"My New Year's resolution is to learn to see myself as nothing," declares the Zen-studying narrator of one of the stories in Lydia Davis's most recent collection "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant" (McSweeney's Books, 2001).
"I don't think I'm being competitive when I say it. I am feeling truly humble, at that moment. Or I think I am -- in fact, can anyone be truly humble at the moment they say they want to learn to be nothing?"
But in fact her existential dilemma is just beginning: "Halfway through your life, you are smart enough to see that it all amounts to nothing, even success amounts to nothing. But how does a person learn to see herself as nothing when she has already had so much trouble learning to see herself as something in the first place? It's so confusing. You spend the first half of your life learning that you are something after all, now you have to spend the second half learning to see yourself as nothing. You have been a negative nothing, now you want to be a positive nothing."
Welcome to the dazzling and unpredictable world of Lydia Davis's fiction, where whimsical self-analysis co-exists with profoundly haunting meditations on loss, regret and the fragility of memory.
It's no exaggeration to say that Davis is one of the most important innovators in contemporary American fiction and a writer whose work can credibly be mentioned in the same breath as Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust -- each of whom in his or her own way tested the limits of narrative to spectacular and revelatory effect. Davis will read from her work at 7 p.m. April 11 at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center's temporary storefront location, 700 Main St., as part of the University at Buffalo Exhibit X Fiction Series.
A 2003 MacArthur Fellow for her fiction, Davis was named a Chevalier in the Order of French Arts and Letters in 2000 for her acclaimed English language translations of Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, and most notably, her new and more readable translation of "Swann's Way," the first volume of Proust's "A Remembrance of Things Past." The influence of Proust is immediately detectable in Davis's own brilliantly self-reflexive 1995 novel, "The End of the Story," in which an unnamed woman narrator attempts to recover and interpret the passion and significance of a brief love affair with a much younger man by attempting to write a novel about it.
A fiercely unsentimental book, it reads at times like an essay on romantic obsession that reveals how unsettlingly ephemeral and unreliable both our memories and our desires are. "Since all along there had been too many ends to the story, and since they did not end anything, but only continued something, something not formed into any story, I needed an act of ceremony to end the story," Davis's narrator concludes.
The sustained narrative intensity of "The End of the Story" notwithstanding, Davis is probably better known for her short (some call it "flash") fiction -- which can range from as brief as a sentence or paragraph in length to something approaching the development of a conventional short story. These stories, some of which can pass for prose poems, monologues, simple reveries or accidentally overheard cell phone conversations, can be found in her collections "Break It Down" (1986) and "Almost No Memory" (1997), as well as in "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant."