011 - Reading Lydia Davis

Or a letter on the subject of care

My son’s Italian landlord in Brooklyn kept a shed out back in which he cured and smoked salamis. One night, in the midst of a wave of petty vandalism and theft, the shed was broken into and the salamis were taken. My son talked to his landlord about it the next day, commiserating over the vanished sausages. The landlord was resigned and philosophical, but corrected him: “They were not sausages. They were salamis.” Then the incident was written up in one of the city’s more prominent magazines as an amusing and colorful urban incident. In the article, the reporter called the stolen goods “sausages.” My son showed the article to his landlord, who hadn’t known about it. The landlord was interested and pleased that the magazine had seen fit to report the incident, but he added: “They weren’t sausages. They were salamis.” 

That is a short story called a Story of Stolen Salamis. It is also the opening story of a collection of Lydia Davis called Can’t and Won’t.

I have read it many times. Every time I’ve read it I discover a layer I had not seen before. In earlier readings I thought it works on so many levels of caring for something. The landlord cares for his meat, both in curing it and its subtle differences. The narrator’s son’s lack of personal care. The reporter’s lack of professional care.

Two weeks back when I read it I concluded:

The culprits here are not just the unnamed vandals. It is not just salami that is lost after the theft. No one cares about what has aged.

I found it intriguing, that this was the first story in the book; the first of the first of its four chapters. Lydia Davis is famous for her ultra short fiction. There is a story in this collection - Bloomington, that is in fact just one sentence long. The book is filled with concentrated doses of words and sentences, that you have to linger long to unravel. And it is up to you how many layers to reveal. It depends not on what you train your attention to, but what you care about.

And perhaps that is what she intends us to do. Care a little more, beyond the words on the page, about what’s unsaid. And so the story of stolen salamis is just the perfect place to start to say that. That’s the care she’s taken.

A review on Goodreads for this book reads -

I'm not getting anywhere with this. I feel like the majority of the stories could have been written by anyone, so clearly I don't understand it in the right way, or maybe it's not a good place to start given that I haven't read anything else by Davis? Might go back and finish if I feel I have any reason to, but I can't see that happening.

An archetypical story is a satisfactory story introduces conflicts and then resolves in a manner where everyone gets what they want, more or less. Basically unlike GoT’s eighth season. Can’t and Won’t is not a book with archetypical stories. It carries a lot of conflicts, but all internal and with no intent to resolve them. This is not a book to go escape from our mundane lives. There is no one to care for in it. A TV series can’t and won’t be made about it.

(I can and will apologise for that.)

(Can’t (and won’t) help it!)

Davis’ stories are all about the mundane. Her writing emerges from mundane moments of her own conflicts. But its resolution is left to us, the readers. It takes us to expand the story. If a story is boring, it stands diminished; it is diminished by us. These stories force us to consider, to contemplate. They make us confront our own realities; and when we do, we come to know what we care about. And when we do, the story grows, beyond the author’s world, into our own.

In that one sentence story Bloomington, she says this -

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

That’s the story. It looks even smaller here in this email than in the book. Now who knows where Bloomington is? But what does it matter. This can be any place where we, you and I, feel the same way for. And all it takes is a line to get there, and be there and remember it.

What else is a good story for?

The character to root for and care for in this book is us.

Flash fiction, a narrative made for our times? With the size of her stories, Davis could very well be crowned its queen. Stories that fit well with the speed of our world. But they don’t. Contradictory demands are placed both of the book and by it. It asks for quiet.

I did want to explore some bits of Davis’ writing here, the rhythm and her precision that make up her style. But I can’t. I am still studying it, understanding it. Instead, let me take you to this interview where she answers questions on craft of writing short fiction and essays.

And if you happen to read this at night. Here’s the last of a series on YouTube I found recently (and remembered Lydia Davis and wrote this letter after that). Break it Down.