Can't and Won't Stories

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 3/31/2015
  • Publisher: Picador

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The New York Times • Los Angeles Times • The Boston Globe

Her stories may be literal one-liners: the entirety of "Bloomington" reads, "Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before." Or they may be lengthier investigations of the havoc wreaked by the most mundane disruptions to routine: in "A Small Story About a Small Box of Chocolates," a professor receives a gift of thirty-two small chocolates and is paralyzed by the multitude of options she imagines for their consumption. The stories may appear in the form of letters of complaint; they may be extracted from Flaubert's correspondence; or they may be inspired by the author's own dreams, or the dreams of friends.
What does not vary throughout Can't and Won't, Lydia Davis's fifth collection of stories, is the power of her finely honed prose. Davis is sharply observant; she is wry or witty or poignant. Above all, she is refreshing. Davis writes with bracing candor and sly humor about the quotidian, revealing the mysterious, the foreign, the alienating, and the pleasurable within the predictable patterns of daily life.

Author Biography

Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and four previous story collections, the most recent of which, Varieties of Disturbance, was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is also the acclaimed translator of Swann’s Way (2003) and Madame Bovary (2010), both of which were awarded the French American Foundation Translation Prize. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, published in 2009, was described by James Wood in The New Yorker as a “grand cumulative achievement.” She is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.

Table of Contents


A Story of Stolen Salamis 3

The Dog Hair 4

Circular Story 5

Idea for a Sign 6

Bloomington 8

The Cook's Lesson 9

At the Bank 10

Awake in the Night 11

At the Bank: 2 12

The Two Davises and the Rug 13

Contingency (vs. Necessity) 18

Brief Incident in Short a, Long a, and Schwa 19

Contingency (vs. Necessity) 2: On Vacation 20

A Story Told to Me by a Friend 21

The Bad Novel 23

After You Left 24

The Bodyguard 26

The Child 27

The Churchyard 28

My Sister and the Queen of En gland 29

The Visit to the Dentist 31

Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer 32

The Cornmeal 33


Two Undertakers 37

I Ask Mary About Her Friend, the Depressive, and

His Vacation 38

The Magic of the Train 39

Eating Fish Alone 40

Can't and Won't 46

Pouchet's Wife 47

Dinner 48

The Dog 49

The Grandmother 50

The Dreadful Mucamas 51

Reversible Story 61

A Woman, Thirty 62

How I Know What I Like (Six Versions) 63

Handel 64

The Force of the Subliminal 65

Her Geography: Alabama 67

The Funeral 68

The Husband- Seekers 69

In the Gallery 70

The Low Sun 71

The Landing 72

The Language of the Telephone Company 77

The Coachman and the Worm 78

Letter to a Marketing Manager 80


The Last of the Mohicans 85

Grade Two Assignment 86

Master 87

An Awkward Situation 88

House keeping Observation 90

The Execution 91

A Note from the Paperboy 92

In the Train Station 93

The Moon 94

My Footsteps 95

How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through My Back Issues

of the TLS 96

Notes During Long Phone Conversation with Mother 101

Men 102

Negative Emotions 103

I'm Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little

More Comfortable 105

Judgment 112

The Chairs 113

My Friend's Creation 114

The Piano 115

The Party 116

The Cows 118

The Exhibition 134

Letter to a Peppermint Candy Company 136

Her Geography: Illinois 139


Ödön von Horváth Out Walking 143

On the Train 144

The Problem of the Vacuum Cleaner 145

The Seals 146

Learning Medieval History 171

My School Friend 172

The Piano Lesson 173

The Schoolchildren in the Large Building 174

The Sentence and the Young Man 175

Molly, Female Cat: History/Findings 176

The Letter to the Foundation 179

The Results of One Statistical Study 208

Revise: 1 209

Short Conversation (in Airport Departure Lounge) 210

Revise: 2 211

Left Luggage 212

Waiting for Takeoff 214

Industry 215

The Sky Above Los Angeles 216

Two Characters in a Paragraph 217

Swimming in Egypt 218

The Language of Things in the House 219

The Washerwomen 226

Letter to a Hotel Manager 227

Her Birthday 232


My Childhood Friend 235

Their Poor Dog 236

Hello Dear 238

Not Interested 239

Old Woman, Old Fish 242

Staying at the Pharmacist's 243

The Song 245

Two Former Students 246

A Small Story About a Small Box of Chocolates 247

The Woman Next to Me on the Airplane 251

Writing 252

Wrong Thank- You in Theater 253

The Rooster 254

Sitting with My Little Friend 256

The Old Soldier 257

Two Sligo Lads 259

The Woman in Red 260

If at the Wedding (at the Zoo) 261

The Gold Digger of Goldfi elds 264

The Old Vacuum Cleaner Keeps Dying on Her 266

Flaubert and Point of View 267

Family Shopping 269

Local Obits 270

Letter to the President of the American Biographical

Institute, Inc. 279

Nancy Brown Will Be in Town 282

Ph.D. 283

Notes and Acknowledgments 285

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