22 May 2013
"I was recently denied a writing prize because they said I was lazy." runs one of Lydia Davis's two-sentence short stories. Well not any more. Davis has just been awarded the fifth Man Booker International Prize at an award ceremony at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her inventive, carefully-crafted and hard to categorise works saw off the challenge from nine other contenders from around the world. The judges - Professor Sir Christopher Ricks, Elif Batuman, Aminatta Forna, Yiyun Li and Tim Parks - recognised that crafting spare, philosophical and original works, however short, is not for the lazy at all but takes time, skill and effort.
The Prize, worth £60,000, is awarded for an achievement in fiction on the world stage and Davis's achievements are writ large despite often using startlingly few words (some of her longer stories only stretch to two or three pages). Her work has the brevity and precision of poetry. Sir Christopher Ricks, chairman of the judges, said her "writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind. Just how to categorise them? They have been called stories but could equally be miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorisms or even apophthegms, prayers or simply observations." Davis then is not like any other writer and she follows, and contrasts with, the previous winners of the prize - Ismail Kadaré, Chinua Achebe, Alice Munro and Philip Roth.
Lydia Davis is also known for her work as a translator of French literature and philosophy, most notably of Marcel Proust and Gustave Flaubert. Her translations led her to be named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. "Translating is often rather like doing an elaborate word puzzle (and I have always liked those)," she says. "But when the result can be one lovely sentence after another about the landscape of the walks around Combray or how Aunt Leonie manages her illness and her religious observances, then there is a great sense of satisfaction in the work."
It is a feeling that chimes with her own work which has proved highly influential, especially among some of America's new generation of novelists. Dave Eggers, for example, noted that Davis's work "blows the roof off of so many of our assumptions about what constitutes short fiction". Professor Ricks put it in more detail: "There is vigilance to her stories, and great imaginative attention. Vigilance as how to realise things down to the very word or syllable; vigilance as to everybody's impure motives and illusions of feeling."
Davis has produced some nine collections of stories. It is a form that attracts her because it leads her to write "in whatever form seems to be demanded by the subject matter, and that is why some are so short - how much, really, can you say about this fly on the wall of the bus or this notice in a hotel room? Some of my thoughts or reactions are very brief, and their brevity is actually part of what I enjoy about them". They may sometimes appear to be just fleeting snapshots or records of transitory sensations but they are stories none the less because they hold within in them the germs of larger worlds and other narratives.
Davis has written only one novel - The End of the Story (1995) - a title that both suggests the humour that runs through her work and that is comprehensively gainsaid by the award of the Man Booker International Prize. For many readers around the world previously unfamiliar with her work the prize will introduce them to a unique writer. For those lucky souls it is the beginning of the story.
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