Review: Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis


Rebecca Fortey reviews Lydia Davis’ collection of 122 short stories and wonders if she might, in fact, just be in it for laughs


Like many readers, I encountered Lydia Davis through her Collected Stories first. Every story in that volume – whether it ran to a couple of lines or a dozen pages – was so lean and unsentimental I felt the text must be in some way healthy, and it would be okay to consume it all at once. In the end, I had to slow down: the material was richer than it seemed.

The same is true of this latest volume, by which I mean that sometimes it doesn’t seem rich at all. In fact, there was the occasional moment when I paused at the end of a sometimes largely blank page harbouring a suspicion that Davis’s devoted readers (including the Man Booker International panel) might be suffering from a case of Emperor’s New Clothes. Does her close observation of the everyday often tip into the purely mundane? Take the following 24-word short story:

“Sitting with my little friend in the sunshine on the step/I am reading a book by Blanchot/and she is licking her leg.”

Is Davis really daring and original in putting down on the page precisely as much or as little as is needed, as has been claimed?

Reading it three times, I’m left with a different impression on each occasion. Is this a slight observation culled from a journal, giving a lazy hint at complexity via the name-check of a French thinker? A meditation on the elevated self-awareness of the human mind in comic contrast to the in-the-moment simplicity of the grooming cat? Or a tender portrait of two beings doing what they like doing most? It’s maybe unfair to pick on the slightest of the 122 stories contained in Can’t & Won’t, but it exemplifies a broader question: is Davis really daring and original in putting down on the page precisely as much or as little as is needed, as has been claimed? Or might it be that this translator of Proust and Flaubert, this admirer of Beckett, is just writing down things that tickle her, dispensing with the imaginative act in favour of the comically-inclined edit?

It was actually the longest story on offer here that brought me on side. “The Seals” is the most convincing piece of writing about the regrets associated with grieving that I have read. A novel could not have given a greater sense of the closeness and remoteness that exist simultaneously in many families. It prompted me to revisit stories such as “The Cows”,  which charts in detail the (extremely minimal) movement of grazing cows in a field across the seasons. On a first reading, I had an irresistible urge to skim-read the parts in which the position of each hind leg was enumerated. But if you give it the time, it will generously deliver you from the hectic world of flashing screens to a quiet place by a window where you can contemplate the beauty to be found in the kind of close attention that we feel too guilty to pay to the world ourselves.

But if this sounds hard going, there is plenty of humour throughout the book, often found in forms familiar from her previous work: the pedantic letter-writer, for example (“Letter to a Peppermint Candy Company”), or the found sentence (“The trouble you reported recently is now working properly”), or the list (“How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through My Back Issues of the TLS”). There are two new elements here, too: stories prompted by the author’s dreams and those of her friends appear throughout the book, each time identified as such. I’ve never been much interested in other people’s dreams; the recycling bin of the mind may throw up vivid images and outlandish scenarios, but however immaculately polished and precisely remodelled these are, they feel like sentences that appear to build a structure, but for which a heart cannot be found. For me, then, the most exotic of these incidents seems less absorbing than the simple list of “Local Obits”. The fragments from Flaubert’s letters are wonderful bits of writing – funny and full of life – but they don’t quite fit, in that they gave the book an air of posthumous miscellany.

Whatever the flaws of the collection for me, there is no doubting the uniqueness of the voice, the mastery of the style, the confidence and the wit of Lydia Davis. I thought about totting up the stories that get you with their concealed emotion and those that glance off you, all cleverness and no soul, so that I could make a rounded sound-bite of a conclusion, but I can’t; I won’t. C