Guestbook

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


NameHaley
Email
CommentsThis. Wasted. Minutes. Of. My. Life. -.-

NameChris
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Commentsgr8 b8 m8, r8 8/8.

Nameemily
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CommentsThis was fun and confusing. Weird and crazy. Christian made me go on this thing.

Nameemily
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CommentsThis was fun and confusing. Weird and crazy. Christian made me go on this thing.

NameNot Matt
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CommentsWhy

Namekarthi
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Comments

NameDani
Email
CommentsDon't listen to these other comments they r just being assholes honestly I found that button thing quite entertaining :p

NameGayfan
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CommentsThis is the gayest website i've ever seen in my entire life. please go fuck yourself in the corner of your nephews room.

Namespuddyotakubutt
Emailwhyyyyyyyyyyy
Commentscool website (except all the popups)

Namespuddyotakubutt
Emailwhyyyyyyyyyyy
Commentscool website (except all the popups)

NameKasey
Email
CommentsThis is a great websit . But it took me fucking forever to get through those things

Name😡
EmailKind of annoying
Comments9+10=21 you stupid no I not

NameGrady brooks
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Comments

NamePeighton
Email
CommentsBruh.

Namedani
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CommentsI clicked this page 12 times by mistake and I hate myself for it

NameReid Pritchard
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CommentsThat's fun! Should be longer.

NameKim Rock
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CommentsBrb while I go kms because that was terrible. My thumb is crying

Nametamizh
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Comments

NameAnna
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CommentsFuck this
Sai sucks balls

Namearlene fernandez
Email
CommentsWtf is this shit

Namearlene fernandez
Emailnotputtingmyrealemail@yaho
Comments

Namenia
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Namek2nia
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Namek2nia
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NameTina
Email
CommentsDid this on my moms iPad got me so fucking scared I deleted all my history. Now when my mom chicks her iPad she gonna think I was watching porn or something.FML

NameJay
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CommentsI loved it

Namesummer
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Commentswoop woop woop wooop

NameCasey
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Comments

NamePolo
EmailNot telling
Comments

Name Kamilė Urtė
Email
Comments
No more Herpes !!! this call for celebration i could remember i cried to Dr Wonder about my herpes virus and he prepared ERP V1 HERBAL HEALING drugs for me this drugs work effectively in my body my body system was renew , on friday i was diagnosed by my doctor and the result came out NEGATIVE Herpes behold it was free !! i can believe Dr Rajesh Wonder of Templeoftestimonies@yahoo.com herpes i cured my promise to visit him for his good works, he also less i forget magical use his powers to reunite my lover back to me ! copy his email address and tell him what you want and you shall surely testify i trust him so much him via email : Templeoftestimonies@yahoo.com this man deserve a monumental award for restoring life back with his various Healing Herbal Drugs and i have heard people testifying that this same man make them a millionaire through KUDIRI SPIRITUAL NATIVE POT. .

NameRocco Sandell
Email
CommentsSICK!! :D

NameBrandi Brooks
EmailAwesome!;)
Comments

Namechaitu.geneva
Email
CommentsYeh

NameBella
EmailHdbdjdnjd
CommentsI don't get this website

NameTay Windmon
Email
CommentsWoww haha

Namesayful
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CommentsNice

NameJessica
EmailCournoyer
CommentsHehehhhee

NameHannah
Email
CommentsIt could have been longer

NameDAFUQ?!?!?!
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Commentswhat the hell?? what kind of asshole would make a website like this?!?!?

NameRiyazrafi
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Comments

NameHahaha Never!
Email
CommentsThat was fun!!! Let's do it again 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 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 that was even more fun!!! 💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩 Poop stares. Poop likes.

NameHahaha Never!
Email
CommentsThat was fun!!! Let's do it again 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 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 that was even more fun!!! 💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩 Poop stares. Poop likes.

NameHahaha Never!
Email
CommentsThat was fun!!! Let's do it again 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 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 that was even more fun!!! 💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩💩 Poop stares. Poop likes.

NameBrookelynn watkins
Email
CommentsYou suck ass💕

NameBrookelynn watkins
Email
CommentsYou suck ass💕

Name😈
Email😈😈
Comments😈😈

NameDavid
Emailmeh
CommentsSTUPID! Waste of time

NameDavid
Emailmeh
CommentsSTUPID! Waste of time

NameAlex West
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CommentsAwsome

NameAlex West
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CommentsAwsome

NameAlex West
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CommentsAwsome

Namearjundhir
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Comments

NameMohsen
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CommentsShit

NameXitlaly
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CommentsAt first I thought that it was gonna say that my phone was gonna get a virus.. It turned out to be really really fun☁☁

Namesabari
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Comments

NameRonnie Harkins
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CommentsVERY WORTH IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!

NameKevin
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CommentsTHX BLAKE!!!!!!!!1!1!

Namelogan
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CommentsHEY BLAKE

NameCarolina
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CommentsThat was clever. At first I thought it was a warning that my phone was going to get a virus but it tired out to be fun.

NameDaniela
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CommentsHi 😄😄

NameHaley
EmailNotgivingemail
CommentsThat's 5m of my life I will never get back.

NameRonnie Harkins
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CommentsVERY WORTH IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!

NameAlly
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Comments

Namenumber1 white gul
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CommentsHello are u imgrent ? My mama is real black

Namenumber1 white gul
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CommentsHello are u imgrent ? My mama is real black

NameKowus
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Commentssmh... Quite fun too

Namemichael
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Commentscool XD

NameAna
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CommentsWow hey what's up my name is so cool big booty bye

NameAna
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CommentsWow hey what's up my name is so cool big booty bye

NameBryony
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CommentsHahaha this is so clever but for a moment I thought it was gonna get me a virus on my phone haha 😹 pmsl

NameTony Lopez
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Namechloe gould
Emailyousuck.com
Commentsthat sucks😹

Namedevarajua
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Namedevarajua
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NameZoey
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NameZoey
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Comments

NameZoey
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Comments

Namenolan b.
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CommentsFuck yeahhhh

Namejoel
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NameSuzann
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CommentsWow that was.....

NameAsra_haq_nawaz
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Comments

NameDarshan Kannadiga
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CommentsGreat!!!! I liked it!!!
my finger got pain by clicking......

NameBishbashbosh
EmailFuckushitbitch
Commentswtf u prick

NameBishbashbosh
EmailFuckushitbitch
Commentswtf u prick

Namedog
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Commentsfuck you

Namegeorgia
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Commentsfuck you

Namesreeja
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Commentshorror...p

Namesenthil
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Comments

Namesruthi
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CommentsBad

Namei hate u
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Commentsdie

NameCatalina
EmailCatniplope99&gmail.com
CommentsLol this is hilarious well until I accident went on the second time😂😭😋

NameShayla is bosser than u!
Email
CommentsThis was genius! And just fun/funny! Nice job who ever the hell u are! 😋 I like 🍕 and I'm a cool kid!😎 Love,
Shayla Marie Shea

NameNatalie
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NameCaleb
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NameSofia
EmailSofiarose at me dot com
Commentswhy would you do this to me

NameTrinity
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CommentsHahalol very funny

NameXxMLG420xX
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CommentsFuk u m8. thes shite is awefuel. Im prt of mlg u fggt get rekt m8.

NameCheyenne crowson
Email
CommentsThis was horrible

NamePenis
EmailPenis
CommentsPenis

NamePenis
EmailPenis
CommentsPenis

NameDaisey
Email🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈
CommentsWhat is this? I dont get it but oh well. No one will probably see this cause there are so many comments so im just gunna confess that i kill someone before and i just needed to get that off of my chest cause it was eatting me up inside. Anyways bye love you all! 😘

NameHDTV
EmailSparkle_swirl. Neleh
CommentsScrew you

NameHDTV
EmailNo
CommentsScrew you

NameOr nah
Email
CommentsThis sucked ass

NameMckenzie
EmailMckenzieray2006gmail. com
Comments

Name@pikadoge
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CommentsI would do that all day the joy of acomplishing something even if it's annoying

Namesheneqa
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Comments

Nameayan
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CommentsAwsum buddy

NamePaige Langmead
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CommentsWishing I wouldn't have clicked this

NamekarthickJonathan
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CommentsPraise the Pidha AveMaria Annai Veilankanni HolySpirit Amen.

NameMåns Backman
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CommentsThat makes you suffer

Namepriyadharsini
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CommentsGsja

Namesabari
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Comments

Namekarthik
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Namesabari
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NameSammy
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CommentsLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL that was fun

NameChloe
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CommentsI just spent a lot of time clicking.

NameMadelaine
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CommentsOMG im gonna send this to all of my friends

Nameu 😄meanie
Emailbahahaha dot net
CommentsIt was rly dumb doing the counting...... really liane? Itwas boringggggyyygyyggtg

Nameraj
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NameRiley
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NameJazzy
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CommentsThis was stupid yet awesome

NameVictoria
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Comments😡

Namejerod
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NameLuca
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CommentsWierd

NameAnnoyed
EmailNo
CommentsThat was stupid thanks for waisting my time lol :/

NameA person
EmailA email
CommentsThat was torture u butt

Nameturner
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Comments

NameHailey
Email
CommentsThe comments were so funny. I can't believe it made us count and do the abc's!! But it was fun

Namemy names jeff
EmailNO email for u
Comments(kawaiiface)

NameJay
Email
Commentslol just held enter till it went away

NameScarlett
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CommentsThat was very fun! Not the least bit suffering . Good job 😀👍👍👍

NameDaelen Boggs
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CommentsGreat website, 10/10 would visit again!

NameLeslie af
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Comments

NameAJ
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Commentsur a twat

NameHaksle
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CommentsBest evert!

Name danielle ^-^
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CommentsI really liked this so ima put it in my bio on ig and make everyone click it muahahahah cause I'm evil (not really but heheh) =^-^=

Name danielle ^-^
Email
CommentsI really liked this so ima put it in my bio on ig and make everyone click it muahahahah cause I'm evil (not really but heheh) =^-^=

NameVia
Email
CommentsI thought this was porn but then I was screaming at my device for 5 minutes. I

Namealex
Emailnah man
Commentssending this to everyone ik so they can suffer

NameBruh
Emailno
CommentsHa I clicked "prevent this page from creating additional dialogs" and I avoided suffering. Suck on that!

Nameava
Email
CommentsUhhgggg

Nameman
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CommentsFuck lu

NameCapo
Emailpapigross123456789 dot comdom
Commentsjeaaaaaa this stupid

NameCourtney Patterson
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Comments

NameKaleb perry
EmailIdk
CommentsFollow me on IG at- Block_party__
Add me on snapchat at: Kperry32

NameGhh
Email
CommentsHi

NameAntonio Callejas
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Commentspretty nifty

Namenaif khan
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Comments

NameKaneki Ken
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CommentsSo. Freaking. Annoying.

NameSofia
EmailVal...
CommentsMe He Hi

Namesammy
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CommentsWHAT IS THIS

NameBELLA
Email
CommentsTHIS WAS HILARIOUS

NameAnny
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Commentsjeg heter ANNY

NameRiley
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CommentsLove it.

NameDominie
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CommentsDon't Click this Link

NameDominie
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CommentsDon't Click this Link

Nameamrish
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CommentsYes

NameCarson
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CommentsPoop

NameChrysler
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CommentsThe things I do for my friends...

Namebye
Email
CommentsFuck you!!!!

NameDave
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CommentsSick and nice

Namehey
Emailnbn
CommentsHello

NameDevyn johnson
Email
CommentsAnnoying....

NameFACT OF THE DAY
Email
CommentsA bagel (also spelled beigel, Polish: Bajgiel)[1] is a bread product originating from Poland, traditionally shaped by hand into the form of a ring from yeasted wheat dough, roughly hand-sized, which is first boiled for a short time in water and then baked.[2] The result is a dense, chewy, doughy interior with a browned and sometimes crisp exterior. Bagels are often topped with seeds baked on the outer crust, with the traditional ones being poppy or sesame seeds. Some also may have salt sprinkled on their surface, and there are also a number of different dough types such as whole-grain or rye.[2]

Bagels are a popular bread product in North America, especially in cities with large Jewish populations,[3] many with different ways of making bagels. Like other bakery products, bagels are available (either fresh or frozen, and often in many flavor varieties) in many major supermarkets in those countries.

The basic roll-with-a-hole design is hundreds of years old and has other practical advantages besides providing for a more even cooking and baking of the dough: the hole could be used to thread string or dowels through groups of bagels, allowing for easier handling and transportation and more appealing seller displays.[4][5]

Contrary to some beliefs, the bagel was not created in the shape of a stirrup to commemorate the victory of Poland's King John III Sobieski over the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. It was actually invented much earlier in Kraków, Poland, as a competitor to the obwarzanek, a lean bread of wheat flour designed for Lent.

Linguist Leo Rosten wrote in "The Joys of Yiddish" about the first known mention of the word bajgiel in the "Community Regulations" of the city of Kraków in 1610, which stated that the item was given as a gift to women in childbirth.[6]

In the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries, the bajgiel became a staple of the Polish national diet,[7] and a staple of the Slavic diet generally.[8] Its name derives from the Yiddish word 'beygal' from the German dialect word 'beugel,' meaning 'ring' or 'bracelet.'[9] Variants of the word beugal are used in Yiddish and Austrian German to refer to a somewhat similar form of sweet filled pastry (Mohnbeugel (with poppy seeds) and Nussbeugel (with ground nuts)), or in southern German dialects (where beuge refers to a pile, e.g., holzbeuge, or woodpile). According to the Merriam-Webster's dictionary, 'bagel' derives from the transliteration of the Yiddish 'beygl', which came from the Middle High German 'böugel' or ring, which itself came from 'bouc' (ring) in Old High German, similar to the Old English 'bēag' '(ring), and 'būgan' (to bend or bow).[10] Similarly another etymology in the Webster's New World College Dictionary says that the Middle High German form was derived from the Austrian German 'beugel', a kind of croissant, and was similar to the German 'bügel', a stirrup or ring.[11]

In the Brick Lane district and surrounding area of London, England, bagels, or as locally spelled "beigels" have been sold since the middle of the 19th century. They were often displayed in the windows of bakeries on vertical wooden dowels, up to a metre in length, on racks.

Bagels were brought to the United States by immigrant Polish-Jews, with a thriving business developing in New York City that was controlled for decades by Bagel Bakers Local 338, which had contracts with nearly all bagel bakeries in and around the city for its workers, who prepared all their bagels by hand. The bagel came into more general use throughout North America in the last quarter of the 20th century, which was due at least partly to the efforts of bagel baker Harry Lender, his son, Murray Lender, and Florence Sender, who pioneered automated production and distribution of frozen bagels in the 1960s.[12][13][14] Murray also invented pre-slicing the bagel.[15]

In modern times, Canadian American NASA astronaut Gregory Chamitoff is the first person known to have taken a batch of bagels into space on his 2008 Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station.[16] His shipment consisted of 18 sesame seed Montreal-style bagels, produced at the famous Fairmount Bagel bakery in Montreal; Chamitoff was born in Montreal to members of the city's Russian Jewish community and is related to the Shlafman family that owns the bakery.[17][18]

At its most basic, traditional bagel dough contains wheat flour (without germ or bran), salt, water, and yeast leavening. Bread flour or other high gluten flours are preferred to create the firm and dense but spongy bagel shape and chewy texture.[2] Most bagel recipes call for the addition of a sweetener to the dough, often barley malt (syrup or crystals), honey, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, with or without eggs, milk or butter.[2] Leavening can be accomplished using either a sourdough technique or using commercially produced yeast.

Bagels are traditionally made by:

mixing and kneading the ingredients to form the dough
shaping the dough into the traditional bagel shape, round with a hole in the middle, from a long thin piece of dough
proofing the bagels for at least 12 hours at low temperature (40–50 °F = 4.5–10 °C)
boiling each bagel in water that may or may not contain additives such as lye, baking soda, barley malt syrup, or honey
baking at between 175 °C and 315 °C (about 350–600 °F)

It is this unusual production method which is said to give bagels their distinctive taste, chewy texture, and shiny appearance. In recent years, a variant of this process has emerged, producing what is sometimes called the steam bagel. To make a steam bagel, the process of boiling is skipped, and the bagels are instead baked in an oven equipped with a steam injection system.[19] In commercial bagel production, the steam bagel process requires less labor, since bagels need only be directly handled once, at the shaping stage. Thereafter, the bagels need never be removed from their pans as they are refrigerated and then steam-baked. The steam-bagel is not considered to be a genuine bagel by purists, as it results in a fluffier, softer, less chewy product more akin to a finger roll that happens to be shaped like a bagel. Steam bagels are also considered lower quality by purists as the dough used is intentionally more basic. The increase in pH is to aid browning since the steam injection process uses neutral water steam instead of a basic solution bath.

If not consumed immediately, there are certain storing techniques that can help to keep the bagel moist and fresh. First, cool bagels in a paper bag, then wrap the paper bag in a plastic bag (attempting to rid the bags of as much air as possible without squishing the bagels), then freeze for up to six months.[20]

The quality of a bagel may be evaluated by considering the experience it provides as it is eaten and its nutritional content.[21]

The ideal bagel should have a slightly crispy crust, a distinct "pull" when a piece is separated from the whole by biting or pinching, a chewy inside, and the flavor of bread freshly baked.[21] The taste of a bagel may additionally be complemented by additions cooked on the bagel, such as onion, garlic, sesame seeds, or poppy seeds.[21] The appeal of a bagel may change upon being toasted.[21] Toasting can have the effect of bringing or removing desirable chewiness, softening the crust, and moderating off-flavors.[21]

A typical bagel has 260-350 calories, 1.0-4.5 grams of fat, 330-660 milligrams of sodium, and 2-5 grams of fiber.[21] Gluten-free bagels have much more fat, often 9 grams, because of the ingredients which are used to replace wheat flour.[21]

A distinction between two styles of traditional bagel in North America have come to be known as the Montreal-style bagel and the New York-style bagel,[22] although both styles represent sets of traditional methods used in Eastern Europe before their importation to North America and the distinctions are somewhat less uniformly employed than often believed.

The "Montreal style bagel" contains malt and sugar with no salt; it is boiled in honey-sweetened water before baking in a wood-fired oven; and it is predominantly of the sesame "white" seeds variety (while, for instance, bagels in Toronto are similar to those made in New York in that they are less sweet, generally are coated with poppy seeds and are baked in a standard oven).

In distinction, the "New York bagel" contains salt and malt and is boiled in water before baking in a standard oven. The resulting bagel is puffy with a moist crust, while the "Montreal" bagel is smaller (though with a larger hole), crunchier, and sweeter.[23] For instance, Davidovich Bagels, made in NYC, are a recognized wholesale manufacturer of bagels that still use these traditional bagel making techniques (associated here with the "Montreal-style bagel"), including kettle boiling and plank baking in a wood fired oven.[24]

As suggested above, other bagel styles can be found in other places, akin to the way in which families within a given culture employ a variety of methods when cooking a specific indigenous dish. Thus, Chicago-style bagels are baked or baked with steam.[25] The traditional London bagel (or beigel as it is spelled) is harder and has a coarser texture with air bubbles. Furthermore, in Canada the distinction is made between Montreal and Toronto bagels as opposed to the one cited here between Montreal and New York bagels.

Poppy seeds are sometimes referred to by their Yiddish name, spelled either mun or mon (written מאָן), which is very similar to the German word for poppy, Mohn, as used in Mohnbrötchen. American chef John Mitzewich suggests a recipe for what he calls “San Francisco-Style Bagels.” His recipe yields bagels flatter than New York-style bagels, characterized by a rough-textured crust.[26]

In Poland, bagels are sold in the bakery in Kielce's Market Square and are well known in the city. Polish bagels are usually sold with sesame and poppy seeds.[citation needed]

In Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the bublik is essentially a larger bagel, but having a wider hole. Other ring-shaped breads known among East Slavs are baranki (smaller and drier) and sushki (even smaller and drier).

In Lithuania, bagels are called riestainiai, and sometimes by their Slavic name baronkos.

In Finland, vesirinkeli are small rings of yeast-leavened wheat bread. They are placed in salted boiling water before being baked. They are often eaten for breakfast toasted and buttered. They are available in several different varieties (sweet or savoury) in supermarkets.

German Bretzel, (which are soft and are either formed into rings or long rectangular shapes) are somewhat similar to bagels in texture, the main exceptions being the shape and the alkaline water bath that makes the surface dark and glossy. In addition, traditional Mohnbrötchen, which are covered in poppy seeds, have a similar flavour to many bagels in that they are slightly sweet and rather dense in texture.

In Romania, covrigi are topped with poppy, sesame seeds or large salt grains, especially in the central area of the country, and the recipe does not contain any added sweetener.

In some parts of Austria, ring-shaped pastries called Beugel are sold in the weeks before Easter. Like a bagel, the yeasted wheat dough, usually flavored with caraway, is boiled before baking. However, the Beugel is crispy and can be stored for weeks. Traditionally it has to be torn apart by two individuals before eating.[citation needed] In Turkey, a salty and fattier form is called açma. However, the ring-shaped simit, is sometimes marketed as Turkish bagel. Archival sources show that the simit has been produced in Istanbul since 1525.[27] Based on Üsküdar court records (Şer’iyye Sicili) dated 1593,[28] the weight and price of simit was standardized for the first time. Famous 17th-century traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote that there were 70 simit bakeries in Istanbul during the 1630s[29] Jean Brindesi's early 19th-century oil-paintings about Istanbul daily life show simit sellers on the streets.[30] Warwick Goble made an illustration of these simit sellers of Istanbul in 1906.[31] Surprisingly, simit is very similar to the twisted sesame-sprinkled bagels pictured being sold in early 20th century Poland. Simit are also sold on the street in baskets or carts, like bagels were then.

The Uyghurs of Xinjiang, China, enjoy a form of bagel known as girdeh nan (from Persian, meaning round bread), which is one of several types of nan, the bread eaten in Xinjiang.[32]

In Japan, the first kosher bagels were brought by BagelK (ベーグルK) from New York in 1989. BagelK created green tea, chocolate, maple-nut, and banana-nut flavors for the market in Japan. There are three million bagels exported from the U.S. annually, and it has a 4%-of-duty classification of Japan in 2000. Some Japanese bagels are sweet; the orthodox kosher bagels are the same as in the U.S.

While normally and traditionally made of yeasted wheat, in the late 20th century many variations on the bagel flourished. Nontraditional versions which change the dough recipe include pumpernickel, rye, sourdough, bran, whole wheat, and multigrain. Other variations change the flavor of the dough, often using blueberry, salt, onion, garlic, egg, cinnamon, raisin, chocolate chip, cheese, or some combination of the above. Green bagels are sometimes created for St. Patrick's Day.

Many corporate chains now offer bagels in such flavors as chocolate chip and French toast. Sandwich bagels have been popularized since the late 1990s by bagel specialty shops such as Bruegger's and Einstein Brothers, and fast food restaurants such as McDonald's. Breakfast bagels, a softer, sweeter variety usually sold in fruity or sweet flavors (e.g., cherry, strawberry, cheese, blueberry, cinnamon-raisin, chocolate chip, maple syrup, banana and nuts) are commonly sold by large supermarket chains. These are usually sold sliced and are intended to be prepared in a toaster.

A flat bagel, known as a 'Flagel', can be found in a few locations in and around New York City, Long Island, and Toronto. According to a review attributed to New York's Village Voice food critic Robert Seitsema, the Flagel was first created by Brooklyn's Tasty Bagels deli in the early 1990s.[33]

The New York Style Snacks brand has developed the baked snacks referred to as Bagel Crisps and Bagel Chips, which are marketed as a representation of the "authentic taste" of New York City bakery bagels.[34]

Though the original bagel has a fairly well defined recipe and method of production, there is no legal standard of identity for bagels in the United States. Bakers are thus free to call any bread torus a bagel, even those that deviate wildly from the original formulation.

nited States supermarket sales
2008

According to the American Institute of Baking (AIB), year 2008 supermarket sales (52 week period ending January 27, 2009) of the top eight leading commercial fresh (not frozen) bagel brands in the United States:

totaled to US$430,185,378 based on 142,669,901 package unit sales.[35]
the top eight leading brand names for the above were (by order of sales): Thomas', Sara Lee, (private label brands) Pepperidge Farm, Thomas Mini Squares, Lender's Bagels (Pinnacle Foods), Weight Watchers and The Alternative Bagel (Western Bagel).[35]

Further, AIB-provided statistics for the 52 week period ending May 18, 2008, for refrigerated/frozen supermarket bagel sales for the top 10 brand names totaled US$50,737,860, based on 36,719,977 unit package sales.[36] Price per package was $3.02 for fresh, $1.38 for frozen.
2012

The AIB reported US$626.9 million fresh bagel US supermarket sales (excluding Wal-Mart) for the 52 weeks ending 11 April 2012.[37] Fresh/frozen supermarket sales (excluding Wal-Mart) for the 52 weeks ending 13 May 2012 was US$592.7 million.[37] The average price for a bag of fresh bagels was $3.27, for frozen was $1.23.

"Bagel" is also a Yeshivish term for sleeping 12 hours straight, e.g., "I slept a bagel last night." There are various opinions as to the origins of this term. It may be a reference to the fact that bagel dough has to "rest" for at least 12 hours between mixing and baking,[38] or simply to the fact that the hour hand on a clock traces a bagel shape over the course of twelve hours.

In Tennis a "bagel" refers to a player winning a set 6-0, and winning a match 6-0,6-0,6-0 is called a "triple bagel".[39]

See also

Appetizing store
Baker
Baking
Deli
Doughnut
Ka'ak
Lender's Bagels
Montreal-style bagel
Simit
Bialy


Citations

^ Definition: Beigel, retrieved from Dictionary.com website July 11, 2011
^ a b c d Encyclopædia Britannica (2009) Bagel, retrieved February 24, 2009 from Encyclopædia Britannica Online
^ Simpletoremember.com (2001). "World Jewish Population, Analysis by City". Retrieved 2008-02-17.
^ Nathan, Joan (2008) A Short History of the Bagel: From ancient Egypt to Lender's Slate, posted Nov. 12, 2008
^ Columbia University NYC24 New Media Workshop website History of the Bagel: The Hole Story, retrieved February 24, 2009.
^ Filippone, Peggy Trowbridge. Bagel History: Bagels date back to the 1600s, About.com website, retrieved March 27, 2013.
^ Altschuler, Glenn C. (2008) Three Centuries of Bagels, a book review of: 'The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread', by Balinska, Maria, Yale University Press, 2008, Jewish Daily Press website, published on-line November 05, 2008 in the issue of November 14, 2008
^ Zinovy Zinic,'Freelance,' in Times Literary Supplement, Nov., 18, 2011 p.16.
^ Davidson, Alan (2006). Oxford Companion to Food (2nd ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 49. ISBN 9780192806819.
^ Merriam-Webster's Dictionary definition of 'bagel', Merriam-Webster Inc. online, 2009, retrieved 2009-04-24;
^ Webster's New World College Dictionary definition of 'bagel', Wiley Publishing Inc., Cleveland, 2005, retrieved 2009-04-24;
^ Klagsburn, Francine. "Chewing Over The Bagel’s Story", The Jewish Week, July 8, 2009. Accessed July 15, 2009.
^ Hevesi, Dennis (2012-03-22). "Murray Lender, Who Gave All America a Taste of Bagels, Dies at 81". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
^ Rothman, Lily (2012-03-23). "Murray Lender, the man who brought bagels to the masses". Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
^ "Murray Lender". The Economist. 21 April 2012. Retrieved 30 August 2012.
^ Space Shuttle mission STS-124; International Space Station Expedition 17.
^ CTV.ca Montreal-born astronaut brings bagels into space Sun. Jun. 1 2008 7:29 PM ET; CTV National News - 1 June 2008 - 11pm TV newscast;
^ The Gazette (Montreal), Here's proof: Montreal bagels are out of this world, Block, Irwin, Tuesday June 3, 2008, Section A, Page A2;
^ Reinhart, P., The Bread Baker's Apprentice. Ten Speed Press, 2001, p. 115.
^ Jonathan, Croswell. How to Keep a Bagel Moist, Aug 8, 2011.
^ a b c d e f g Consumer Reports (July 2012). "Top Bagels - Bagel Buying Guide". consumerreports.org. Retrieved 6 March 2014.
^ Spiegel, Alison (May 6, 2014). "Bagel Wars: Montreal vs. New York-Style Bagels". Huffington Post. Retrieved January 17, 2015.
^ Horowitz, Ruth (October 17, 2006). "The Hole Truth: Vermont's Bagel Bakers Answer The Roll Call". Seven Days. Retrieved June 9, 2011.
^ Arumugam, Nadia. "Taste Test: Dunkin' Donuts' "Fake" Artisan Bagels vs Real Artisan Bagels". FORBES. Forbes. Retrieved January 1, 2014.
^ "Hometown Bagel, Inc.". Retrieved 2012-04-20.
^ Mitzewich, John (August 6, 2012). "San Francisco-Style Bagels – Taking Things to a Hole New Level". Food Wishes. Blogger. Retrieved August 7, 2012.
^ Sahillioğlu, Halil. “Osmanlılarda Narh Müessesesi ve 1525 Yılı Sonunda İstanbul’da Fiyatlar”. Belgelerle Türk Tarihi 2 [The Narh Institution in the Ottoman Empire and the Prices in Istanbul in Late 1525. Documents in Turkish History 2] (Kasım 1967): 56
^ Ünsal, Artun. Susamlı Halkanın Tılsımı.[The Secret of the Ring with Sesames] İstanbul: YKY, 2010: 45
^ Evliya Çelebi Seyahatnâmesi Kitap I. [The Seyahatname Book I] (Prof. Dr. Robert Dankoff, Seyit Ali Kahraman, Yücel Dağlı). İstanbul: YKY, 2006: 231
^ Jean Brindesi, Illustrations de Elbicei atika. Musée des anciens costumes turcs d'Istanbul , Paris: Lemercier, [1855]
^ Alexander Van Millingen, Constantinople (London: Black, 1906) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39620/39620-h/39620-h.htm
^ Allen, Thomas B. (March 1996). Xinjiang. National Geographic Magazine, p. 36–37
^ Browne, Alaina Flagel = Flat Bagel (review), retrieved 2009-04-24 from SeriousEats.com website;
^ New York Style Baked Snacks
^ a b Baking Management (2008) AIB website data: Bagels 2008, from Baking Management, p.10, March 2009, Statistics from Information Resources, retrieved 2009-03-23 from American Institute of Baking website: Bagels 2008 updated to March 10, 2009;
^ Baking Management (2008) AIB website data: Bagels 2008, from Redbook, July 2008, p.20, Statistics from Information Resources, retrieved 2009-03-23 from American Institute of Baking website: Bagels 2008 updated to March 10, 2009
^ a b AIB International, Bagels 2012. Data obtained from SymphonyIRI Group from scanner data from Supermarkets, Drugstores, and Mass Merchandisers (does not includeWal-Mart).
^ Balinska 2008. pp.4–5.
^ Collins, Bud; Hollander, Zander (1994). Bud Collins' Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis (2, illustrated ed.). Visible Ink Press. pp. 484–485. ISBN 9780810394438.

Bibliography

Balinska, Maria (2008). The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, Yale University Press, November 2008, ISBN 0-300-11229-7, ISBN 978-0-300-11229-0


External Links

Bagels Return To the Lower East Side (origin of American bagels)
The Bagel's History on H2G2
Einstein, Brothers. The History of Bagels, October 20, 2009
Nathan, Joan. A Short History of Bagels, Slate, November 12, 2008
Weinzweig, Ari. The Secret History of Bagels, The Atlantic, March 26, 2009

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NameDan Hall
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CommentsOh my gosh

NameCallum
Email
CommentsHilarious!!!!

NameNicolette grace
Email
CommentsI did It!!!

NameEthan Locklear
Email
CommentsIt was fun

NameIsabel
Email
Comments

Namedanosab
Email
Comments

NameFrank
EmailFranks.guaptrick.com
CommentsSuck my ass. You're really stupid. OH NOOO
OH NO GOD DAMNIT. It's you. STOP
Don't go. Stop going. You're gonna die. Fuck this. Leave me alone. Why are you Still here👿. I'm going away. Bye Bye bye. BRUH.
Leave me alone. Ugh. Leave.

NameFrank
EmailFranks.guaptrick.com
CommentsSuck my ass. You're really stupid. OH NOOO
OH NO GOD DAMNIT. It's you. STOP
Don't go. Stop going. You're gonna die. Fuck this. Leave me alone. Why are you Still here👿. I'm going away. Bye Bye bye. BRUH.
Leave me alone. Ugh. Leave.

Nameraisa karim
Email
Comments

Nameyut
Emailrty
Commentsrdwer

NameSharon mchugh
Email
CommentsGood yin Ava I'm going to kill u when I get you lol

NameBenedict Lim
Email
CommentsLol

NameKirsten
Email
CommentsIt was entertaining but dumb😂

Nameakii.....
Email
Commentshurrrrrrrrr......

NameAdama
Email
CommentsLol that's fun numbers and letters

NamePlato
EmailNone4U
Comments You guys are sick you think no one can see this?

NamePlato
EmailNone4U
Comments You guys are sick you think no one can see this?

NamePlato
EmailNone4U
Comments You guys are sick you think no one can see this?

NamePlato
EmailNone4U
Comments You guys are sick you think no one can see this?

NameDarren
Email
CommentsThis was quite enjoyable for someone with no life but you must know what ta like not to have a life to code somthing so boring

NameLexi
Email
Commentsthat was ridiculous

NameBooty swag anal sex
Emailanal sex at gmail .com
CommentsGo to my email for sex and porn with my gf ;)

NameMackenzie
Email
Comments

Namereally?
EmailReally?
CommentsOMG!!!!

NameGabby
Email
CommentsI literally set here for about an hour trying to get this to go away!

NameSam Boeh
Email
CommentsI suggest you send this link to all your friends

NameMaya
Email
CommentsI can't use as my bio

NameMarc
EmailFhsfgdhcfchhxjg
CommentsFuck this

NameDeano
Email
CommentsYo whoever you are,

That was fuckin hilarious! Great use of code X'D Well played! :P

Cheers,
Deano :)

Namephil
Email
Comments

NameOliver
Email
CommentsCool Fin

NameMarin
Email
CommentsHi what is your lucky number press stop when you get to your luky number or numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 21 lets stop at 21 because 22 is my lucky number and only mine not any one else's and 12 is mine to so I skipped it don't take my numbers 12 and 22

Nametea:)
Email
Commentssatan applauded you

NameSarah
Email
CommentsHai cool sigt :3

NameOliver
Email
Comments

NameThis website sucks
Email
CommentsJ

Namewilfred sabel
Email
CommentsDo you want to lick your own risk and are not the only thing you have any idea what you are not responsible and is now the same way you think of it as a result of the most important thing is that the material on this site is pussy for the first time 😊

NameMolly
Email
CommentsFunny stuff😂

NameRebecca
Email
Comments

NameE.J.S.A.
Email
CommentsYou are a cruel person!

Name
Email
Comments

Namefofofofofofofofoofofofofofofofofofofo
Emailwertui
Commentse rter ert

Namegggg
Emailgfghhv
CommentsTtg

Namesheryl
Email
Comments???

NameJaymi
Email
Comments

Namedestini
Email
Comments

Namedestini
Email
Comments

NameChristina
Email
Comments

Nameannonymous
Emailyouaintgonnaknow.com😂👊
CommentsOooooohhh, so SHOCKING.☉▵☉ Well that was corny. I see many of those websites anyways..



Nameannonymous
Emailyouaintgonnaknow.com😂👊
CommentsWell that was corny. I see many of those websites anyways.. ☉▵☉凸

NameIris
Email
CommentsU know I could have just pressed the home button and quit....but I didn't!

NameLiam
Email
CommentsWoah

NameLiam
Email
CommentsWoah

NameBio
Email
CommentsIt was quite funny

NameGiancarlo
EmailSasso
CommentsI won

NameRae Cowan
Email
Comments

Name fcg7ytj
Email5thjtehteh
Commentsegtegsreg

NameChloe
Email
CommentsOmg . 😂😂😂😂😂😂

NameChloe
Email
CommentsOmg . 😂😂😂😂😂😂

NameJeremy
Email
CommentsSo glad I finally completed this horrible JavaScript experiment.

Namecamron
Email
Comments

NameBig Dick Tim
Email
Commentssuck a dick snowball

Namepussy
Email
Commentsi smell like fish

NameReni
Email
CommentsNigguh I made it

NameStomachs Sikdar
Email
Comments

NameHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH
EmailYOU DONT NEED TO KNOW KID hmltrjkdmhlkdrtmhhy
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͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

Name bnfv
Emailspam l3l3
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Nameturtles
Emailasdfghjkl;'
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Nameprajakta
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CommentsI miss u

NameRashmi
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NameBob
EmailBob
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Namenishita
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Namesameer
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Namebarbra
Emailhenderson
Commentsi hate this website. its funny for the first few clicks but then it just gets annoying.

Nameyeasin
Emailyeasin54@com
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NameSophia
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CommentsOmg its like the middle of the night and I'm clicking away

NameLauren Parks
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NameGerps Mcgee
Email
CommentsWhat is this place?

NameChucken Bruh
Emailchucj
CommentsBeast prank!

NameDrew Gardner
Email
CommentsIts even worse on ipad

NameAlexa
Email
CommentsI hate you. (Jk that was fun)

NameEventsDesigns // or EventsHighestScore
EmailTurtles r cool right
CommentsJust went through this on my phone.. Again. Thanks. O_o

NameSamantha
Email
CommentsI love riding horses
☁☁☁☁☁☁☁
☁🎀🎀☁🎀🎀☁
🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀
🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀
🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀
☁🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀☁
☁☁🎀🎀🎀☁☁
☁☁☁🎀☁☁☁
☁☁☁☁☁☁☁

NameEventsDesigns // or EventsHighestScore
EmailTurtles r cool right
CommentsJust went through this on my phone.. Again. Thanks. O_o

NameEventsDesigns // or EventsHighestScore
EmailTurtles r cool right
CommentsJust went through this on my phone.. Again. Thanks. O_o

NameN
Email
CommentsGood idea, this was amusing

NameNick butler
Email
Comments

NameKiana
Email
CommentsHahaha so trolly..; gonna send it to every!!!

NameMaker of the site
EmailTRooled
CommentsYou colud have just held down the enter key if you were on the computer HA Trolled :]

NameEventsDesigns
EmailFAKE AT DOT COM M8
Comments250+ People are coming here now. :)

NameGabe Newell
Email
Commentsi love your site

Namekwamboka
Email
Comments

NameAlex
Email
CommentsBest troll ever

NameKathryn
EmailLytle
CommentsIck

NameNitlof
Email
CommentsMellanslag efter punkt.

Namehnvb
Emailtyfgh
Comments

NameDerek Degrate
Email
CommentsGreat site

NameDanny_j42
Email
Comments

Namedylan mirandilla
Email
CommentsXD

NameKody
Email
Comments

Namecharlotte
Email
CommentsWOW i can't believe it my parents said that i did not have to go to school becasuse this was so educational

NameDemi Flewellen
Email
CommentsSeriously.….….........

NameDariush Onsori
Email
CommentsEmail me for a good time

NameLily
Email
CommentsWell that was a waste of time

NameAvery
Email
CommentsThat was entertaining xD

NameThe B0SS
Email
CommentsThank you for that educational process.... It was fun and very amusing!

NameTrisha
Email
CommentsWell that was fun...............
-_-

NameAnastazia
Email
CommentsU did u do that

NameSebastian
Email
CommentsShould have gone to 69

NameSaher <3
Email
CommentsLol I saw this on Yasmine's IG

NameSaher <3
Email
CommentsLol I saw this on Yasmine's IG

Namebarbie
Email
Comments

NameBecca
Email
Comments

NameKaren
Email
CommentsFunny

NameLol
Email??
CommentsFuck you why are you doing this??

NameAnonymous
Email
CommentsHeheh A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P ! " £ $ % ^ el dkgfidus gi Great popups

Namebhagya
Email
Comments its really soo funny and enjoyable

NameAmanda
Email
CommentsFunny but annoying

Nameatu
Email
Comments

Name🔮Lilly🎈👽🍭
Email
CommentsHola

NameLochlyn Treadway
Email
Comments

NameHailey
Email
CommentsThis is dumb

NameTrey Herrington
Email
CommentsWow. Thanks Chris.

NameTatum freund
Email
CommentsI LOVE THIS!!!

NameAmy
Email
CommentsBANTER!

Namenardin
Email
Comments

NameBenjamin
Email
Commentswow such swag

NameRyan
Email
CommentsI found this on my friends instagram.

NameAnup shivankar
Email
Comments

Nameali
Email
CommentsYo b i love you so much now suck ur mum

Namepedro watret
Email
CommentsFs!!!

NameVishav
Email
CommentsSa åt dig att inte klicka, lilla minimoj :)

Namejulia
Email
CommentsHi

Namelara
Email
CommentsNice!!

NameSarah
EmailSomeone@somewhere dot com
CommentsWell that was a waste of time!

NameKia
Email
Comments

NameAna
Email
CommentsLOL i put this on instagram and a bunch of people clicked on it and got mad!!

NameJamal baker
Email
Comments

NameJeremy May
Email
CommentsThis was sooooooo annoying. I almost stopped but then I kept going.

Namebaz
Email
CommentsLuke is a chimp

Nameerick
Emailumm
CommentsUmm

Nameerick
Emailumm
CommentsUmm

Nameerick
Emailumm
CommentsUmm

Namekayla
Emailidk
CommentsAlyssa is bae

Namekayla
Emailidk
CommentsAlyssa is bae

Namesandhya
Email
Comments

Name💋💋💋💋💋 Kaelyn 💋💋💋💋💋
Email
CommentsChase Maynard is sexy af😍😍😍😍😘😘😘😘👅👅👅👅👅👅💦💦🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Nameafsal
Email
Comments:*

NameEmmppgs
EmailH'&/!2@
Comments7 mins I'm never gonna get back😂

NameNisha
EmailVijaynisha592@gmail
CommentsAwsm fun.. :-)

NameHello
EmailEmail.gmail.com
CommentsHelloooo

NameYu min
Email
CommentsLel

Namefaham
Email
Comments

Namebrendan
Email
CommentsGpd this killed me

NamePatrice Morgan
Email
Comments

Namesiron is bae
Email
Commentssiron is better than siri. siri is old (but sexy) 😂😂😂😂😂😂

NameEdu Limo
Email
Comments

Namesiron is bae
Email
Commentssiron is better than siri. siri is old (but sexy) 😂😂😂😂😂😂

Namesiron is bae
Email
Commentssiron is better than siri. siri is old (but sexy) 😂😂😂😂😂😂

NameSlayer5015
Email
CommentsLol nice trick

NameSarah
Email
Commentswho ever made this website is extremely clever...
I hate all the clicking but it is genius.

NameSeth
Email
Comments

NameLexie 😘😘
Email
Comments😘😘💖💖💖💕💕💕💕

NameLexie 😘😘
Email
Comments

Namedaniela
Email
Comments

NameDe'Andre
Email
CommentsThis was sum bullshit man. Aight I'm out , piece niggaz

Namehello
Email
CommentsDO NOT DO THIS AT ALL

Namehello
Email
CommentsDO NOT DO THIS AT ALL

NameMya villar😜💕
Email
CommentsOk so that was annoying/awesomeness

NameOne whit problems since i got this far🚶
Email
CommentsHahahhaahhahah😂😂😂 geanius!!!!

NameKlara
Email
CommentsSweet Jesus, what the hell was that good for? But it was kinda fun..lol

NameKali
Email
CommentsFor fucks sake

NamePraveen
Email
CommentsNice

NameDaniel Gebran
Email
Comments

NameSRah
Email
CommentsWhy

Nameakshay
Email7760474631
CommentsYes yes yes

NameMolly watts
Email
CommentsThis is pointless and stupid it waisted like 10 minutes of my day😫

NameMolly watts
Email
CommentsThis is pointless and stupid it waisted like 10 minutes of my day😫

Namejael
Email
Comments

Namek1n$3y
EmailDa fuck
CommentsHahah😂 smooth😎😎

Namealma gpe la chica
Email
Comments

NameKasey.
EmailSuckmyass.com
CommentsFollow me on Instagram doe. @quesadillaa_ ;)

NameKiera 💃💘💚💙🏉👑💖
Email
CommentsThis sucked ass

NameJajajajajaj
EmailAhhahahah.com
Comments

Nameemma wise
Email
CommentsH ayyyy
Wyd weridos

Nameemma wise
Email
Comments

Nameemma wise
Emailejwise2004@gmail
Comments

Namelol
Email
CommentsI lol'd

Namepene
Emailpene
CommentsPene

NameHussein
Email
CommentsDkk

NameKeziah Wahu
Email
CommentsLol 😂😂😂😂😂

Nameluca zovighian
Email
Comments

NameBonnie ryan
Email
Comments

Namerjiswaller
EmailJomama
CommentsFollow me on instagram rjiswaller follow you back

Namerjiswaller
EmailJomama
CommentsFollow me on instagram rjiswaller follow you back

Namerjiswaller
EmailJomama
Comments

NameAlex o Driscoll
Email
CommentsHai

NameHi
Email
Comments

NameVishnukrishnan M.
Email
CommentsSeriously? how did u make that !!!!!!!!!!????

NameStian!😀😗😂😂👍👉👌
EmailGmail is AWESOME!
Comments

Nameandreas
Email
Comments

NameBrokke
Email
CommentsYou little shit

NameThe BONESAW
EmailIS READYYYY
CommentsWATCH YO NOSE

NameConnor McEachron
Email
CommentsI enjoy anal with middle-aged men.

NameJessica The Fab Master
Email
CommentsFOLLOW ME ON INSTAGRAM:

jessica.the.teddybear.slayer

and

smosh.is.love.smosh.is.life

and

the._.internet._.ruined._.us



ALSO CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE, IT HAS FANTAGE STUFF ON IT

fantagechococupcakes.blogspot.com

Namesubhash
Email
CommentsSupwer

NameManali
Emailthis_is_not_a_real_email.gmail.com
Commentsfiretruck

NameNick
Email
Comments

NameJP
Email
CommentsThat was so annoying how do u make one of these if I have to suffer so will my followers on insta

NameSavanté🙅
Email
Comments😂😭👊

NameBruh.jenny
Email
CommentsDont click !!!!
You had to 😐
Tf
Ur stupid
You should have listen
But you didnt
So
Ur gonna stay here
FOREVER 😈
Haha
Lets count
1
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NameKibz
Email😡👿👎
CommentsThis thing is a waste of time…

Name#theflyingunicorn
Email✌️💪
CommentsGo on my insagram Theflyingunicorn1908

NameCYB
Email
CommentsNice little time waster.

NameDestiny Jackson
Email
Comments

NameJavanna
Email
Comments

NameAnma
Email
CommentsGG

Nameshiko
Email
CommentsLoooooooooooool
....


#DEAD

Nameshiko
Email
CommentsLoooooooooooool
....


#DEAD

NameErin Choi
Email
CommentsUrghhhhh 😂😂

Nameveryne omolo
Email
Commentswhat the hell, pwahahaaaaa......its like will stay there forever!!! damn!

Namesavannah
Email
Comments

NameJohnathan
Email
CommentsI have no limits

NameJessica
Email
CommentsOmg I thought it would go on forever! It was hilarious. My friends and I got really annoyed with it and I was the only one to finish😂 This made my day lol

NameEmilia
Email
CommentsOmgggg I thought I would die clicking😅 but really this annoyed the hell out of me😂

NameEmilia
Email
CommentsOmgggg I thought I would die clicking😅 but really this annoyed the hell out of me😂

NameAlexis Stump
Email
CommentsI follow you on instagram (lexiboowuvsyew) and I loved your website, it made me smile and I live the things you post cx

NameAbi
Email
CommentsMeh.

NameLawrence Julio
Email
CommentsYour site just made my day Lol (y)

NameKate
EmailI frckin hate this site!! dot com
CommentsOMFG THIS WEBSITE MADE MY FINGERS HURT!!!

WHAT KIND OF SITE IS THIS???!!!

OMG WHY WOULD MY FRIEND TELL ME TO DO THIS... boooo hoooo

NameMarissa
Email
CommentsLoll I was so angry at this

NameBella
Email
CommentsWow. Just. Wow.

NameSaylor
Email
CommentsWell, that wasn't annoying at all!

Nameperson
Email
Commentswhy did we all waste our time

NameKelley
Email
CommentsWHAT KIND OF PERSON DOES THIS


THIS IS PURE EVIL

IM PRETTY SURE AT ONE POINT I GOT CLOSE TO CRYING

NameMaureen
Email
Commentsthis is so fucking stupid

NameCathleen Carmody
Email
CommentsElla Schotz recommended this to me. It was not worth a minute of my precious time!

Nameyolanda
Emailmy email is cool
CommentsHate this

NameElla Schotz
Email
CommentsMy friend recommended this- not worth it

NameKacey
EmailVhhjjk
Comments

Namepeeer
Email
Commentsårisbæn

NameEthan
Email
Commentslol this website isnt funy xdddd

NameSoca
Email
CommentsImpressive but took a long time hahaHaha

NameElias
Email
Comments

Namesiddharth
Email
CommentsHello everyone my personal no is 8802886144 im using watsaap...love you...

NameSue
Emailnone of your busyness
CommentsIt was annoying when I first saw this and with the ABC thing but in glad I did it. Follow me on insta @susan_anj

NameGrace
Email
CommentsFuck you

Name damji
Email
CommentsHaha...never knew i can be that patient..

Namenimo
Email
CommentsNever do that again

Namenimo
Email
CommentsNever do that again

Namesaroj
Email
Commentslove is death do not try

NameTom Brady
Email
Comments2014 AFC Champs

2015 Superbowl 49

NamePENIS
Email
Commentshasdfhas hasd asdj as d

NameK-Rey
EmailSup
CommentsOmg! Such wow, Much amazement

NameKaleb Gould
Email
CommentsLove it

Namezoe
Emailwestrick
Commentsdie

NameKlub
Email
CommentsI. Did. It.

NameShrek
Email
CommentsSHREK IS LIFE!!!

NameMary
Email
CommentsOmg, I did it like three times... Funny

NameEllie Burk
Email
CommentsHot girls message me!! I love a nice rack #demtittiesdoe

NameEllie Burk
Email
CommentsHot girls message me!! I love a nice rack #demtittiesdoe

NameEllie Burk
Email
CommentsHot girls message me!! I love a nice rack #demtittiesdoe

NameHannah
Email
Comments#Perks of Google Chrome

Namelee bossman
Email
Comments;-) ;-) ;-) it was hilarious!! But time wasting was real.

I was busy clicking ok like an idiot Hahahahahahahahaha

Namehelene
Email
CommentsFunny yet annoying

NameLaosna
Email
CommentsOh my god, lol

Namedannyice
Email
CommentsI don't like this for realar please take me out..or bera still feed me with 18+

Namesunaina
Email
Comments

NameNunya Bussiness
Email
CommentsFun af, dude. :D

Namejohn mwangi
Email
Comments

Namejordan
Emailowens
Commentsu remind me of my uncle :)

NameKlara
Email
CommentsElohel

Namemakayla
Emaila
Comments

NameAngela
Email
CommentsThis was so much fun! It was hillarious too!!

Namesabby
Email
CommentsI did it gurls

NameJohn Mark Moore
Email
Comments

NameNikki
Email
CommentsOMFG I FUCKING HATE WHIEVER THE HELL DID THIS TORTURIZING AHIT IT WAS SO ATUPID AND I THOUGHT IT WOULD TAKE TO A GOOD WEBISITE But Hahahahaha lol it got me good

NameCalvin
Email4SS H0L3
CommentsHaha Lindsay I made it!

Namecalvin waye coole
Email
CommentsMy girlfriend sent me a link to come here idk why.

NameCade Moody
Email
Commentsi made it bitches

NameMelissa Egger
Email
Comments

NameMaryjane
Email
CommentsI hate you

NameRYAN connelly
Email
CommentsIt's suck my dick

NameGabby
EmailStephney iCloud.com
Comments

NameAlicia
Email
Comments

Namehaley
Email
Commentsthat was alot ok clicks

NameFuck you
EmailI hate you
CommentsFuck you so much

Namenura mohammad tsoho
Email
Commentsunderstand nt standing

NameJohannes
Email
CommentsThat was fun

Nameizzy c;
Email
Commentsi finished the frankly pitas virus

NameIsabel
EmailSallynibbsjwjxjdjsjdj
Comments

Namekisangula
Email
CommentsCurious humans

NameGabe Hampton
Email
CommentsYou are the greatest troll who ever lived😂😂

NameThe Master
Email
CommentsAhhhhhhhn it was kinda fun...going like ok ok ok ok ok..........

NameThe Master
Email
CommentsAhhhhhhhn it was kinda fun...going like ok ok ok ok ok..........

NameAlex Gardner
Email
CommentsI'm hungry and don't want pizza 😂

NameKakishe
Email
Comments

NameYour mum
Email
CommentsHard lad

NameAmanda
Email
Commentswow. human curiosity.

