The Giant Slightness of Being



How small can a story be? In the avant-garde underground of Stalinist Leningrad, Daniel Kharms once wrote a story in two sentences. In the first, he described how one day “a man on his way to work met another man who, having bought a loaf of Polish bread, was making his way back home.” The second and final sentence was this: “That, in the end, is the whole story.” And of course, Kharms did mean it. In the absurdist terror of Leningrad, Kharms wanted to play with the minimal conditions for reality. His shortness was garish but desperate. He called that story “A Meeting”: a story in two sentences, or maybe even one, if you ignore the second sentence—that extra moment when he prematurely bursts out of his confinement, like Bugs Bunny, and announces that his story is over.

But Lydia Davis, the American writer famous for the miniature size of her fictions, can be even shorter. In her new book of stories, Can’t and Won’t, there’s a story called “The Language of the Telephone Company”:

“The trouble you reported recently is now working properly.”

And that, in the end, is the whole story. It is a single sentence of bureaucratic oxymoron.

There are 123 stories in the 289 pages of Can’t and Won’t. On average, each story is therefore about two pages long—a concision that Lydia Davis has made into a defining aspect of her style. It’s true that she is also notable as a brilliant translator of French literature—and as a translator she has embarked on gargantuan projects, like the first two volumes of Michel Leiris’s The Rules of the Game, Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. And she has also written one novel, The End of the Story. But it’s her stories that have made her celebrated—she won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize—and these stories are notorious for the strangeness of their micro length. (Her Collected Stories was published in 2009, containing four collections: Break It Down, from 1986, Almost No Memory, from 1997; Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, from 2001; and Varieties of Disturbance, from 2007.)

In one sense, perhaps, this shouldn’t be so remarkable: she’s in no way the inventor of miniature length. She is preceded not just by Kharms but also by a Central European tradition that runs through Peter Altenberg, Robert Walser, and Kafka; and a Latin American tradition via Augusto Monterroso and Julio Cortázar. Not to mention the wacky American experiments of Donald Barthelme. But maybe all that proves is that the foreshortened length in every case is an apparatus to be used for different purposes. The briefness of Lydia Davis’s stories is just the most visible effect of her unique and strange sensibility—attentive to fleeting moods, mute social impasses, mini blocked thought processes. Her true form isn’t the short so much as the slight—the infraordinary, or infrathin. The…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.