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 story “I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable” is an ordinary seven pages long (not short at all!)—but it consists entirely of a list of minute, almost imperceptibly comic irritations:
The people in front of us are taking a long time choosing their ice cream.
My thumb hurts.
A man is coughing during the concert.
The dryly comical investigation of Davis’s prose tends to be a way of exploring minimal states of mind, small clouds of thinking. Classical novels present characters in such giant moments of decision: the grand narratives of marriages and manifestos. Whereas in Davis’s stories a self is busy revealing itself in so much smaller crises—like which articles to read when confronting back issues of the Times Literary Supplement:
the psychology of lying
Anne Carson on the death of her brother
French writers admired by Proust
the poems of Catullus
translations from the Serbian
Not interested in:
the creation of the Statue of Liberty
Approached in this way, the amount of possible subjects suddenly turns out to be infinite. How giant is the slightness that defines us! No wonder, then, that the technique of Davis’s fiction is double: not only does she write miniatures, she is also prolific—if you consider how every story, however minute, is a complete work in itself. Her collected stories gradually add up to a vast compilation, an encyclopedia of otherwise unremarked bits of reality. Consulting this new collection’s contents page, the reader will discover not just those back issues of the TLS but also some cows, a piano, a vacuum cleaner, a female cat called Molly, cornmeal, frozen peas, an awkward situation, peppermint candies, a bad novel, a small box of chocolates, Handel, and stolen salamis. But even such a list is too fortissimo. The true subject of that story about stolen salamis, for instance, is really a certain linguistic fastidiousness:
My son’s Italian landlord in Brooklyn kept a shed out back in which he cured and smoked salamis. One night, in the midst of a wave of petty vandalism and theft, the shed was broken into and the salamis were taken. My son talked to his landlord about it the next day, commiserating over the vanished sausages. The landlord was resigned and philosophical, but corrected him: “They were not sausages. They were salamis.”
In what miniature ways, with such distinctions of vocabulary, does the self try to assert its uniqueness.
“A Story of Stolen Salamis” is the first story in Can’t and Won’t, and its position there at the beginning seems at least slightly symbolic: a little totem of linguistic precision. The landlord’s concern to differentiate salamis from sausages is one example of a concern that’s everywhere in Davis’s stories: How can we call things by the right names? So many of her stories end up as a kind of linguistic specimen slide—like, say, “I Ask Mary About Her Friend, the Depressive, and His Vacation”:
One year, she says
“He’s away in the Badlands.”
The next year, she says
“He’s away in the Black Hills.”
If there’s a way in which her practice as a translator and her practice as a writer of fiction overlap, it seems to me to be here—in this hypersensitivity to linguistic distinctions. In The Paris Review, she once described translation as a struggle to escape from a wilderness of synonyms:
As we translate, it is not our own choice that confronts us, but the choice of another writer, and we must search more consciously for the right words with which to convey it. It is then that we summon all the so-called synonyms in our own language, in the hope of finding just the right one. For of course they are not exact equivalents, they are all a little different, with different origins and different registers.
The same is true of her fiction. A sausage is not identical to a salami, while a translator may well pause, considering the various synonyms that might translate, say, Proust’s word aurore. As well as aurora, for instance, she could write rosy dawn:
But in the end I am not willing to give up the perfect equivalent, and I opt for “aurora.” If a less familiar word may be less immediately evocative, it does add something else of its own to a text—its surprise, its novelty, and of course its perfect match to the French original.*
She is the writer of evanescent subjects—and one of the main stages for such subjects is the surface of language itself. According to the hypersensitive terms of Davis’s fiction, a story happens with every one of our word choices. (“The trouble you reported recently/is now working properly.”) Just consider the story that gives this collection its title, “Can’t and Won’t”:
I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.
Is this really, in the end, so unreasonable? But also I like the fact that as a title for the whole collection that phrase can’t and won’t becomes a small stub of recalcitrance—a slogan celebrating Davis’s refusal to do the done fictional thing. Why should she write longer? Why should she be forced into the machine of plot? A plot, as every novelist secretly knows, is a convenient way of ignoring the multiplicity of the world, of limiting one’s attention.
Some kind of argument like that with the classical novel lies behind the inclusion in Can’t and Won’t of a series of stories “formed from material found in letters written by Gustave Flaubert.” One of the most haunting is called “After You Left”: “You wanted me to tell you everything I did after we left each other.” And so the narrator describes the café, the kirsch, the train, the chance encounter with an old school friend, the wait in Rouen to harness the horse: “The breeching band had broken, and we waited while they mended it with a piece of rope.”
It’s true that Flaubert was one of the great fictional innovators; his novels are grotesque festivals of previously unrecorded detail. But is there anything in his novels as true to an everyday melancholy meaninglessness as this story that Davis has formed from his correspondence? That, I think, is one of her quietly radical propositions. These small lumps of raw narrative that, so far as we know, Flaubert never thought to include in his fiction are miniature ways of rebuking the ordinary novelistic structures, even structures as democratically capacious as Flaubert’s own Madame Bovary. Whereas here is the condensation on a bowl of cornmeal (“it, too, is taking action in its own little way”) and other usually unnoticed processes—an attention to other perspectives and points of view that often leads to a delicate personification. “The Language of Things in the House,” for instance, is a list of overlooked domestic sounds, each given its stereophonic linguistic equivalent: “Pots and dishes rattling in the sink: ‘Tobacco, tobacco.’”
In fact there is not just one series in Can’t and Won’t but two: the series of stories from Flaubert’s letters has its twin, a series labeled as dreams, “composed from actual night dreams and dreamlike waking experiences.” These two series seem to be related—since Davis groups them throughout the book in juxtaposition. One story from Flaubert is usually followed by two or three dream stories. But what kind of relation? A wistful moment of Flaubertian nostalgia for Barbelet, a school friend who killed himself at seventeen when he was in love with an English girl (“Who thinks about Barbelet anymore—so in love with that English girl?”), is followed by a story about another long-gone friend, Christine: “I have not seen her for a long time, perhaps seventeen years.” Christine will give the narrator a piano lesson:
We will have the lesson in one year, she says. She will come to my house. But then, later, she tells me she’s not sure she will be returning to this country. Maybe, instead, we will have the lesson in Italy. Or if not Italy, then, of course, Casablanca.
The connection between the two series is visible in that moment of unfounded logic, the impossible link of “of course.” Such faulty logic is the sign of an intelligence dreaming, but it is also, after all, the sign of the many problems of waking life. Always we are coming up with falsely convincing propositions. The apparently real and apparently dreamlike share a common, cloudy structure—where imperceptible irregularities and mistaken meanings can occur at any moment. That confusion is the definition of the real as proposed by Davis’s fiction. And it’s the stories where her narrators lose themselves in minute obsessional cadenzas that are Davis’s most comical and most terrible—like the story “Eating Fish Alone.”
In an empty provincial restaurant, the narrator orders the fish special, a marlin steak. The waitress passes a message from the chef: “He would be waiting to know how I liked it; it was such a beautiful steak, he said.” In the empty restaurant, the narrator eats the marlin steak, observing politely to the waitress that it is “very good, and that I liked the delicacy of the herbs in the sauce.” And yet since the portions are very generous, the narrator in the end eats all the vegetables but only half the fish. “Now I was worried; the chef might not believe I had truly liked the fish, though I had.” At least, the narrator observes to the disappointed waitress, “I had loved the vegetables.”
“Most people don’t eat them,” she said matter-of-factly. I thought of the waste, and the care with which the chef prepared, over and over again, the vegetables that no one ate. At least I had eaten his vegetables, and he would know that I had liked them. But I was sorry I had not eaten all of his marlin. I could have done that.
Such worry over someone the narrator has never met, and will never meet! But this is not, after all, so unusual: Davis is drawn to these moments of mute, contested, gruesome interaction. Her stories feature a mythical cast of ex-husbands, sisters, in-laws, children. But she is also brilliant at the everyday nonsociality: all the neighbors, waiters, domestic help—our fleetingly peripheral encounters, so quickly converted into a trap of self-questioning and self-reproach.
And sure, this can mean that similar structures of disorientation recur across various stories. Early on in the collection, there is “Bloomington”: “Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.” While the last story, “Ph.D.,” presents the process upside-down:
All these years I thought I had a Ph.D.
But I do not have a Ph.D.
But the repetition is the proof of the inescapable cosmic joke. They are both glimpsed symptoms of a mind always trying to escape its own small blockages, its dismal letdowns and confusions.
A strange effect of Lydia Davis’s fictions is that reading them as a collection—rather than as isolated stories—can be a mildly uncomfortable experience. There are so many stories, on so many subjects, that you start to try to find your own mini taxonomies, to identify other, less overt series—letters of complaint, geography, air travel, telephones, food. Or you attentively watch small phrases, a small bit of language like “not interested,” migrate from story to story. I found myself able to read only a few stories in a row before pausing—as if letting them coalesce and form their own local atmosphere.
The reason, I began to think, was how fiercely literal these stories are. They mean exactly what they say. Just like in Seinfeld, or the Marx Brothers, in her stories there is no hugging, and no learning. There are no hidden allegories. And it struck me how, in her discussion of her translations of Proust and other writers, she has emphasized her increasingly fierce belief in a syntactical fidelity to the original: “reproducing, when I could, even the sounds and punctuation of the original, and in the process often exploring the remote history of a single word.” Something similar, perhaps, is needed from the reader of her stories: a kind of literal reading, tracking every nuance of vocabulary and register.
And this is true because of one deliberately unsettling maneuver in particular: in none of these stories, so often narrated in the first person, does the narrator have a name. Not, I think, because she is secretly writing a memoir. Davis once wrote of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, “This novel is not autobiography wearing a thin disguise of fiction but, rather, the opposite—fiction in the guise of autobiography,” and the same is true of her own fiction. One can read her book as a way of hinting at continuity, as if all these different selves could be versions of the same thing—a universal problem of self-consciousness—when really it is a giant collection of distinctions and sensibilities.
Which is why it’s important to note that the most disturbing story here is unlike anything else in the book—and unlike anything else, perhaps, that she has so far written. “The Seals” is not only the longest story (twenty-five pages!) she has published, but it’s also in a different kind of prose, a kind of internal monologue that is strangely different from the essayistic monologues of her other stories:
I know we’re supposed to be happy on this day. How odd that is. When you’re very young, you’re usually happy, at least you’re ready to be. You get older and see things more clearly and there’s less to be happy about. Also you start losing people—your family.
The narrator is on a train on the east coast, on a journey for work that’s taking place on a major holiday: Thanksgiving, presumably, or Christmas Day. But what is really taking place is a kind of keening. The narrator keeps circling around the deaths of a sister and father. For this is really the Day of the Dead. In this story, so many of the motifs in Can’t and Won’t are repeated: the motifs of trains, of dreams, of hotel restaurants, deaths. It radiates backward and forward—a leak of unexpectedly exorbitant and vulnerable melancholy in the middle of the patient, miniature precision we’ve come to expect:
That fall, after the summer when they both died, she and my father, there was a point when I wanted to say to them, All right, you have died, I know that, and you’ve been dead for a while, we have all absorbed this and we’ve explored the feelings we had at first, in reaction to it, surprising feelings, some of them, and the feelings we’re having now that a few months have gone by—but now it’s time for you to come back. You’ve been away long enough.