentsYou have a real problem in your head but hey


thats why i love ya

NameBig knob rob
Email
Commentsyeet

NameDonky91
Email
Comments

NameDonky91
Email
Comments

Namedmatokeh
Email
Comments

Namewat
Email
Commentswat

Namesumeiya Abdillahi
Email
Comments

NameKalekye
Email
CommentsCoolll!!!

Nameseema
Email
Comments

Nameseema
Email
Comments

Namekiran kamthe
Email
Commentsnice....

Namepradeepkumar
Email
Comments

Namenimal
Email
Commentshii

Namesampath kumar
Email
CommentsIdea is good but the matter inside is not interesting , create a story or something else and make the people fell tense and finally they should blast of laughter.
but i should appreciate you because its a good work congratulations.

Namesaran
Email
CommentsFunny

Namefatin
Email
Comments

NameAkku
Email
Commentsawesome dude!

Namegjb
Emailgjbbjj.com
CommentsWoooooo

Namegeorge
Email
Comments

Nameyoga
Email
Comments

NameRohan
Email
Comments

Nameqwe
Emailqasw.com
CommentsCvgdchhfdhjy

NameCynthia Nthenya Kiilu
Email
Commentswhat is this?????

NameCynthia Nthenya Kiilu
Email
Commentswhat is this?????

NameCynthia Nthenya Kiilu
Email
Comments

Namesunil
Email
Comments

Nameoro
Emaildoropinawathee.com
Comments

Nameainul syakirah saffie
Email
CommentsIt is so amazing..good idea..so fun although to wait a few secondsi

NameM.Paramasivan
Email
Comments

Namejackson mkambula
Email
Comments

NameRaingachan
Email
CommentsWht a game...

NameKHOKHA BABU
Email
CommentsTum hi ho ab tum hi ho meri aashique ab tum hi ho

Namet. swag
Email
CommentsI HATE MY FRIENDS

Namevetti
Email
CommentsNothing to say

Namevetti
Email
CommentsNothing to say

Nameuma
Email
CommentsNothing to say

Namemohd syafie bin tahir
Email
Comments

Namerakesh
Email
CommentsWTF

Namedinesh
Email
Commentswhy..

NameAddie
Email
CommentsThis was so much fucking fun omg 🌚😂

NameCummins.Daily
Email
CommentsCummins.Daily on Instagram

NameCummins.Daily
Email
CommentsCummins.Daily on Instagram

NameAddie
Email
CommentsThis was so much fucking fun OMG 😂💖

NameCalista
Email
CommentsHahahahaha man you got me it was ANOYING!

NameAbi
Email
Comments

NameSydney
Email
CommentsI'm the Sydney from camp. I hate this.

NameGillian (geab33)
Email
Comments

NameSkylar smith
Email
CommentsWow wtf

NameCecile Wilson
Email
CommentsI legit love you so much

NameAnushka
Email
CommentsNice one..

NameAnushka
Email
CommentsNice one..

NameGrace
Email
Comments

NameBrad Berrezueta
Email
Commentsvery funny. worried at first, then relieved.

NameBrad Berrezueta
Email
Commentsvery funny. worried at first, then relieved.

NameMeagan Bilodeau
Email
CommentsLove u so much perrie!!

NameMorgan
Email
CommentsI made it, wooooooo, thx for putting me through this torture and have a nice day!

NameAngelina
Email
CommentsThis pissed me off so much
I've fallen for it 4 times

NameKaitlyn
Email
CommentsThat was fun u should keep going!!
Muhahhahaaaha

NamePool
Email
CommentsThis was to easy I don't know what everyone is talking about.

NamePool
Email
CommentsThis was to easy I don't know what everyone is talking about.

NamePool
Email
Comments

Namebebie
Email
CommentsI dnt care nd I believe in ma slf

NameGuy....
Emailnope
CommentsUggs not drugs

NamePaloma
Email
CommentsEsta de hueva se tarda años

NamePaloma
Email
Comments

Nameximena
Email
CommentsPretty clever -_-

NameQuinten
Email
CommentsHahaha ...my thumb hurts :/

Namejohn shamolla
Email
CommentsIt was realy realy fun...l loved what l saw..

NameAle
Email
Comments

NameJake
Email
CommentsDon't click it

Namereenu
Email
Comments

NameAli gotdon
EmailUybsdvv
CommentsUr so annoying

Namelily o'brien
Email
Commentshaha losers im cooler than u

Namelily o'brien
Email
Commentshaha losers im cooler than u

Namelily o'brien
Email
Commentshaha losers im cooler than u

NameMisdawd
Email
Commentsi will like a free minecraft server /mydick

NameKory
Email
CommentsKory

NameJasneet Kaur
Email
Comments

NameMineZ
Email
Commentshej

Nameshruti shrivastav
Email
Commentsooo...re lamhe 2 yhi ruk ja ho sake to umra bhad thum ja....:-)

Nameelizabeth mutuku
Email
CommentsJust do it....u wil like it

Namemaya
Email
Comments

Namekavitha
Email
Comments

Namepriya
Email
Comments

NameHannah
Email
CommentsJdkwkcjskwjdjd

NameHannah
Email
CommentsJdkwkcjskwjdjd

NameHeila Charen
Email
CommentsThis was hell.

NameBrijesh kumar
Email
Commentsfaadu man... ;-) bt lil irritatng... :-P

NameGina
Email
Comments

Namesabyasachi
Email
Commentshi dear.....
waitaspp

Namesuper woman
Email
CommentsWhts ths?

Namesanket jain
Email
CommentsI love my self

Namesabyasachi
Email
Comments

Namesabyasachi
Email
Comments

Namesabyasachi
Email
Comments

Namesabyasachi
Email
Comments

Namesatyavrat
Email
Comments

Namesatyavrat
Email
Comments

NameAudra
Email
CommentsHahaha that was so funny! ��

Namemelvin
Email
CommentsZzz

Nameanand
Email
CommentsLol

Nameanand
Email
CommentsLol

Nameanand
Email
CommentsLol

Namepankaj
Email
Commentshi

Namemohammed aslam
Email
CommentsSuperb

Namebara
Email
Comments

Namebara
Email
Comments

NameIrene Jorum
Email
Comments

NameIrene Jorum
Email
Comments

NameIrene Jorum
Email
Comments

Namesalman
Email
CommentsHum... Putta...

Namejurgens
Emailjurgs85.gmail.com
CommentsHi

Namekishu
Email
Comments

Nameneha
Email
Commentsgood job

Nameanaira
Email
Comments

NameKody
Email
CommentsFunny

Nameashreina
Email
CommentsRohi tera kuch kaam dhanda nahi hai kyaaaaa

Nameashreina
Email
CommentsRohi tera kuch kaam dhanda nahi hai kyaaaaa

Namebob
Email
Commentsg'day

NameAzuuu
Emailazuuu4211at gmail dot com
CommentsIt was crazy and fun thanks.

NameRachel
Email
CommentsWell, that was enlightening.

Namemarrysyhe
Emailhajsjsn@nqkwkme
CommentsWtf how you do? Tell me pls

Namekmr
Email
Commentsgud

Namekmr
Email
Commentsgud

Namesurbhi
Email
CommentsNothing

NamePriyadharshini
Email
Commentsits different

NameSathya
Email
Commentsnothinh...

Namepvshastri
Email
CommentsThis is a nice n harmless way of passing time. Thanks.

NameAbhijit
Email
CommentsWhat is this for

NameAbhijit
Email
CommentsWhat is this for

NameAlice nyatika
Email
CommentsLors of fun

Namebruh
Email
CommentsBruh

NameBernardo
Email
Comments

NameOmmyyusuf
Email
CommentsYou people are crazy and awesome!

NameOmmyyusuf
Email
CommentsYou people are crazy and awesome!

Nameisaac
Email
CommentsYeah

NameBlablabla Alfa
Email
Comments

Nameisaac
Email
Comments

NameBlablabla Alfa
Email
Comments

NameKatherine
Email
Comments

NameAnastasia
Email
CommentsHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA ITS MY BIRTHDAY TOMORROW HAHAHAHAHAHAH WOOT WOOT NOOT NOOT GMHAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MEH

NameMariana Matán
Email
Comments

NameKanye east
Email
Comments

NameMichael song
Email
CommentsLuv it❤️❤️

Namejyothi
Email
CommentsNice.....

NameJack
Email
CommentsThat was awesome

NameShirley
Email
CommentsDo I get a prize?

NameEthel Chibuye banda
Email
CommentsWhat to join and have fun

NameValery
Emailibwnh.com.fr
CommentsAmazing

NameKamryn
EmailJdbsnskoejdnd
CommentsThis was soooooooooooooooo funny!!!

NameLeeya
Email
Commentsthat was fun. let's not do it again. xx

NameLaura
Email
Comments

NameSantiago
Email
Comments

NameLily
Email
CommentsKuwa serious

NameBlake
Email
Comments

Namejay jay
Email
Commentsthis is crazy, Good job

Namejay jay
Email
Commentsthis is crazy, Good job

NameMartin Luther King
Email
CommentsI was here

NameCMB
Email
Comments

Nameambarish
Email
Commentsvery well

NameRicardo Fields
Email
CommentsMotherf****r I last like 30 min here haha

Namerafi
Email
Commentsnice

Namerabiya
Email
Comments

NameJyoti
Email
CommentsCgllbfg

Nameanu singh
Emailanusingh6677
CommentsKill you.. Whoever created it

Nameanu singh
Emailanusingh6677
CommentsKill you.. Whoever created it

NameAdam Iagallo
Email
CommentsHahahhhhhhhhahhhhahhhhhhhahahahahhhhhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhaahahahahhshhaahahhahahahahahahahahahahhhhahahahahahahhaahhahahahhahahhhahahahaahhaahahahhahaahahggahahahahhahahhghhghhgghhahahahhahaahhhahahahahahhahahahahahahahahahahahahaggagagggagaga

Namepradeep kumar jain
Email
Comments

NameKevin Wisleder
Email
CommentsFuck school my life is completet

NameNishanth
Email
Comments

NameNishanth
Email
Comments

Nameanil
Email
Commentswhat's it?

NameCole Zamborsky
Email
CommentsHAAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHHAHAHAHAAHHAAHAHAH . BROKE MY PHONE .

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CommentsVery funn??? How did you get to do all that??

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Namednyanprasad jadhav
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CommentsVery funny..
Jr tula bore vhaylay tr amhala kashala bore karaylas..
Amhalapn kalatiy tujhi bhasha..
N ashe tym pass funde tr amchya watsapp grp vr lai aahet.. mind rockers sagla mind ghatlay yanni..
Balapurche yede tr lai yede aahet..
Medicos madhye tr psycho aahet sagle..
Ata mi pn tym pass kartoy..
Kay kru por grp vr bore karaylet.. grp sodla tr punha add karaylet..jau de ata rahto grpvr..
Ts tr majhi iccha nahi sampvaychi..pn byeee..
Ani amchya nadala nko lagu.. adavnaryanna jiwant gadto..जय महाराष्ट्र. . येऊन येऊन येणार कोण.. शिवसेनेशिवाय आहेच कोण..

NameI'm not putting my name you pervs
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CommentsThis amused me and I am defiantly going to put it in my Instagram bio. Also I'm really bored so I'm going to keep talking...... I feel very accomplished, I should buy myself a trophy. No that would be sad, maybe a medal.... Still sad. I'll probably just get a nice professional looking plaque, that will surely strike up an interesting conversation. I feel like I'm talking to myself but someone is watching me..... I read somewhere that there are certain websites out there that hack into the camera on your device and they watch you. Ever since then I have been paranoid that I'm like going to die, or something worse....... DUN DUN DUNNNN!!!!!!!!!!!! I'm going to cover my camera now just in case you are watching me....

