There is tremendous power in brevity. We have notions of language—and fiction especially—that it need to be fully padded with story, character, plot. Lydia Davis (born July 15, 1947) dispenses with all of that in Can’t and Won’t. Who needs it? What remains is flash fiction like “Her Birthday”:
105 years old: she wouldn’t be alive today even if she hadn’t died.
I know exactly what she means, don’t you? I think that way about Abraham Lincoln. He wouldn’t be alive today, even if he hadn’t died.1
He would have died.
Saying difficult things so easily doesn’t come easily. So often it turns into a cliche. The art of the aphorism is rare—Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations comes to mind, but those were his own thoughts put into a journal.2
Davis’s fiction is anything but cliche. She is intensely original.
‘Odon von Horvath Out Walking’
Odon von Horvath was once walking in the Bavarian Alps when he discovered, at some distance from the path, the skeleton of a man. The man had evidently been a hiker since he was still wearing a knapsack. Von Horvath opened the knapsack, which looked almost as good as new. In it, he found a sweater and other clothing: a small bag of what had once been food: a diary: and a picture postcard of the Bavarian Alps, ready to send, that read, ‘Having a wonderful time.’
A question of loneliness remains. A question of grief. Of memory. Of things we clasp until death. We imagine so much.
Despite appearances, Davis’s writing is not parsed for efficiency. Short as it is, you have to step slowly. There are layers upon layers, there is something familiar and something abrupt. The writing is bright, usually short, and the titles tell us as much as the text.
‘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 this isn’t just the heart of depression—subterfuge, protecting, hiding, isolation, and dark humor. As Stephen Fry wrote in his Autobiography: “The mask worn long enough will be the face.”
Behind all of this ingenuity in Can’t and Won’t is Davis, a woman, a writer, a septuagenarian, an American, a Man Booker International Prize–winner. Each short story has a character, and each character becomes Davis. She is someone who doodles while on the phone to their mother, someone who notices others on a train, someone who eats fish alone and then worries about eating fish alone.
I have the key to the churchyard and unlock the gate. The church is in the city, and it has a large enclosure. Now that the gate is open, many people come in and sit on the grass to enjoy the sun.
Meanwhile, girls at the street corner are raising money for their mother-in-law, who is called ‘La Bella.’
I have offended or disappointed two women, but I am cradling Jesus (who is alive) amid a cozy pile of people.
I read something quite beautiful recently from film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote in his memoirs that when he didn’t understand a movie, he instead wrote about how it made him feel. I don’t entirely understand Davis’s work, but it makes me feel seen and heard —like John Steinbeck’s personal doubt, or Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother, and Patti Smith’s mental wandering —those who understand the delight and sorrow of existence. That she can do this in so few words is impactful.
Does it tell us something that Davis chose Can’t and Won’t as her title? A short piece where the character appears the most stubborn, emphatic, strong.
‘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.
Meaning stripped of accessory. That is how I feel about Davis.
Read her work, including essays on the creation of short writing, alongside the inventive writing of Mark Strand or David Whyte, two contemporary American poets who have written books that reimagine cliched words and produce meaning stripped of accessory.