Namea
Emaila
Commentsa

Namea
Emaila
Commentsa

NameReagan
Email
Comments

NameRyan Terrell
Email
Comments

NameGabby
EmailStephney iCloud.com
Comments

Namecoz serghis
Email
CommentsHola

NameMikayla✂BRUH
Email
CommentsMY GAWD

NameButt
EmailFuck
Comments10/10 would bang

NameMaya
EmailMkeesey01@gmail com
CommentsToday's my last day of chemo!!!!!!

NameMaya
EmailMkeesey01@gmail com
Comments

NameRyleigh
Email
CommentsThat was fun

Namemetrin mumbi
Email
Commentssoooo fun.

Nameirene
Email
CommentsI liked it

Namehafsa
Email
Comments

Namehafsa
Email
Comments

Namekevin
Email
CommentsLol

NameAriel miller
Email
CommentsIt ducks

NameRonald
Email
CommentsU r the greatest troll that ever lived this was so great thank u for wasting my time it was very worth it 😂😂👌👌✌️✌️

NameKiraly
Email
Comments

NameLuke
Email
CommentsThis is halarious 😂😂

NameTrey Jara
Email
Comments😜

NameMaya
Email
Comments

NameKlaryce
EmailForget about it
CommentsYou think your funny

NameBryanna McCoy (aka) BÆ
Email
CommentsYEAH!!! MADE IT AND DONT MAKE IT SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO LONG AGAIN PLZZZZZZ!!! 😡 You just waisted my time (for realz)!😵😵😑😑😡

NameNiamh
Email
CommentsThis took so long & I got really worried but I did it YAYAYAYA😂💓

Nameshellsea
Email
Commentscul

NameAbigail schick
Email
CommentsFuck me

Nameg.erald
Emaildontfuxkmeplease
Commentsadvertising because eh.

follow me on insta g.erald

NameJennifer Gonzalez
Email
CommentsOMG it was funny at first but then it just got annoying

NameJennifer Gonzalez
Email
CommentsOMG it was funny at first but then it just got annoying

NameBetty😁😁😂😂😂
Email
CommentsOmg!!?? Lmaoo😂😂😂 that was funny at first i was boutta die buh then it started getting annoying after the reapeting of the alphabet thennn u did the number i was like ohh goshhh whyy??!?!?

NameNick
Email
Comments😂😂

NameMax Freed
Emaildatroutman.com
Commentshuh?

NameMax Freed
Emaildatroutman.com
Commentshuh?

NameRatchet whore queen (leslie)
Email
CommentsWtf did i just spend my time doing?

NameChris espina
Email
Comments

Namevicky😴
EmailTakesTheMic.Co.uk
Commentsmy bestfriend out me into this😴i thought it would never end💁

NameTanya
Email
CommentsI did it

NameTanya
Email
CommentsI did it

Namegayunime
Email
CommentsGw6sbj saw ex

Namegayunime
Email
Comments

Nameewen
Email
Comments

Name@_.bulletproof._ (insta)
EmailThe actual fuck bruh
CommentsFuck u I wanted to watch supernatural but now it's gone, I'm gonna find u 👺

Name@_.bulletproof._ (insta)
EmailThe actual fuck bruh
CommentsFuck u I wanted to watch supernatural but now it's gone, I'm gonna find u 👺

Name@scarlettmanfredi_ {on insta}
Email
Commentsdude i grew old during that

Name@scarlettmanfredi_ {on insta}
Email
Commentsdude i grew old during that

NameJudy Cat
Email
CommentsWowee

NameA chrome user
Email
CommentsChrome: Prevent this page from creating additional dialogs.

HELL YEAH!

NameSatya Nadella
Email
CommentsOh my god, i made it. Wasn't it fun?

IF IT WASN'T, YOU DIE!

Windows 10 is coming out. You better be hyped.

NameDaki
Email
CommentsAre you bored?! How did you get here?! LMAO

NameCalla
Email
CommentsFuck yeah made it all the way

Nameemi
Emailhihihojijn
CommentsTHIS CFUXKING WEBSITE

NameTaleah
Email
CommentsI don't know what this is

NameOliva
Email
CommentsI don't like counting anymore

Namearthey
Email
Comments

Namearthey
Email
Comments

NameI Don't Care
Email
CommentsRoman Reigns Shouldn't Have Won The Royal Rumble

NameLibby
Email
Comments

NameFuck you you cunt
Email
Comments
I HAD A BABY DURING THIS U FAG

NameFuck you you cunt
Email
Comments
I HAD A BABY DURING THIS U FAG

Namemaureen
Emailkfaith480@gmz
Comments

NameBigCox
Email
Comments

NameMichelle
Email
CommentsThis was ridiculous hahaha. I had nothing to do though, so...

NameHei
Emailemiliejenten123
Comments

NameDave
Email
Commentswww.metrotowingcalgary.com

Nameparth patel
Email
CommentsIts simple whatever page will open i don't care i just want tp know what is this and i open it...

Nameparth patel
Email
CommentsIts simple whatever page will open i don't care i just want tp know what is this and i open it...

Namebe myself
Email
CommentsIt is so funny.... haha

Nameroimata
Email
Comments

Nameaquib
Email
Comments

Namesue babz
Email
Comments

NameARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME
Email
CommentsI thought there was gonna be a jumps are tbh

NameTatum freund
Email
CommentsOmg I love this hahah 😂

NameHailie Morasky
Email
CommentsLol...I was laughing so hard...I'm in my car and my parents looked scared... thanks for the laugh

NameEllenie
Email
CommentsHaha I loved this.. U made me laugh soooo hard and I'm like just sitting her balling out laughing lol 😂

NameEllenie
Email
CommentsHaha I loved this.. U made me laugh soooo hard and I'm like just sitting her balling out laughing lol 😂

Nameshannon
Email
CommentsThat was annoying.... errr😠😠😠 time i will never get back in my life

Namelaurenn
Email
Commentsum

Namewtf I Want nudes (bri)
Email
CommentsTake at least your shirt off
-love bri

NameCiara R.
Email
Comments

NameCiara R.
Email
Comments

NameAutumn
Email
CommentsHi

Namefuck you
Email
CommentsYou stole this from
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBrVNS81BCo&src_vid=LB2ERsZsBf8&feature=iv&annotation_id=annotation_1989286691

NameMaya
Email
CommentsThat was so boring

NameMaya
Email
CommentsThat was so boring

NameDylan
EmailZuleger
CommentsLol

NameJoe
Email
Comments

NameJoe
Email
Comments

Namejcaz
Email
CommentsWe did it, nana. We made it!

Namevimal
Email
CommentsIts fun i like it..make it easier and customise to wish for a friends party

NameNabeel
Email
CommentsVery bad

NameMinhajul Islam
Email
Comments Nice

NameCleazz
Email
CommentsWoooow omg! That was very very long! Sorry for my bad English!

Namesafiya yasmeen
Email
CommentsLol.. osum

Named
Emailadsad
Commentssdadad

Namesamuel njenga
Email
Comments

Nameealaii@yahoo.com
Emailjohndeb
Comments

Namelolman
Emailkjjjjjj
Comments

NameTyler Mallay
Email
Comments

NameZach
Email
CommentsThat was fun! Very funny waste of time. Lol

NameSomeone
Email
CommentsI don't like people that make me suffer!!!

NameAriel Williams 👍☺️
Email
CommentsThis was fun but obnoxious lol :)

NameVivian
Email
Commentsnice one lol I was very entertained

Nameedward
Email
CommentsFunny

Nameperla
Email
Commentsily torrance ik we have only known eachother for like a semester but ur really fun to hang out wit ur chiil sweet nice really.funny sometimes bosy 😒😒😒😒but i still love u thx for everything😘😘😘 PERLA HERNANDEZ

NameSeana Stolz
Email
CommentsWtf luv seana

NameMariah
Email
Commentswelp

NameIzzy t
Email
CommentsI hate you

NameIzzy
Email
CommentsI hate you

Namefedef
Emailmeow.com
Comments

NameTaylen
Email
Commentshi, ethan how are you? what are you doing?

Namesofia
Email
Commentsi like your website its smart and funny :)

NameUnderwear
Email
CommentsHey! Underwear here!!

NameMariah
Email
Commentswelp

Nameann njoki
Email
Commentslike seriously

NameSandra
Email.....
CommentsFreaking stres

NameSydney
Email
Comments

NameSydney
Email
Comments

NameSarah Santiago
Email
CommentsI hate you blake

Name?
Email
CommentsOmg

Name?
Email
CommentsOmg

Name?
Email
Comments

Namesophia marie rutledge
Email
Comments

Namesophia marie rutledge
Email
Comments

NameManali
Email
CommentsI hate whoever made this website. I hate you very, very much. But the concept? GENIUS!

NameAngel
Email
CommentsIt's your sissy and that sucked

NameBallSack
Email
CommentsFUCK YOU BITCCH , SUCK MY BALL SACK CUNT

NameDylan
Email
Comments️Damn

NameHugh
EmailJass
Commentstoo easy

NameJulia
EmailWow.gmail . The
Comments

Namediana
Email
Comments

Nameramon
Emailramoniscool77gmail.com
Comments

NameLibby
EmailThomas
CommentsGod, this is annoying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve put up with it.”

“I was generous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it became:

Personal Announcement
Woman named Shrubbs
Has lost faux tortoiseshell eyeglasses

Where?
Somewhere between nursery school
and sacred space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Comments

NameMichael Catanese
Email
CommentsThat was a lot of buttons to press

NameKylee
Email
CommentsPoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooop

NameMaria
EmailBazaya
CommentsHi

Namehello person
Email
Commentswow thx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<script language="JavaScript">alert("3") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("4")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("5") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("6") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("7") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("8")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("9") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("10") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("11") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("12")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("13") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("14") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("15") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("16")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("17") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("18") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("19") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("20")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("21") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("22") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("23") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("24")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("25") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("26") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("27") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("28")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("29") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("30") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("31") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("32")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("33") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("34") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("35") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("36")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("37") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("38") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("39") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("40")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("41") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("42") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("43") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("44")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("45") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("46") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("47") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("48")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("49") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("50!!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Wow.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("We just recited 50 numbers.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Should we continue?") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Until a hundred?")
</script>

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

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

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Who knows, I might make you stay FOREVER!!!!!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("You will have to spend the rest of your life counting!!!!!")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Wouldn't that be fun!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Counting and counting") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("and counting and counting") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("and counting and counting")
</script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("F-O-R-E-V-E-R!!!!!") </script>

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

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Evil.....") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("I'm getting bored.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("I think I will let you off now.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("NOT!") </script>

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

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Okay, forget that.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("You can go now.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Just remember, whenever you are bored, you can always click on the "Don't Click Here"link.") </script>

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

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Yeah, bye!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Um.....byebye!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Come on, just go away!!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("What are you still doing here?") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Stop clicking the OK button and just say bye!") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("HEY!Just Go away!!!") </script>

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

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Still there?GO AWAY!!!!!!") </script>

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

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

<script language="JavaScript">alert("ARGH! Forget it.Byebye.PLease.Just go away.") </script>

<script language="JavaScript">alert("Hahaha!Okay, Have a nice day!") </script>

NameMiriam
Email
CommentsDid it

Nameveronica seeling💟
Email
CommentsU r such a weirdo, u know that right???

Namerajesh
Email
Comments

NameTris
Email
CommentsThis made me lol

Namekito
Email
Comments

NameRohit Singh
Email
CommentsIts really oswem!!

NameCece
Email
CommentsThis was the worst thing ever I have a headache 😂

NameBrooke
Email
CommentsThis was torture and tapped into my inner OCD

NameAnagha Nambisan
Email
CommentsAhhhhhh

NameAlexis
Email
Comments

NameAbigail
Email
Commentshow do I get this on my instagram bio

NameAbigail
Email
Commentshow do I get this on my instagram bio

NameNicole
Email
CommentsSo funny

Namenemi
Email
Comments

NameLogan McCormick
Email
CommentsThis was hilarious! I'm definitely putting this on my Instagram bio.

NameLogan McCormick
Email
CommentsThis was hilarious! I'm definitely putting this on my Instagram bio.

NamePanda
Email
CommentsMy friend told me to do this so ima get her back so bad ugh

NameAlyshea
Email
CommentsQwerty

NameAlyshea
Email
CommentsQwerty

NameMiranda
Email
CommentsCan't believe I did that

NameFaith Ann Hammond
Email
CommentsI did it hahahaha so proud of myself 😺😸

Namedaniella
Email
CommentsThis sucks 😝😩😔

Namehelen braybrook
Email
Comments

Namemolly rose
Email
Comments

NameJZ
Email
Comments

NameIshan Sharma
Email
CommentsHas!

Nameparamveersingh chauhan
Email
Comments

NameDaisy
Email
CommentsIt's a fun game

NameHunter
Email
CommentsHeyz 😜😜

NameGabe
Email
CommentsThis sucks

Namejj
Email
Commentsfuck this website, I did it on my phone

NameLiam Keaton
Email
CommentsVery funny 😄😃😀😊☺😉😝😙😁😁😜😁

NameKara Elizabeth buback
Email
CommentsUm what was the point of that whole thing I mean I liked it but it was kinda a waste of my time not trying to be mean but also funny 🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻🌻

NameLosLobo_1963
Email
CommentsAwesome and thanks...have a support link for $$$

Namepoobumweehole
Email
Commentsthisistotallynotlivandjackbye

Namepoobumweehole
Email
Commentsthisistotallynotlivandjackbye

Nameabhi nair
Email
CommentsAaaaaaaaaaa i m thinkin

Nameabhi nair
Email
CommentsAaaaaaaaaaa

Namejohn
Email
CommentsIt was s***

NameOmaster
Email
CommentsThat is such a waste of my time

NameJake
Email
Commentsnice

NameKeyran
Email
Comments

Nameemma
Email
Comments

NameDee
Email
CommentsI went through all that to then actually pay attention and realise chrome has a button to stop websites doing shit like that hahahaha :L

NameElisa Nettesheim
Email
Commentsthis was shitty but i loved it anyway

NameLeny||Bora
Email
CommentsN It was already very funny ...uhm can you like a few Pictures from Instagram please? <3 My name is: balou_o

NameclaudiapootxD
Email
CommentsDUDE U WASTED 10 MINUTES OF MY LIFE BUT YOU ARE AWESOME TEACH ME HOW U DO THIS SENPAII xD

NameBeefsteak Charlie
Email
Comments

NameEmmanuel chevalier
Email
Commentshave I passed the test grand master wizard zack, am i ready to join the kool aid clan?

Oh praise thy zack for his inteligence and his wisdom, for thy shall watch over his putried pessants.

Blessed the zackorail kik

My you dreams come true

You will go far in life

Do stop till you get enough!!

Life is great in magog

The internet is evil



Namebickel yo
Email
CommentsYoyoyo boiio

Nametroll
Email
Commentstroll

NameJordan
Email
Comments

Namefckboy
Email
Commentsthis was so stupid

NameMR. POO
Emailsuckmythumbatbatsdotcom
CommentsThis is the most useless, time wasting thing i've ever done!

NameMia ramirez
Email
Comments😂👌

Namelol
Emaillol
Comments

NameJess
Email
CommentsThis was such a waste of time

NameSarah
EmailS.ammar02.com
CommentsThat not fun at all it was boring!😴

NameBob
EmailBobby the unicorn
CommentsThat was super annoying yet fun!!😂😂😂😂 did I tell that i love unicorns! They r amazing creatures!😂😂😂🍫🍫🍫🍫


Unicorn
Unicorn
Unicorn
Unicorn
Unicorn

NameChristian
EmailBentzen
CommentsDont you think that was alvor of fun???
I made this so Love me Very Much everybody.
Shal i make a new one???

NameVictor
Email
CommentsHahahahah

NameSarah
Email
CommentsOMG!!!!!!😫😫😫😫

Namekate
Email
Comments

Namedaniel Nilsson
Email
CommentsSo funny

Namedustin
Email
Comments

NameSuck my ass
Email
CommentsStupid. Suck my ass

NameJayde
Email
Comments

Namedenis
Email
CommentsCan i get a uhhhhuuu?

Namei like pi
Email
CommentsGGGGGGGGGGGGGAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Namei like pi
Email
CommentsGGGGGGGGGGGGGAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

NameOmnia
Email
CommentsGood one, mate!

NameMatthew knight doak
Email
CommentsHi

NamePaloma
Email
CommentsHahaha!!! This was long but funny..... Haha it's only took me 1 minute or 2.... /= but it was still fun....

NameMadyson tostado
EmailPowpowsucka
CommentsWow I really did that whole thing wow

NameMorgan Moran
Email
CommentsThat's was Amazon, and a waste of time! Like everything else I do with my life ha! -.-

NameCucake
Email
CommentsHi i did it YASSS

NameKristen
Email
CommentsWTF!!!! But it was funny to me 😂😂😂😂😂😂😈😈😈😈😈👺👺👺👺

Namevenkat
Email
Comments

NameemILY
Email
CommentsZayns dick will die in MY ASS

NameUr
EmailU
CommentsHa lol

Namelalalal
Emailhi.Gmail.com
Commentswho r u

NameI hate u
EmailI hate u dot com
CommentsU just wasted 10 minutes of my life. And now my briwser won't stop. U ruined my phone browser

NameMahalya
Emailmahalyabur
Comments

Namecris
Email
CommentsGood gob

Namenatalie orj
Email
Comments

NameGabi pont
Email
Comments

NameLOITY
Email
CommentsMWAHAHA I hate LIFE

NameChloe
Emailmyfingershurt.com
CommentsI someone else's website and then I put it on mine and I accidentally hit mine twice so I had to suffer three times😭😭😭😭

NameSara
EmailSara at gmail dot com
CommentsHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHA evil...

Nameck
Email
Commentsfun

Nameklara
Email
Comments

NameJake
Email
CommentsShaun fuck u

Namegrace mburu
Emailmburugrace80@gmail
Commentshahahaha

Namedaniel McConnell
Email
CommentsThanks that was fun MUahahahahahaha

NameChloe
EmailWray
Comments

Namesathish
Email
Comments

NameSigurd
Email
CommentsLOL

NameBreanne
Email
CommentsAmazing!!!!! 😂😂

NameOlivia
Email
Comments

Namearldon tiacha
Email
Comments

Namejason
Email
CommentsEh

NameJomar
EmailJomar
CommentsFuck you

NameKayleigh russell
Email
CommentsHi

NameNick
Email
Comments

NameYeap En Shao
Email
CommentsHi

NameCallum
Email
CommentsExtremely entertaining yet entirely pointless, or vice versa!

Namepremdeep singh
Email
Comments

NameAdamaris
Email
CommentsMade it!!

NameAly
Email
CommentsAnnoying but ha!!! Made it thru

NameMatt
Email
CommentsHaha

NameMatt
Email
Comments

NameAmani Ramos
Email
Comments

NameSavannah
Email
CommentsYou have a lot of free time don't you?

NameJasmine
Email
CommentsYeah

NameMariah
Email
Commentswelp

NameMichelle
Email
CommentsI hate my friend for this -.-

NameAudrey
Email
Comments

NameAnna loves Alyssa she's Funny
Emailhi
Commentscould everyone please follow @dm.shiness yes? thank you. and this was brilliant

NameKaleigh
Email
CommentsI would of thought that would be longer but it wasn't so I'm thankful.

NameSami poe
Email
Comments

Namemercy
Email
Commentshave a good night , a nyc day and make nyc food today just be perfect

NameUr dumb
Email
CommentsOmg fuk u ill poo on ur mum

NameKi
Email
CommentsYour hilarious

NameBRUH
Email
CommentsBRUH BRUH BRUH BRUH BRUH

Namekuldeep
Email
CommentsThis was pretty entertaining, lol. I love your account by the way.

Namekuldeep
Email
CommentsThis was pretty entertaining, lol. I love your account by the way.

Namekuldeep
Email
CommentsThis was pretty entertaining, lol. I love your account by the way.

NameAaron Ronny
Email
CommentsOne in all the various things that these establishments supply is that the day loan.http://www.fastloanvirtuoz.co.uk/
http://shortterminstantloans4u.co.uk
http://www.12monthloansboss.co.uk/
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NameWraith Hare
Email
CommentsLoved it!

NameEmerson
Email
CommentsThis is soo annoying...thanks a lot Anthony

NameInuOkami
Email
CommentsI love you

NameEmerson
Email
CommentsThis is soo annoying...thanks a lot Anthony

NameEmerson
Email
CommentsThis is soo annoying...thanks a lot Anthony

Namealaylay
Email
CommentsYOURE a wizard Harry

Namemia
Email
Comments😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂

Namesuzanne allen
Email
Comments💘💘

NameSierra lynch
Email
CommentsLovin it💁❤️❤️

NameLauren
Emailidk bro
CommentsWel that wasnt very fun

NameJordyn
Email
Comments

Nameshelby franks baxter
Email
Comments💕🔥

Namesuzanne allen
Email
Comments💘💘

Namesuzanne allen
Email
Comments💘💘

NameClaire💘👌
Email
Comments

NameHaley runaldo
Email
CommentsCHEESY BEANS

NameSHUTUP
EmailSHUTUP
CommentsSHUTUP

NameImmy
Email
CommentsI finished woo!😂
Follow my INSTA @hereziegler

NameLordquadfarsquad
Email
CommentsJesus

Name@its._.caleb
Email
CommentsYou guys should follow me

NameSHUTUP
EmailSHUTUP
CommentsSHUTUP

NameNAT SLAYS YEW ALL💜
Email
Comments

NameNAT SLAYS YEW ALL💜
Email
Comments

NameBella🙋
Email
CommentsVery intresting and long 😂😂😂

NameAustin
Email
CommentsWazzuuuuuuppp

NameAustin
Email
Comments

Namenoa
Email
CommentsI hate you for this website

Namethe you the I
Emailgood the I
Commentsyeah to the to I to the to I to the to I to

NameLannah
Email
CommentsThis was so much fun

Namehi
Email
Commentsso done

Namecharlotte
Email
CommentsLll

NameElizabeth
Email
CommentsAt least I can still touch myself

Name😛
Emaildont cum heer
Comments

NameEloise Estrada
Email
CommentsIt took a long time 😂 I didn't think it would end! ❤️ But it was fun.

NameEthanB
Email
CommentsSomeone tricked me into this, I thought it was gonna be scary lulz

NameCatalina Marquez
Email
Comments

NameFluffy Swag
Email
CommentsEnjoy :)

NameHarry Styles
EmailI fuck Louis every night . Com
CommentsTHIS WAS SO ANNOYING ONFAGAHAHAH

NameCecilie Førland
Email
CommentsSO ANNOYING !!!!

Name wsdf
Emaildsaf
Commentsacjc

NameYour mom
Email
Comments

Nametoto
Email
Commentssent by instagram links ugh

NameAbbie
Email
Comments

NameDINNER
EmailYOULIKETOEATME@EVENING
CommentsI
Clicked
The
Link

Namenaz
Emailnngss
Commentsbbb

Namebethcarolina
Email
CommentsYOU DONT FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS WAT DID I Ssay?
Its a game continue

Namebethcarolina
Email
CommentsYOU DONT FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS WAT DID I Ssay?
Its a game continue

Namebethcarolina
Email
CommentsYOU DONT FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS WAT DID I Ssay?
Its a game continue

Name💩
EmailAndreeManinya&gmail.coom
CommentsThat was a BUTCHEEK

NamePenisFuck
EmailPenisFuck.gmail.com
CommentsPrevent additional dialogs ftw :3

NameNadia
Email
CommentsYou suck making us do that you suck

NameNadia
Email
Comments

Namekumar
Email
CommentsNothing is permanent

NameHunterrrrrrrrrawrrr
Email
CommentsHi

NameKenneth kinoti
Email
CommentsNyc joke

Nameellie
Emailthis is stupid stfu dot com
CommentsI
D
F
W
U

NameE
Email
Comments

NameElizabeth michele
Email
Comments

NameDaaaaarcaaaau
Email
CommentsGrrrrrrrr

NameEdward
Email
CommentsDon't have a brain anymore

NameLake Spradling
Email
Comments

NameTaylor Brewer
Email
CommentsThat was cool..... I think

NameHolly freakig Huynh
Email
CommentsWhy.

Namesydney garcia
Email
Comments

NameEmma
Email
CommentsHi

NameNo
Email
Comments

NameI your face
EmailYou didn't really think this through.com
CommentsPrevent this page from creating additional add ons.
P.S. im letting all my friends know about this

NameI your face
EmailYou didn't really think this through.com
CommentsPrevent this page from creating additional add ons.
P.S. im letting all my friends know about this

NameI your face
EmailYou didn't really think this through.com
CommentsPrevent this page from creating additional add ons.
P.S. im letting all my friends know about this

NameI your face
EmailYou didn't really think this through.com
CommentsPrevent this page from creating additional add ons.
P.S. im letting all my friends know about this

Namenobody
Emailsydn..
Comments

Namenobody
Emailsydn..
Comments

NameCharlotte
Email
CommentsWOW idek why I did this

NameERENXLEVI
Email
CommentsERRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEENNNNNNNNN AND LLLLLLEEEEEVVVVIIIII

NameBUMFLUFF
Email
Commentsy

o

u


s

m

e

l

l


l

I

k

e


s

h

I

t

NameBUMFLUFF
Email
Commentsy

o

u


s

m

e

l

l


l

I

k

e


s

h

I

t

NameBailey O'Brien
Email
Comments

NameBailey O'Brien
Email
Comments

NameBailey O'Brien
Email
Comments

NameBailey O'Brien
Email
Comments

Namerahul ojha
Email
Commentsdiporn randi from sangeet bhavan

NameAnna
Email
CommentsHi hello do you know my name well it..... ANNA A N N A THATS RIGHT WANNA count to five 1- 2- 3-4-5 ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ yea so anyways what's up I'm bored wanna hangout to bad idk you well I'm getting exashted so see YA later L A T E R

Namethomas
Email
Comments

NameMariam
EmailAmo
Comments

NameAriana
Email
CommentsThis was really annoying. Really annoying...

NameChris
Email
CommentsThat was ard I guess but FOLLOW MY IG @Chrisupnext__ and support lor scoota campaign #scootaupnext #ybs

NameReagan
Emailreagan.cooper.rc@gmail,com
Commentsi was talking to my friend through google chat and he was about to commit suicide tell i had to click on your shitty fucking virus, I couldnt keep talking to him in time. Now hes gone I hope your happy.

Nameramadhani
Email
Commentsnice

NameI'm actually unfollowing you now
EmailThat was so gay
Comments

NameCrystal
Email
CommentsNice website!

NameSxli
Email
CommentsIt wasn't that bad but it was pretty annoying

NamePoo
EmailPoo
CommentsU poo

NamePoo
EmailPoo
CommentsU poo

NameShannon
Email
Comments

NameVivi
Email
CommentsGosh this was stuipid but hilarious:)

NameEmma Rodgers
Email
CommentsWow just wow😂✌️

Nameanggita
Email
Comments

NameAshley Rodriguez
Email
Comments

NameLexie Kirby
Email
CommentsJesus that was intense.

NamePlamaDestiny
Email
CommentsThat was pretty funny.
BUT I SURVIVED! >:D

NamePlamaDestiny
Email
CommentsThat was pretty funny.
BUT I SURVIVED! >:D

NameMelissa
Email
Comments....

Namebella molina
Email
Commentslmao that was so stupid it was funny

NameKylie
EmailWhy would I tell you?
CommentsThat was hilarious!

NameJasmine
Email
CommentsYou got me

NameAlex
Email
Comments

NameGgggggc
Email
Comments

NameBenjamin Isaac Dalton
Email
CommentsI hate jazmin

NameKylie
EmailWhy would I tell you?
CommentsThat was hilarious!

NameMrs.Styles
Email
Comments😂😂😂😂

NameTay Tay
Email
CommentsI'm a champ

NameThe One True Ben
Email
CommentsJust amazing

NameAlex Halterman
Email
CommentsThis was funny as hell hahaha

Namephil
Email
CommentsHilarious

NameAlexa
Email
CommentsThis. Was. Amazing. 😂😂😂😂❤️

Namewachira
Email
CommentsAm not surprised atall i mean its you

NameRobby Ray Stewart
Email
CommentsOoooo-weeee this was funnnayyyyy. Sweet Niblets. Ow, my achey, breaky back!! I've got some business in the front and partying in the back to take care of now!! Howdy!

Follow me on insta: @alana.malia

NameAlana Uhi
Email
CommentsThis was pretty entertaining, lol. I love your account by the way. You're hilarious! You're account is by far my favorite of any 1d fan accounts! xoxo

Namealex
Email
Commentsihy

NameCrystal
Email
CommentsNice website!

NameCrystal
Email
CommentsNice website!

NameBig D
Email
Commentslolza

Nameemma nikol
Email
Comments

Namecassey
Email
CommentsMi

NameRachel
Email
Commentsi found this entertaining instead of annoying lol

Name@leaxdawn
Emailgmaillololol
Commentsthis is literally life 👏

NameIda
Email
Comments💘💘💘💘

NameHolly burgess
Email
CommentsThis was quite annoying yet fun... I was warned but I did it anyway

Name@Perfectly_tumblhr
Email
CommentsLolz wtf 😂

Namefuck you jen
Email
CommentsJen, fuck you. this ruined my life. jk I love you but still.

Nameairy
Email
Comments

Namegabby
Emailbombassbitch💯💯
Commentsonly came here to say, @kys1d & @stylesflaws on Instagram r fucking lame, if you see this go tell them.

Name@n.thali
Email
CommentsYikes !!1!1!
I love your account so so Much 💓
your my fav love ya

Name@n.thali
Email
CommentsYikes !!1!1!
I love your account so so Much 💓
your my fav love ya

Namelarry.porrn
Email
Commentsthat actually wasn't as long as I'd remembered, only took 4 minutes.

Namemichael
Email
Comments

NameGrace
EmailDjnd d
CommentsWow super annoying but iily anyway ❤️

NameReegan Stark
Email
Comments😵

NameLauren
Emailbitchnugget
Comments

NameNatalie M
Email
CommentsUC Berkeley class of 2017, go Bears!!

NameJocelyn😊😊
Email
CommentsI did it again cuz I was bored

Namevivian
Email
CommentsI hated this

NamePatrick
EmailTighe
CommentsSomeone has a lot of time on their hands

NamePatrick
EmailTighe
CommentsSomeone has a lot of time on their hands

NamePatrick
EmailTighe
CommentsSomeone has a lot of time on their hands

NamePatrick
EmailTighe
CommentsSomeone has a lot of time on their hands

Namekuo juvy
Email
Comments

NameΟ βασιλιάς της Ελλάδα
EmailЕсли вы можете прочитать это вы выигрываете Бессмертие
Comments what is with these sick comments here

Namegaaaayyyyy
Email
CommentsDick

NamePapa Hari
Email
Comments

NameSophia
Email
CommentsI hate you justin

NameNufin
EmailFuck off
CommentsDon't use this 😤

NameJenny
Email
CommentsI hate this

NameSean
Email
Comments

NameTrym Lind
Email
CommentsNice web page

NameSomeone you don't know
EmailWhy.should.i.say
CommentsOk.

NameBestOfTheBest
Email
CommentsYeeeey I'm the master of clicking

Namenitya
Email
Comments

NameMaddy
Email
CommentsDo NOT I repeat sont click below
haha jk go ahead its fun! Jk about kidding about jk.

NameParia
Email
Comments

Nameball is life
Emailyour stupid ^^^^
CommentsFollow me on instagram @817.yeet💯💪💦👌

NameAsh
Email
CommentsCellar Door

NameSwag
EmailFace
Comments

NameJackson
Email
CommentsPassing it along to alllll of my friends

Nameshee
Emailnoneaurbusniess
Commentsim amazing omg

NameGarrett binkley
Email
Comments

NameKaela
Email
Comments

NameFrank Zappa
Email
CommentsWow awesommme

Namepoooop
Email
Commentsu shit head!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!fuck off

Namenigger
Email
Commentsnigger

NameOliver
EmailBror
CommentsYOLO SWAG FISH THUG LIFE

Namejoel
Email
Commentslove it

Nameneethu
Email
Comments

NameMaddie
Email