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NameEmily
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CommentsIM AWESOME 😊

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CommentsDid I really just waste my time for that....

NameAmber💘
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CommentsI actually just wasted my time doing that.....

NamePrashanth Kumar G N
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CommentsHmmm......very funny....

NameMaria
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CommentsThat was something else!! Haha I'm putting this on my instagram!!

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CommentsBruh................ ..... .. .. ...... .. .. that was funnny but annoying at the same time

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CommentsTook so long 😂👌

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CommentsFuck you that was torture!!!!!

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CommentsThis is the best

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NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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. ♦

NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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.”
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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. ♦

NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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.”
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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. ♦

NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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. ♦

NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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.”
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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. ♦

NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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.”
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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. ♦

NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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.”
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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. ♦

NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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.”
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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. ♦

NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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.”
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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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NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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.”
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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. ♦

NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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.”
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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. ♦

NameLong Story Short
EmailBY DANA GOODYEAR
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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.”
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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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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. ♦

Namerupinder
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-Riley

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EmailLol
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Namerakshan
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Emailc.keshri.ck
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Emailhema666
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EmailNo
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EmailHaines
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Namevinod kumar
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And tell Dillon W Smith that I wish he would just ask me out because we like each other! 😘

Namepriya
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Emailmakyvette@28
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Namesheeba
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Nameameen
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NameAnnieAuMy
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NameSneha Swagmoney
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Namemohd azimullah
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CommentsThis was annoying!!!

NameManas Masoom
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Nameemmy_ramli
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Nameemmy_ramli
Email
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Namekwaga ritah
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NamePreetham Rai
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NameLucie
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CommentsThat was stupid

Namesue gachago
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Namemercydatwins
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Commentsguest

NameAbbie simpson •3•
Email
CommentsThis was fucking annoying...

NameAbbie simpson •3•
Email
CommentsThis was fucking annoying...

Namemercydatwins
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Commentsguest

Namerahul
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NameDuncan
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Nameskyla
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Namemouli
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Namehema latha
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Emailsophie1
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Emailhotmale.com
Commentssend me email

NameSky-Marie
Email
CommentsOmf this is such an honor. Pls follow me on Instagram @skymarieblair and add me on snapchat @sky.marie (only if you're cute tho aha ) ok cool thanks for this honor of being in the guestbook 10/11/14

NameSky-Marie
Email
CommentsOmf this is such an honor. Pls follow me on Instagram @skymarieblair and add me on snapchat @sky.marie (only if you're cute tho aha ) ok cool thanks for this honor of being in the guestbook 10/11/14

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EmailThrackerzod.Lovecraft.com
CommentsI am normal

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Email9898299133
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i enjoyed a lot over

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EmailShur
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NameEmily
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CommentsFor the unfollowers

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CommentsIt was horrible

NameDestiny Labrador
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NameAbby
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Emailnadia
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NameAvery
EmailAvery
Commentsthis was annoying -.-

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Emailtested.com
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Namemama
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Commentswell said , you re greart

Name@bruhnnie
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EmailAzhar_Nahar090489
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Emailmaryj@gmail
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CommentsBoring

Namemadival
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Namejean-marc
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Commentswhat doesn't kill you makes you stronger.train hard fight easy....

Namenaszhahax
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Commentsso funny..hehehehe

NameSt*r
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CommentsI did this twice today to see what it looked like on my windows phone and my Ipad

Nametatti
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NameBobbby
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CommentsYou suck man😂😂

Namemika
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CommentsThats very exciting lol
It scared me after counting the numbers
Anyway, it's fun.:)

NameMathew
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NameJasmine
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Comments

Namenimesh trivedi
Email
Comments

NameAlondra
Email
CommentsFuck you made me waste my time but ily 😂❤

NameAlicia
Email:D
Commentstbh I liked this XD

NameNthato
Email
CommentsYyyyyyyyyyy that was sooooooooo long but fun at the same time and frustrating

NameNthato
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CommentsYyyyyyyyyyy that was sooooooooo long but fun at the same time and frustrating

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CommentsHow do that

Namealih tonyy
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CommentsReally it was wonderful !!!!

NameMid
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CommentsLol very amusing

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Email
CommentsNo comments

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Namejames kiminda
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Commentshi..

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Commentshi..

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CommentsWhat man?

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Namedurp
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Emailengland
Commentswow

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Commentssorry I haven't gone on this site sooner

NameJudith
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Comments:D regards!

NameRaleigh
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CommentsUgh

Namefarzana
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Comments

Namefrenni
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Comments

NameSAMUEL
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NameSAMUEL
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Comments

Namekrishna kumar
Email
CommentsFunny @ time pass time.. Rest time its hell... To complete the funny & crazy things.. Ultimately something gud.

I except more..

Namegrace
Email
CommentsWah vry fun.can i get somethng
else funny

Namedouble h
Email
CommentsBored. Doesnt have any surprises

NameMD Ismail
Email
Commentssssoooo funny

NameRachel Aldcorn
Email
CommentsThis just killed me. Screw you Hannah for putting me up to this.

NameJaffar Shadick
Email
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NameJaffar Shadick
Email
CommentsFeeling bad

NameJaffar Shadick
Email
Comments

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Nameushass
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Comments:)

NameAxl's Rose
Email
CommentsAxl Rose is bae

NameMANGO LILY
Email
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NameKevin
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Commentsknvei

Namedaniel
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CommentsAm dead

Namedaniel
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CommentsAm dead

Namedaniel
Email
Comments

NameGilbert
Email
CommentsBeautful People

NameLu
Email
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NameAmanda
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CommentsLol fuckin luv it😂

NameAmanda
Email
CommentsLol fuckin luv it😂

Namemayzai aileez
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Comments

Namejohn
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Namejeff
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CommentsHehe just can't stop doing it.fun

Namesweta
Email
Comments

Nameanveshak
Email
Commentshey nice one homey. If possibe send more ciz i love it.

