When Lydia Davis’s collected works were published in 2009, I didn’t really know who she was. I don’t think I was alone in that, though she’s been diligently writing and publishing — and earning acclaim from those paying attention — since the mid-1970s. Since 2009 things have changed. That strange, gigantic book of tiny stories showed those of us who were not looking just what she’s been up to — and it was fantastic! Winning the Man Booker International Prize last year didn’t hurt. I feel fortunate that, amidst all of her work translating from the French (I particularly recommend her translation Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow, which I wrote about here and talked about here) and even revising the children’s book Bob, Son of Battle, which will be coming out from The New York Review Children’s Collection in the fall, she’s put out a new collection, Can’t and Won’t (2014).
If you haven’t read Lydia Davis’s stories before then an introduction is in order. These are “stories” only in the broadest sense of the word. Her “stories” range from the completely mundane (like “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” which upbraids the manufacturer for its poor packaging of its superior product: “Please reconsider your art!”) to the historical (several of these are tidbits from Flaubert’s own life and observations recorded in letters (these are some of my favorites as Flaubert expresses his own thoughts on what is meaningful while creating “meaning”)) to the subliminal (many of the pieces are labeled “dreams,” and we’re left to glean meaning, or at the very least happenstance, on our own, as we’re dropped in a dream and then taken out of it just as immediately).
Rarely do we get a conventional narrative arc. Often we get only a sentence (there are, by my count, 122 stories in 283 pages here), pulled from its context, forcing us to focus on how something is being said and what is left unsaid.
Some showcase their poignancy in such a way we can capture it at first glance:
A Woman, Thirty
A woman, thirty, does not want to leave her childhood home.
Why should I leave home? These are my parents. They love me. Why should I go marry some man who will argue and shout at me?
Still, the woman likes to undress in front of the window. She wishes some man would at least look at her.
Others take a moment longer:
The Low Sun
I am a college girl. I tell a younger college girl, a dancer, that the sun is very low in the sky now. Its light must be filling the caves by the sea.
I hesitate to quote to widely from the collection, though. First, who am I to provide context when we readers are so obviously expected to fend for ourselves in this wilderness of sentences? And, second, I find that I like my Lydia Davis in large gulps, meaning I sit down and read twenty or thirty of the “stories” in one go, barely stopping for breath. Then I revisit and ruminate. This works well for me because, while the stories seem like independent points plotted far from each other, taken as a whole you begin to find a pattern, if not a narrative pattern then other types of patterns: thematic, structural, and, even, fascinatingly, importantly, grammatical.
Just look at the story on the cover above — yes, that’s nearly the entire story — and you’ll see that Davis is often all about grammar as if that’s the most important thing. We might believe her by the end. There’s a deliberate curtness to “can’t” and “won’t” that, placed as the finale of this tiny story, underlies indignation: this story came about because she was denied a writing prize “because, they said, I was lazy.” In another, she plays with the poor grammar of others:
The Language of the Telephone Company
“The trouble you reported recently
is now working properly.”
These brief flashes of prose are a strange but ultimately illuminating way to approach human experience and examine it in language. Davis forces us to focus on the relationship between experience and language, and how the two influence each other. While this is not a new concept, Davis’s focus on it is new, unique, and — hopefully — inimitable.