Can’t and Won’t, by Lydia Davis, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, RRP$26, 304 pages
Ezra Pound famously exhorted the artist to “make it new”, a directive on the one hand incontestable and, on the other, dangerously difficult. Lydia Davis is that rare writer whose work enacts the injunction: the dramas and ironies of her short – often very short – stories are those of our everyday lives, held up before us as if for the first time. The effect is rather like that of saying the same word over and over until it becomes alien, a new and strange thing: our relation to dog hair, to a piece of fish or a bag of frozen peas, or to an unsolicited invitation in the mail – any of these can provide an occasion for the world to shift, however slightly, upon its axis.
It’s possible to make any number of statements about Davis’s fiction: that her stories are idiosyncratic, unmistakably Davisian; that she combines what might, in others, resemble whimsy with a bracingly unsentimental clarity of observation; that she shows a flagrant – and inspiring – disregard for rules or obligations (no teacherly insistence here upon what a story ought to be, upon its structure or requirements), and an almost philosophical openness to the objet trouvé that runs, like a surrealist thread, through her new collection of stories. All of these statements are true, and yet none can truly convey the first thing about her work, which is sui generis.
In Can’t and Won’t, Davis, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, offers us a range of experiences, including breezily delightful riffs. In “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer”, the writer pens a complaint about the image on the package: “The peas are a dull yellow green, more the color of pea soup than fresh peas and nothing like the actual color of your peas, which are a nice bright dark green”.
There are also more substantial and deeply moving stories, such as “The Seals”, comprised of reminiscences in the wake of a sister’s death, or “The Letter to the Foundation”, in which a writer and teacher explains to “the Foundation” what complicated effects their grant has had upon her life: “I had grown used to feeling two contradictory things: that everything in my life had changed; and that, really, nothing in my life had changed.”
Formally, the letter is a preferred mode in this collection, and provides some deliciously humorous and memorable reflections – as in “Letter to the President of the American Biographical Institute, Inc.”: “Could it be, then, that what your research produces is a list of women who have accomplished enough so that they may believe they do indeed deserve a ‘Woman of the Year’ award and yet are not intelligent or worldly enough to see that for you this is a business and there is no real honor involved?”. Or again, in “Letter to a Hotel Manager”: “Every aspect of the service and presentation was flawless except for this one spelling mistake. I do believe the purported home of the scrod should be a place where it is spelled correctly.”
Another thread is the dream – or at least, a series of brief pieces each followed by the word “dream”, in italics, like a signature. These paragraph-long narratives are frequently surreal, offered without context, gnomic; but also beautiful and surprising.
A further number of the “stories” are, in fact, according to the acknowledgments, “formed from material found in letters written by Gustave Flaubert”, largely to Louise Colet. These are gems – observations, snippets of memory, vivid images, all replete with emotion. “It seems, at certain moments, as though the universe has stopped moving, as though everything has turned to stone, and only we are still alive.”
Davis’s signal gift is to make us feel alive – not with pyrotechnics or fakery, not in grand dramas or confections whipped up for the purpose; but rather in her noticing of the apparently banal quotidian round, in records of our daily neuroses and small pleasures. These, she insists, are meaningful, and can be made new: these are the true substance of life.
One of her stories, “Local Obits”, is simply a list of lines from ordinary people’s obituaries – real or imagined, it doesn’t matter: “Margaret enjoyed watching Nascar, doing crossword puzzles, and spending time with her grandchildren”; “Helena, 70, liked long walks”; “Dolores, 83, a seamstress, had a sense of humor. In her earlier days, she worked at the Kadin Brothers Pocketbook Factory.”
Claire Messud is author of ‘The Woman Upstairs’ (Virago/Knopf)