Nameeujay
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CommentsI loved it!

Nameeujay
Email
CommentsI loved it!

Nameeujay
Email
CommentsI loved it!

NameGrace
Email
CommentsI just don't know how to express how annoying this was

Namemohd ikram
Emailmohdhaziq.gmail.com
Comments

Namemohd ikram
Emailmohdhaziq.gmail.com
Comments

Namemohd ikram
Emailmohdhaziq.gmail.com
Comments

NameJoe
Email
CommentsThat was great

Namebill
Email
CommentsHi

Namezara
Emailnoo...II'mm fucking illiterate.
CommentsYo. Yo Fuck :^

NameFUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
EmailFUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
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FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!
FUCK YOU YA CUNTS!!

Namesharq de
Emailcim
CommentsU r too wizzard! Bt full of ignorance!!!

Namebatul shabbir
Email
Commentshaha lov it..a i had a huge smile n loughter on my face nd i also shared with my whatsap friends :)

Namebatul shabbir
Email
Commentshaha lov it..a i had a huge smile n loughter on my face nd i also shared with my whatsap friends :)

Nameiqbal
Email
CommentsSmile

Nameegienana
Email
Comments

NamePrussia
Email
CommentsAdmin: PFFT. No one's more evil than Prussia!

Prussia: MWAHAHHAHAHAHAH

Namenitin anuragi
Emailnitinanuragi.com
Commentsvery cool

Namekabaghe
Emailwww.com.kabaghe
Comments

NameFrank
EmailFrank
CommentsHi

NameHiro Yamaguchi
EmailI will never put my email
CommentsGrrrrrrr but lol

Namesuresh
Email
Comments

NameErica gutierrez
Email
CommentsHey hi idk so why did u do the alphabet numbers and u know everything!!!!!!!!!!?!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Any ways
Find the sad face
😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃
😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃
😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃
😃😃😃😩😃😃😃😃😃
😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃
😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃
😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃
😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃😃
😃😢😃😃😃😃😃😃😃

Nameenkoba rao
Email
CommentsI'm a simple guy

Namepankajdhadbale
Email
Comments

Namelaura 💩
Email
Comments

NameFag
EmailFag at gmail in my ass
CommentsHi guys im a gay dirty faggot and once you read this message there is probably a good 99.99% chance you have turned gay.

NameWow
EmailYou weren't lieing
CommentsGood job!!!!

NameYou're a cunt
Email
CommentsSup cunts

NameThe Ninja Sheep
Email
CommentsSheep sheep ninja ninja sheep sheep

NameThe Ninja Sheep
Email
CommentsSheep sheep ninja ninja sheep sheep

NameYour mom
EmailDickrLuvDickRlief
CommentsFuk you

Nametaitlin
Email
Comments

Name$alana$
Email
CommentsLike your website who r u

NameMichelle Axt
Email
CommentsHaha funny

Namejohn
Emailjohn191592
Comments

Namejohn
Emailjohn191592
Comments

NameAustin newgord
Email
Comments

NameHarry
Email
Comments

NameHarry
Email
Comments

NameHarry
Email
Comments

NameCasey price
Email
Comments

NameJasmine
Email
Comments

NameAsta Rowbottom
Email
CommentsHello, I think this is a very funny thing to do! Some people probably would hate it though because they aren't humerous like others. I was actually stuck! My home button doesn't work and it wouldn't let me exit out! Aha. I had to go through it all!
Cheers. asta.

NameAsta Rowbottom
Email
CommentsHello, I think this is a very funny thing to do! Some people probably would hate it though because they aren't humerous like others.

NameAsta Rowbottom
Email
Comments

NameRiva
Email
CommentsHi

NameHaley Ford
Email
Comments

NameHaley Ford
Email
Comments

Nameraj
Email
Comments

Namenorwaninawi
Emailnorwaninawi3637
CommentsNothing

NameDavis Ossy
Email
CommentsDeigned to success

NameMandy
EmailI dontsaythxbbsje@gmail
CommentsTheo dont Say to me dot clik there

NameSam
Email
CommentsOmfg

NameCaroline
Email
CommentsTurd

NameElvis
Email
Comments

NameHarshvir Parmar
Email
Commentsim gay and I suck dick for money txt me

NameJonas
Email
Comments😂😂 gj 😂😂

Namemarie
Email
Comments

Namefloki
Email
Commentsdamn

Namesonu kumar
Email
Commentsemeahfyji

Nameprasad
Email
CommentsSuper

Namelavaniyah
Email
Comments

Namelavaniyah
Email
Comments

Namebalajisundar
Email
Comments

NameDrangon3
Email
CommentsYo.

Namevini....
Email
Comments

Namevini
Email
Comments

NameAjinkya
Email
Comments

Namesubi
Emailsub love are diff mail.com
CommentsHi

Namesravani
Email
Comments

Nameeeur
Email
CommentsHaha

NameJoseph
Email
CommentsHow on earth did someone get up this thing?

Namedjdr jeff
Email
CommentsNice one

Namemambara
Email
Commentshie

Namesameera
Email
Comments

Nameyt
Emailtt
Comments

Namehj
Email
Comments

Namelana payne
Email
CommentstHIS IS SHIT BUT AMAZNING 💘

Nameayemi
Email
Comments

Nameicky
Email
Comments

Nameicky
Email
Comments

Nameashleigh
Email
Comments

Nameritah
Email
Commentsi lyk u

Nameritah
Email
Commentsi lyk u

Namekiki
Email
Commentsu suck

Namekiki
Email
Commentsu suck

NameEvie
Email
Comments

Nameshabootyquiquii
Email
Commentsu stupid

NameSonujaat529@gmail.com
EmailLoveispain
Comments

NameLet it go
Email
CommentsLet it go by Td Jakes

NameSlade
Email
Comments

Namesial
Email
CommentsYeah!!!

Nameabdulwahab
Email
Commentssilence pleeeeeeeease

NameConner
Email
Comments

Namenazirah
Email
Comments

NameHizakiYukari
Email
Comments

NameJasmine 😏
Email
CommentsLongest 5 minutes of my life -.-

Name...
Email...
Comments😂

Namepennie
Email
CommentsThat's make me scare .. But, it's fun !

Namedavidkinga
Email
Comments

Namegenjo
Email
Commentsnycness jst

Nameaditi
Email
Comments

NameGaby
Email
CommentsThat actually wasn't too bad :P

NameGaby
Email
CommentsThat actually wasn't too bad :P

Nameganesh
Email
Comments

NameYour worst nightmare
Email
CommentsIt took forever to get here. Thanks. Meanie.

Namearathigopal
Email
Comments

NameSwag Nuggets
Email
Commentsi luv'ed it. 10/10

NameBernadine Soman
Email
CommentsGreat

NameHunter the crud nugget Sutake
Email
CommentsI pooderd myself

NameHunter the crud nugget Sutake
Email
CommentsI pooderd myself

NameHunter the crud nugget Sutake
Email
Comments

NameHunter the crud nugget Sutake
Email
Comments

NameHunter the crud nugget Sutake
Email
Comments

Namedamaris
Email
CommentsI'm glad I clicked

NameEmily Bradford
Email
Comments

NameKameron (@hetaliansunite.is.sp00ky on IG)
Email
CommentsOmg I'm so glad I clicked the damn link XD

NameKameron (@hetaliansunite.is.sp00ky on IG)
Email
CommentsOmg I'm so glad I clicked the damn link XD

NameAbby
Email
Comments

NameAbby
Email
Comments

NameHeather
Email
CommentsCamren is real

NameHeather
Email
CommentsCamren is real

NameAndre Bourgeois
Email
Comments

Namexxemokidxx
Email
CommentsI hate u

Name I am mushy the mushrooon
Email
CommentsIm so cool for doing this... Or I have no life

NameBob Marley
Email
CommentsThat was annoying 😂😂

Name成龍 Jackie Chan
Email
Commentsjackiechan5432@gmail.com

Namestellar
Email
Commentsfunny

Namemwangi
Emailben
CommentsAwuoh



Namemwangi
Emailben
CommentsAwuoh



NameFrankadoddle
Email
Comments

Name成龍 Jackie Chan
Email
Comments成龍 Jackie Chan

Cool guestbook!

email me: jackiechan5432@gmail.com


jackiechan5432@gmail.com

jackiechan5432@gmail.com

jackiechan5432@gmail.com


Nameallif
Email
Comments

Nameleah
Email
Commentsit's freaking bad

NameRaktim
Email
CommentsIrritating...

Namejuve_k
Email
CommentsHey
So u here
Wtsap
Relax m.not gonna.bore.u
Let's have some fun
Wt say
I.hope even ur excited
Don't worry just click.on OK
So.u clicked.
Omg!m.so.respected
Well let's Start
Wid rhymes
Johnny Johnny
Yes papa
Eating sugar
No.papa
Telling lies
No papa
Open ur mouth
Hehehe
Oh finally u learnt a.nursery rhyme
Congo
Now.let's move on
To...
Maths
2+2=4
3+3=6
4+4=8
Oh wow.u learnt maths.too
Ur.so lucky tat u find.a.teacher.like.me
Aren't uu?
Hahaha
Hehe
Lol
Rofk
I know ur killing urself for.opening dis.website
But now ur trap
Don't worry
OK fine
Bye
Ummm.bye na
Have bye to boluchu
Jaune.tame
Kem.ruika.Cho.haji
Jaav
Oh still.ur interested in me
Uff my crazy fans
Doing worry
I'll.give u my autograph soon
Nw get lost
Don't waste my time.:-D

Namelol
Email
CommentsLol don't click

NameAdan 💁
Email
Comments

NameAppi
Email
Comments

NameLiam gray
Email
Comments

NameKumaran Vel
Email
CommentsPogada nonaigala

Nameravali
Email
Comments

NameBella
Email
CommentsMen heeeej

Nameřàjêşh
Email
Comments:-)

NameFuck you
Email
CommentsGo jump off the building you waste of life space

Nameparul chalana
Email
Comments

Nameparul chalana
Email
Comments

Namerajeshree p
Email
Comments

Namerajeshree p
Email
Comments

Nametabitha
Email
Comments

NameDevni
Email
CommentsEhhhhh. Errrrr
Anyway its interesting . Hehe :p

Namepitz
Email
Comments

Namelila
Email
CommentsHah that was hilarious I loved that it felt like the internet. Was actually. Talking to me and I think you should make is bigger xx

Nameleona
Email
Comments:-p

Namekrishnamurthy
Email
Commentsi love my friends

NameSufiyan
Email
Comments

Namereshma
Email
Comments

Nameswagat
Email
CommentsJhAkAsSs

Nameboopathy p
Email
Comments

Namesoniya
Email
CommentsVery nice

Namesoniya
Email
CommentsVery nice

Namesoniya
Email
CommentsVery nice

Namesoniya
Email
Comments

Namesoniya
Email
Comments

NameGousiya
Email
Comments

Namemonicah
Emailmoniquexngai@gmail
Comments

Namepathumdev@live.com
Emailpathum123
Comments

NameGirish M Royalty
Email
CommentsSuper different type of fooling....Hahaha really enjoyed

Namesally
Email
Comments

NameDaniel
Email
Comments

Namemahesh
Email
Commentsgud one

Namedivya sharma
Email
Comments

NameRashy
Email
CommentsHiiii

NameBerkeley
Email
CommentsnO.

NameNeil
Email
Commentshaha

Nameedwin
Email
CommentsHey mambo

Namenana olivia
Email
Comments

Namedina
Email
Comments

Nametaylor
Emailtjmccarthy8 at gmail dot com
Commentsthat was so annoying

NameJackson Bryan
Email
CommentsThat was really annoying

Namesunil
Email
Comments

Namelavram
Email
Comments

Namefaith
Email
Commentsyour sick

Namefatima
Email
CommentsDO NOT CLICK THIS
I TOLD U!!!!
Do not
OK
AS U LIKE
YOU WILL SUFFER
U R SO STUPID
OK THIS WILL TAKE FOREVER
HAHAHAHAHA
:) DONT
1
2
3
4
LMAO
5
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WOW
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GO AWAY
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31
32
33
34
35
36
37
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39
TIRED ??
i told yaaa
ok lets continue
UMmmmmmmm
40
41
OK
NOW YOU'LL SCREAM
CLOSE YOU'RE EYES
NOWWW
???
BYE
I SAID YOU'LL SCREAM
DO U WANNA SUFFER SO HARD ?
Do you?
;)
u r asshole
3
2
1
.
FOREVER

..
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
DONT TRY TO PLAY WITH ME
OK
OK
OK
OK?
OK!
kys ehhh
.
.
.
.
Bye



Namefatima
Email
CommentsDON'T CLICK THIS

Namefatima
Email
CommentsDON'T CLICK THIS

Namefatima
Email
CommentsDON'T CLICK THIS

Namenanaveena
Email
Comments

NameJules
Email
CommentsReally Mena? Soooooo mature😂 anyways can't wait to hang out sat-sun👍 dm bout it so we can work out my 'transport' mah mum will be at uni or something❓Idk idc anyways, will talk later baiiiiiiiiiii
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
C
U
L8r
Bye
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI
BAI💕

NameSarang Yelole
Email
Comments

Namepi
Email
CommentsFunny

Namepi
Email
CommentsFunny

NameOmar
Email
CommentsVery nice and great fun

NamePoop
EmailPoop
CommentsPoop

NameGHOST VIRUS
Email
CommentsI am GHOST_Virus!!!!
1
2
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8

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10
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12
13
14
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Now Virus follow you!
Ha HA HA HA HA !!
21
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25
26
27
29
30
You so..stupid "huhu..
31 hihi
32 hoho
33 hehe
34 .
36 ..
37 ...
38 ....
39 .....
40 ...........
41 lol
42 lol hahah..
43 So lol...!
44 you lol lol lol lolo!!
45 you lol--'
46 you _|_
46 hahahahxD...
47 hurmm...
48 wakakak..
49 Fuck you'hrmm.. iam Sorry.. hrmmm..
50 Go away...! Bye bye..'
51 do you understand...!! Stupid arr go away..
52 hahahaha xD bye....
53 bye..
54 bye.........
56 heyy you bye....!!
57 syuhh--'syuhh
58 Aukk auk auk...
58 he..he...he... aukkk...........
.......
............
...................
...........
.....
...
.......
..............
...........
..........
............... hahahahaha"
Do you no me?
Iam Ghots_Virus!!!
VIRUS...HAK HAKK HAK HAK!!
ALEETOOH.

NameGHOST VIRUS
Email
CommentsI am GHOST_Virus!!!!
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

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10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
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21
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27
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29
20
Now Virus follow you!
Ha HA HA HA HA !!
21
23
22
24
25
26
27
29
30
You so..stupid "huhu..
31 hihi
32 hoho
33 hehe
34 .
36 ..
37 ...
38 ....
39 .....
40 ...........
41 lol
42 lol hahah..
43 So lol...!
44 you lol lol lol lolo!!
45 you lol--'
46 you _|_
46 hahahahxD...
47 hurmm...
48 wakakak..
49 Fuck you'hrmm.. iam Sorry.. hrmmm..
50 Go away...! Bye bye..'
51 do you understand...!! Stupid arr go away..
52 hahahaha xD bye....
53 bye..
54 bye.........
56 heyy you bye....!!
57 syuhh--'syuhh
58 Aukk auk auk...
58 he..he...he... aukkk...........
.......
............
...................
...........
.....
...
.......
..............
...........
..........
............... hahahahaha"
Do you no me?
Iam Ghots_Virus!!!
VIRUS...HAK HAKK HAK HAK!!
ALEETOOH.

NameGHOST VIRUS
Email
CommentsI am GHOST_Virus!!!!
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
20
Now Virus follow you!
Ha HA HA HA HA !!
21
23
22
24
25
26
27
29
30
You so..stupid "huhu..
31 hihi
32 hoho
33 hehe
34 .
36 ..
37 ...
38 ....
39 .....
40 ...........
41 lol
42 lol hahah..
43 So lol...!
44 you lol lol lol lolo!!
45 you lol--'
46 you _|_
46 hahahahxD...
47 hurmm...
48 wakakak..
49 Fuck you'hrmm.. iam Sorry.. hrmmm..
50 Go away...! Bye bye..'
51 do you understand...!! Stupid arr go away..
52 hahahaha xD bye....
53 bye..
54 bye.........
56 heyy you bye....!!
57 syuhh--'syuhh
58 Aukk auk auk...
58 he..he...he... aukkk...........
.......
............
...................
...........
.....
...
.......
..............
...........
..........
............... hahahahaha"
Do you no me?
Iam Ghots_Virus!!!
VIRUS...HAK HAKK HAK HAK!!
ALEETOOH.

NameGHOST VIRUS
Email
CommentsI am GHOST_Virus!!!!
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
20
Now Virus follow you!
Ha HA HA HA HA !!
21
23
22
24
25
26
27
29
30
You so..stupid "huhu..
31 hihi
32 hoho
33 hehe
34 .
36 ..
37 ...
38 ....
39 .....
40 ...........
41 lol
42 lol hahah..
43 So lol...!
44 you lol lol lol lolo!!
45 you lol--'
46 you _|_
46 hahahahxD...
47 hurmm...
48 wakakak..
49 Fuck you'hrmm.. iam Sorry.. hrmmm..
50 Go away...! Bye bye..'
51 do you understand...!! Stupid arr go away..
52 hahahaha xD bye....
53 bye..
54 bye.........
56 heyy you bye....!!
57 syuhh--'syuhh
58 Aukk auk auk...
58 he..he...he... aukkk...........
.......
............
...................
...........
.....
...
.......
..............
...........
..........
............... hahahahaha"
Do you no me?
Iam Ghots_Virus!!!
VIRUS...HAK HAKK HAK HAK!!
ALEETOOH.

Namenilav hazarika
Email
Commentshahaha

Nameikhwan
Email
Comments

Nameikhwan
Email
Comments

Namerakesh
Email
Comments

NameSonyajohnsonjohnson
Email
CommentsIf this is niko or whomever made this website lol that was funny but I made it here and if it is niko still lol ☺️😍

Namemahalakshmi
Email
Comments

Namecolton
Email
Comments

Namemurugan
Email
Comments

NameKyleigh Gelwicks
Email
Comments

NameKyleigh Gelwicks
Email
Comments

NameCassidy.collier
Email
CommentsI'm not unfollowing you I just wanted to see what this was 😂😂

NameDaniela medina
EmailJonnyappleseed.com
CommentsLol this is so fun

NameSherry \\ stydia
Email
CommentsSTYDIA FOREVER SCALLISON

NameCara spence
Email
CommentsHahaha you got me but not for long ………xx

NameCara spence
Email
Comments

NameJayna
Email
Comments

NameRyan Westerman
Email
Commentshahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah

NameRyan Westerman
Email
Commentshahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah

NameAlyssa
Email
Comments

NameAlyssa
Email
Comments

NameHannah goldaber
Emailhannahgoldaber at gmail dot com
CommentsHey I am not gonna make you suffer
Click the continue button
Ha!!!!!! Now you have to suffer
Let's do the alphabet
A
B
C
D
E
F
G
H
I
J
K
L
M
N
O
P
Q
R
S
T
U
V
W
X
Y
Z
I think that I'd good enough press the OK button

NameUliza Kiatu
Email
Commentsae wanna continue pressing the ok button

NameDaniel
Email
CommentsOi oi!!! Read!
You do what I say say no!
No no.....
WHY R YOU RESFUESING
I WILl make YOUU SUFERRR!!!! YOUR SOOOOOO DUM!
Let's do the alphabet
A
B
C
D
E
F
G
H
I
J
K
L
M
N
O
P
Q
R
S
T
U
V
W
X
Y
Z
You r clever now but your still dum
Let DOOO NUMBERS to.....you will know when you do the ting what I say
Now!!!!
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45
46
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50?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Namejonte rhodez
Email
Comments

Namekayleigh <3
Email
Commentsooooh this was fuuuun :3

NameMariam
Email
Comments

Nameshaun
Email
Commentsmmmcccheeew!!!

NameDenis kipkoech
Email
Comments

NameDick
Email
CommentsDICK!

NameShubham Chaudhary
Email
CommentsYoyo

Namebeth beibx
Email
Comments

NameTeilon
Emailteilonbuddy.gmail.com
Comments

Nameandiamaurine@gmail.com
Emailakifumama
Comments

Namenikhil
Email
Comments

Namemose
Email
CommentsDont know what kept me clicking but I did keep clicking. Guess I was hoping for a treat or a reward at the end...hmm.. Oh well I'm glad I stuck in to the end till he...or she had to say goodbye 1st! HA!! Who's laughing now you stupid,tortuous programmed website??!! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

Namekituku
Email
Comments

Namefrank
Email
Commentslol

Namejason
Email
CommentsHello

Nameabcd
Email
Commentslol

Nameabcd
Email
CommentsLil

Namejesper
Email
Commentslol

Namepriya
Email
Comments

Namefathima
Email
CommentsAbsolutely fantastic... fabulous and almost am speechless.....
i am almost in a boring tym (travelling) and i feel more excited n very happy....

Namedeepika
Email
Comments

Namedeepika
Email
Comments

Nameamy
Email
Commentsangelo- you have done it!! >_<>_<

Namedev
Email
Commentshi

NameEireland
Email
CommentsThat was painful

NameCJ
Email
Comments

Namecymmo
Email
Comments

Namecymmo
Email
Comments

NameAlyce
Email
Commentso.k

NameFletcher
Email
CommentsThis is cool

Namebre
Email
Comments

Nameakulah(man)
Email
Comments

NameMunirah
Email
Comments

NameKushi
Email
CommentsI failed life

Namerockkaris
Email
Comments

NameSonu Kaushik
Email
Comments.............................................

Nameegichboy@gmail.com
Email oneblood
Comments

Namekirimi brenda
Email@brendakarimi.com
Commentsnone

Namekirimi brenda
Email@brendakarimi.com
Commentsnone

Namevictoria
Email
CommentsYou r a genius.im studying that kinda stuff actually

NameNida
Email
CommentsLol 😂😄 I swear I've forwarded this to so many people, oooh they're gonna hate me 😁

Namefaith musau
Email
CommentsJeeeeeeez

Namekaarunya
Email
Comments

Namemauses
Email
CommentsAwesome

Namerukky
Email
CommentsHahahaha.... u soo dead missy

NameRukia
Email
CommentsChanged my life ;) <3
Xo

Namehoe
Emailhoe
CommentsI'm a guy ballet dancer

NameErica
Email
Comments

Namesunil
Email
Comments

Nameasstittienigger
Email
Commentspenis ass nigger dick eating piece of diddly ass cock

Namebriana
Email
Comments

NameMohamed Asfar
Email
Comments

NameEyah
Email
Commentsomg i thought it was cool. But It is AWESOMEEEE!

