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Séminaire EMMA: Lynn Blin (MCF honoraire, EMMA):”Matter and Mirth in Lydia Davis’s Short Short Stories” 01 février 2022

“Les Bluets” Joan Mitchell (1973)


Stories from Can’t and Won’t that have been discussed in passing and “Negative Emotions” which have been discussed in length.

1.“Collaboration with Fly” 

            I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe (Davis, Lydia. The Collected Stories  2013, 508).

2. Can’t and Won’t

I was recently denied a writing prize, because, they said, I was too 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 contracted them to can’t and won’t(Davis, Lydia. Can’t and Won’t 2015, 46). 

3. “Circular Story”

On Wednesday mornings early there is always a racket out there on the road. It wakes me up and I always wonder what it is. It is always the trash collection truck picking up the trash. The truck comes every Wednesday morning early. It always wakes me up. I always wonder what it is (idem. 2015, 3).

4. A Story of Stolen Salamis

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. (idem. 2015, 3) 

5. “Negative Emotions” 

A well-meaning teacher, inspired by a text he had been reading, once sent all the other teachers in his school a message about negative emotions. The message consisted entirely of advice quoted from a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. 

Emotion, said the monk, is like a storm: it stays for a while and then it goes. Upon perceiving the emotion (like a coming storm), one should put oneself in a stable position. One should sit or lie down. One should focus on one’s abdomen. One should focus, specifically on the area just below one’s navel and practice mindful breathing. If one can identify the emotion as an emotion. It may then be easier to handle. 

The other teachers were puzzled. They did not understand why their colleague had sent them a message about negative emotions. They resented the message, and they resented their colleague. They thought he was accusing them of having negative emotions and needing advice in how to handle them. Some of them were, in fact, angry.

The teachers did not choose to regard their anger as a coming storm. They did not focus on their abdomens. They did notfocus on the area just below their navels. Instead, they wrote back immediately, declaring that because they did not understand why he had sent it, his message had filled them with negative emotions. They told him that it would take a lot of practice for them to get over the negative emotions caused by his message. But, they went on, they did not intend to do this practice. Far from being troubled by their negative emotions, they said, they in fact liked having negative emotions, particularly about him and his message (Idem. 2015, 3).


“I had not known before that an abstract painting could contain references to concrete objective, identifiable subject matter. Two things happened at once: the painting went beyond itself, lost its isolation, acquired a relationship to fields, to flowers; and it changed from something I understood, into something I did not understand, a mystery, a problem.” Lydia Davis commenting on her discovery of “Les Bluets”. 

            This paper is a follow-up to the Lydia Davis chapter that I was asked to write for The Handbook of the American Short Story (Erik Redling & Oliver Sheiding eds. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022). In the editors’ request to include a chapter on Lydia Davis in the handbook emerged an even more pressing request to render her comprehensible to the many who had great difficulty to acknowledge her talent or in understanding her success (i.e. the Man Booker International Prize for the ensemble of her works in 2013, the French-American Translation Prize in 2011 for her translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way and again in 2018 for her translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary just to name three). Keeping this question in mind as I wrote the chapter, I realized that some of the enigmas I was dealing with in my analyses were not unlike the enigmas I deal with when explaining humour. As I progressed in my writing, what was becoming clearer was that many of the cognitive faculties necessary for appreciating humour are also necessary to appreciate Lydia Davis. And yes, there is definitely a challenge there. For, as E.B. White pointed out, “Analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it”.

            Though pleasure gained from her stories seldom results in the side-splitting laughter produced by comic writers, just like the pleasure in getting a joke is linked to resolving a problem, the delight we derive from reading Davis’s works results in our capacity to work out a puzzle. And this can be a source of great amusement, even mirth and delight. Delight is another offshoot of humour, more discreet, more subtle, but more lasting and more far–reaching.

            In my attempt to demonstrate this my paper will delve into the matter of Lydia Davis’s short short works, concentrating primarily on the story “Negative Emotions” from her collection Can’t and Won’t (London: Penguin Random House, 2014) but commenting on others in passing. This will necessarily include an exploration of the matter with her stories. That is, an explanation of why there is so much resistance on the part of readers. I will begin with a general introduction to her works and the criticism it has received. I will then give a close reading of “Negative Emotions” to show how Davis’s unique preoccupation with language is the compulsory starting point for an appreciation of her work. And I will conclude a brief explanation on how strategies used in the production and the appreciation of humour can also come into play in explaining why Lydia Davis’s works matter so much.


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