Can’t and Won’t

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It’s not unusual for a previously unheralded writer to win an international prize, but it is unusual for a previously unheralded American writer to win an international prize. Such was the case when Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, recognition that perhaps began with the publication of her Collected Stories in 2009. This obscurity is partly explained by her chosen form – the short story – but also by the very nature of those short stories, which force the reader to question the rules and boundaries of the genre. Can’t and Won’t, the title of her latest collection, seems a reference to this very fact, a stubborn refusal to be proscribed by expectations.

The most obvious eccentricity is the brevity of many of the stories. Here, in its entirety, is ‘Bloomingtom’:

“Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.”

While its single sentence format makes it one of the shortest stories in the collection, the majority of the stories do not exceed a page. Of course, you may well argue that it is simply too short to be a story, but it is difficult to justify such a proposition with anything other than prejudice. It contains, after all, character, setting and plot.

More interestingly, the stories seem unusual in their rejection of fiction (there is, for example, a considerable difference between ‘Bloomington’ and perhaps the most famous one sentence story, Augusto Monterroso’s ‘The Dinosaur’ – “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”). Davis’ stories in this collection are without exception in some way ‘found’ stories. Some even follow the pattern of found poetry, using an already existing text and editing it into a short story – those Davis has extracted from the letters of Flaubert. Davis explains the process:

“My aim was to leave Flaubert’s language and content as little changed as possible, only shaping the excerpt enough to create a balanced story, though I took whatever liberties I thought were necessary.”

The sensation that the stories are ‘found’, however, persists throughout, with those that do not originate in Flaubert’s life seemingly arising from Davis’ own. Another reoccurring series, for example, are letters of complaint which Davis says she has sent. ‘Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer’ complains that the peas inside the packet are much more appetising than those illustrated on the outside. Other stories are simply marked ‘dream’.

In this way the stories seem to create larger whole: not a narrative but a character which we can (no doubt inaccurately for you cannot, even if you should want to, put every aspect of yourself onto the page) equate with Davis. When she writes about her family in ‘The Seals’ we have no reason to think the story is not autobiographical. This explains why a number of the stories are about writing. In ‘Revise 1’ and ‘Revise 2’ she comments tongue-in-cheek on the process:

“A fire does not need to be called warm or red. Remove any more adjectives.
The goose is really too silly: take the goose out. It is enough that there is a search for footprints.”

More seriously in ‘Writing’ she says:

“Life is too serious for me to go on writing.”

This cumulative effect prevents the shorter or more humorous stories seeming trivial. Overall the collection develops a sense of death and ageing:

“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.”

This perhaps finds its best expression in ‘Local Obits’, nine pages of sentences from obituaries such as, “Helen loved long walks, gardening, and her grandchildren.”

This, then, is the perfect short story collection. Easy to dip in to – with stories to fill even a few spare seconds – but also rewarding a thorough read through.

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7 Responses to “Can’t and Won’t”

  1. hastanton Says:

    Sounds like a must have !

  2. jacquiwine Says:

    I’m interested in how you’ve described these stories, Grant. I love what Davis does with language. When she won the Booker International, I borrowed her Collected Stories from the library but only managed to read 150 pages or so before it had to go back. I should return to it at some point as dipping in and out seems like the best way to go with her work.

  3. winstonsdad Says:

    I ‘ve yet to try her fiction , have of course read her transaltions

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I believe she’s an excellent translator. Her latest project is rather unusual though – a children’s book, Bob, Son of Battle, where she has ‘translated’ the dialect!

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