NameEmma
Email
CommentsWell that was hell

NameEnya Harris
Email
CommentsOmg I did the whole thing

I'm proud of myself

:)

NameDeadpool2106
Email
CommentsWhy, what a nice trick to lock up my iPod browser for 5 mins.. lol

NameDeadpool2106
Email
CommentsWhy, what a nice trick to lock up my iPod browser for 5 mins.. lol

Namesalim
Email
Comments

Namesalim
Email
Comments

NameDestiny
Email
CommentsHeyyyyy

NameGood Fight
Email
CommentsLOVEIT problemwithbadluck@gmail.com

NameMarlene
Email
CommentsI didn't expect that tbh 😂

Nameangie
Email
Commentsduck u

NameKatie
Email
CommentsNice

Name@larryislifebruh
Email
CommentsBruh.... That was intense

NameSara
Emailretry.hhi.com
CommentsI knew something was up when my friends said I fell for that

NameWill
Email
Comments

NameWill
Email
Comments

NameEmily
Email
CommentsI hate my friends

NameNatalie
Email
CommentsI hate you and your website
Kys
Tata

NameConnor H
Email
CommentsI made my mom do this and she is mad.

NameAseel
Email
Comments@bonerificlarry brought me here

NameOlivia
Email
CommentsUtterly life changing experience. Bless your soul

NameBriana
Email
CommentsLOL

Namekyra
Email
CommentsYAS BOTCH YAS

NameDesirea
Email
Comments

NameReem
Email
CommentsThatt Was Longage I Even Tried To Restart The IPad To Get Rid Of It !! 🙊🙊

NameMonica
Email
CommentsI don't know

NameMonica
Email
CommentsI don't know

NameRocky
Email
CommentsI'm a survivor

NameAll
Email
CommentsThis was fucking retarded

NameMckenzie S
Email
CommentsI love this a lot

NameTaylor (@illegalniall)
Email
Commentsaye

NameJanelley
Email
CommentsThis game me a headache but i have no ragrets about it 😂

NameMeli
Email
CommentsGBS

NameTony
Email
CommentsHey bruh! I'm gay and I have an std so let's play... :P #thirsty

NameGiselle
Email
Comments*claps

NameHarry Styles
Email
Comments

NameOliver
Email
Comments

NameTynika
Email
CommentsWhoever you are, I love you

Namesandip
Email
CommentsNice dude..I like it

NameMaddie
Email
CommentsI don't know why I bothered but was fun 😊

NameSaskia
Email
CommentsThat was a bit uncalled for don't you think? I do believe that these shanagins should immediately come to an end if you don't mind awfully

NameLiz Mwamutsi
Email
CommentsI knew there was a catch somewhere lol :-D
Creative though

NameLiz Mwamutsi
Email
CommentsI knew there was a catch somewhere lol :-D
Creative though

Namesaqib
Email
Comments

NameEthan
Email
Comments

Namemary
Email
CommentsSuper ,made ma nyt

NamePeyton
Email
CommentsTHIS SUCKS ASS

NameDon
Email
Comments

NameDon
Email
Comments

NameAbrar
Email
Comments

Namefckmenw
Email
Commentsfck sx

NameFabulous Man
Email
CommentsIn fabulous. I'm also smart enough to
use android and bypass your tricks. I win. :D

NameDenis Gicheru
Email
Comments

NameAnna
Email
CommentsHAHAHAHAHAHAH HI

NameIvan
Email
CommentsYou



NameConnor
Email
CommentsYou shall die
You gay
Fuck
Haha
Your
Gay
Why did you click
If you got cancer lol
How does this work
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Oops got one wrong
Let's start again :)
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I will see you
Soon
See
Ya
Catch you later
Bye
Bye
Lol
Ha
Ha
Ha
Ha
Ha
Ha
Aha

Namenik hakimi
Emailnikhakimi1172
Comments

NameAngelina
Email
Comments

Namedubbin
Emaildivide
CommentsHZhdhdueb syshwhwis. S

Nameswag
Email
Commentsi love u

Namesid21
Email
Comments

Namesid21
Email
Comments

NameLilly I
Email
Comments

Namesupong Ottoman
Email
Comments

Namekousalya
Email
Comments

NameAriadna
Email
Commentslol what was this

NameSammmi horan
Email
CommentsA Instagram page brought me here

Nameottoman
Email
Comments

Nameagusta
Email
Comments

NameGertrude
Email
CommentsAwesome hahaha hahaha

NameLilac
Email
CommentsIt really FUDGIN SUCKED

Namebobby
Email
CommentsYou are a fucking asshole.

NameJackie
Email
Commentscool one!

email me: jackiechan56@yahoo.com

Nameatul
Email
Commentshahaa

Namelou
Email
CommentsTHAT WAS HELL FUN xD

NameAlexandra Noel
Email
CommentsR
U
Fcking
Srs
Rn
Hly
Shet

Name@omfqdirection
Email
CommentsHello,lol that was weird

Name@omfqdirection
Email
CommentsHello,lol that was weird

Name@omfqdirection
Email
CommentsHello,lol that was weird

Nametalk_swiftie_to_me
Email
Comments

Nametalk_swiftie_to_me
Email
Comments

Nameakma
Email
Comments

NameNOUF_S_212
Email
Commentsتقهر

NameNOUF_S_212
Email
Comments

Nameakanksha
Email
Comments

NameHiii
Email
CommentsI HATE THIS OH GOD 😶

NameJ-bird
Email
CommentsHi

Namemary
Email
CommentsThis is interesting

NameAllysa Harris
Email
Commentsthat was vv interesting

Namebonface
Email
Commentsno comment

Namepratiksha
Email
Commentscoool

NameSudhanshu kumar
Email