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8 April 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 1:01pm

Looking more closely at the world through the sharp eyes of Lydia Davis

Often, Lydia Davis’s writing requires us to pay very close attention to things most of us choose to pass over.

By Erica Wagner

Can’t and Won’t
Lydia Davis
Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £16.99

If you have never read the stories of Lydia Davis – and you might not have, because she didn’t find a regular publisher in Britain until four years ago, despite her work’s renown not only in her native United States but around the world – you might find yourself wondering, when you do sit down with Can’t and Won’t, what exactly we mean when we use the word “story”. Here, for instance, is “Learning Medieval History”, in its entirety: “Are the Saracens the Ottomans? No, the Saracens are the Moors. The Ottomans are the Turks.” The story appears on the page broken into lines: it looks more like a poem than a story. What then is the distinction between the two?

Or consider “I’m Pretty Comfortable, but I Could Be a Little More Comfortable”, which consists of a little more than six pages of observations, such as: “There’s a long line at the shipping counter” or “He calls me when I’m working” or “I don’t think I like my bedspread any more”, each observation separated by a double line space. There are letters in this volume, such as one to a manufacturer of frozen peas, insisting that the product is in fact more appealing than the picture of the product on the package; or another to an unnamed foundation which attempts to reconstruct, in piercing observational detail, the writer’s experience of receiving a grant from this foundation.

Calling Davis’s work “stories” is, as Christopher Ricks noted when she was awarded the Man Booker International Prize last year, an indication only of the limitations of our language, not of hers. Though he stepped back from the pretension of the term (ah, the English fear of getting above themselves!), he offered that it might be useful to think of a work by her as a devoir: “one’s chosen task, one’s duty, the utmost one can do”. He also reminded readers, rightly, of Coleridge’s depiction of the imagination as “judgement ever awake”.

Reading Can’t and Won’t, Davis’s seventh collection, is a striking reminder of some of the work that judgement entails in the task of writing. Often in Davis’s writing this requires paying very close attention to things most of us choose to pass over. This is evident in “The Cows”, one of the longer pieces in the book, which is a series of descriptions of the cows that live in the fields adjoining Davis’s home in upstate New York. (It was originally published as a chapbook, with photographs of the cows in question.)

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Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of entirely new play.

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It is a somewhat Beckettian play, in which, over the following pages, the cows move, or stand still, or appear to experience human emotion. (They move “deliberately”, they “worry”, they may or may not be “disappointed” in the people who observe them.) Reading “The Cows” is a meditative act; time passes, seasons change – and we, as much as the writer, begin to measure the passage of time through this simple act of looking. Looking closely, carefully, in a way that most of us never bother to look.

Some of the most curious stories in this collection are labelled, in italics, “dreams”; the acknowledgements show that some of them were composed from the writer’s own dreams or from “dreamlike waking experiences”; others were composed from dreams offered by family and friends. Davis carefully credits each story to each dreamer. But what does this mean for the reader?

For all its concreteness, her work often has what might be called a dreamlike quality; how does the way we process each “dream” differ because we think of it as a dream? Well, that’s up to you. But how you interpret everything you read – stories by Lydia Davis, stories in the newspaper, novels by Stephen King – is up to you, too. To remind us of this is one useful, fascinating purpose these dreams serve.

The title story is telling. Here it is, whole:

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.

An arch commentary, perhaps, on the narrow distinctions (“novel”, “story”, “poem”) into which critics push literature; an invitation to observe and to think about the use of language. “Would not” isn’t contracted here. And, come to think of it, why is “cannot” one word and “will not” two?

Can’t and Won’t, like all of Davis’s remarkable work, is an open invitation to look as closely as we can at both literature and the world.

Erica Wagner is the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize