Jun 202011

“They come out from behind the barn as though something is going to happen, and then nothing happens.”

— Lydia Davis, The Cows. 

(A claymation video of a line from Lydia Davis’s The Cows, by Electric Literature)

Flaubert and Cows

By Mary Stein

A few weeks ago, I ventured to my local Minneapolis bookstore on one of those rumored “quick stops” where people allegedly “swing by to pick up just one thing.” I was looking for The Cows, a new chapbook by Lydia Davis. Ultimately stymied by genre distinction, I begrudgingly asked a clerk where I could find this coveted gem, having not found it in any of the obvious places. After all, alphabetization couldn’t have become more complicated since the last time I was there, could it? The kind clerk pointed me toward the “Animal” section. The Cows was subcategorized under “Miscellaneous” where I found it wedged into near-oblivion between two door-stopper-sized books (one called Christian Lions and the other an anthology about birds).

The Cows is a fragmented story that meditates on three cows that live across the road from Davis. It was released as a chapbook in March, 2011 by Sarabande—a nonprofit literary press that releases approximately ten titles annually. Not six months earlier, Davis had embarked on an entirely different project. In September, 2010 Lydia Davis’s translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was published courtesy of Viking Penguin. The scope of these two projects seem to exist in entirely different literary realms, and if “opposite” could ever be measured in gradations, Sarabande and Penguin are about as opposite as it comes. But what struck me about each publication was Davis’s search for relevance—not in the oft-overlooked crannies of daily life, but in subjects that stare us in the face: a book translated almost twenty times already; cows.

Gustave Flaubert

Because Davis’s rendition of Madame Bovary follows a string of previous translations, the endeavor might beg the question of relevance. But Davis doesn’t flinch. In her Paris Review blog post “Why a New Mme Bovary?” Davis points out:

Each version will be quite distinct from all of the others. How many ways, for instance, has even a single phrase (bouffées d’affadissement) from Madame Bovary been translated:

gusts of revulsion
a kind of rancid staleness
stale gusts of dreariness
waves of nausea
fumes of nausea
flavorless, sickening gusts
stagnant dreariness
whiffs of sickliness
waves of nauseous disgust

Of course, translation is more than finding the right words. Perhaps it takes a writer with formalist tendencies and mastery over multiple languages in order to render a translation that captures the spirit of its original while offering a new generational slant. Admittedly, I haven’t read Davis’s translation yet, so I’ll spare you my bias and leave it for you to decide whether or not Davis achieves this. But the sheer range of Davis’s writing style suggests a mastery over language that manifests in various forms: departing from her resurrection of Flaubert’s florid prose, The Cows presents (the English) language at its simplest.

The Cows is a benediction of the mundane—a strange homage to the three quiet looming beasts that graze the landscape of Davis’s immediate physical environment. Here, Davis seeks relevance in a subject so ubiquitous that it’s easy to overlook. The Cows departs from the signature syntactic gymnastics of Davis’s collected stories: the chapbook is separated into short and tidy observations that read almost like stanzas. Her sentences are spare. For example: “She moos toward the wooded hills behind her, and the sound comes back. She moos again in a high falsetto. It is a very small sound to come from such a large, dark animal.”

Davis’s subjects are as vast as her writing style is versatile. Between her translation of Mme Bovary and her chapbook, Davis explores different modalities of language to uncover or stratify meaning according to the project at hand—whether that subject be ambling bovine neighbors or 19th- century French lit. revival. Davis seems to avoid acting as an invisible purveyor of meaning. Instead she searches for truth by whichever means the work demands. Davis bothers to find meaning in all the obvious places, finding relevance in an old story that might otherwise slip from the grips of our addled memory; finding relevance in a commonplace subject otherwise lost to the obscurity of a bookstore’s slim “Animal” section. It could be something plain as a calm sky—still, yet shifting imperceptibly above us. Davis is one writer who stands still long enough to listen to what her work requires so that we might glimpse these dated or mundane subjects again, anew.

— Mary Stein

  9 Responses to “Flaubert and Cows: Essay — Mary Stein”

  1. I’m waiting for Amy Bloom’s newest collection of short stories to arrive from Amazon. It wasn’t in stock in the UK and has to be shipped from the US. Unfortunately, when books are shipped to me here from the US, delivery can take several weeks. I need Bloom’s book for a workshop I’m attending in the near future. Will it get here in time? Probably not.
    Friends said it’s available electronically and suggested downloading onto a Kindle. I don’t own such a machine yet, I’ve been holding off, but holding off may not make much sense much longer.
    Still, while digitization now eliminates book-search frustration for those tomes that have been uploaded, as long as other books continue to occupy the physical realm only they’ll continue to be mis-shelved or lost in the mail.
    This is a roundabout way of saying I’m glad you persevered in your search for Lydia Davis’s chapbook & wrote this thoughtful essay. I might not have read about Cows otherwise.

    • Natalia, I guarantee you that digitization is much more complicated for me than bookstore-browsing (or at least a lot less enjoyable). But I’m fortunate to have all those resources at my fingertips. I guess you’ll have to move to Minneapolis in order to assuage your book-search frustrations. It’s a neat chapbook if you come across it, though. Does Kindle do photos or illustrations?

  2. Thank you!!! for sharing that animation, and for directing my attention to Davis’s newest work. I will want to look up Cows for sure! I loved discovering her work for the first time, several months ago, in Almost No Memory. This was a very thoughtful post on a number of levels: I love the way “Electric LIterature” and you, Mary, both interact with Davis’s texts in your respective ways. Such inspiration. Thank you again.

    • Anna Maria, thank you for your kind words. I also was introduced to Davis through Almost No Memory (stories from which are highlighted in my lecture) and I can’t stop reading her.

  3. This is great, Mary. What a great meditation on writing.

  4. OK, when you read her translation, I want to know what she did with “bouffées d’affadissement.” I don’t like any of the choices above.

    I can’t find “The Cows” in The Collected Stories of LD (Picador), a disappointment.

    Very nice Mary, and I’m intrigued. Come back to this again? I’m wondering if Davis has given us a new form (or invigorated an old one), maybe appropriate for our times. Thoughtful and brief–suitable for blogs and magazines with limited space. I got the collection with this in mind, though have only read a handful.

    Also I discovered a new art form. I got my son’s play-doh out and the video camera. I’m thinking Paradise Lost. He’s 20 now, however, and the stuff has hardened a bit.


    • Gary, I’m dying to read the whole book just to find that line, too. In fact, I almost tabled this post until I went out to read the book. So perhaps I’ll have to do a mini follow-up post. I also didn’t like any of the aforementioned options, though I’d have to say I found “whiffs of sickliness” the most amusing.

      “The Cows” is post LD collection. It’s a neat little chapbook replete with cute cow photos. The claymation is not really true to the images, but I couldn’t help it. I think your treatment of “Paradise Lost” would surely make Milton proud … considering its subject, crumbling play-doh is likely appropriate, but you’ll need a considerable amount more.

  5. Smart and quirky, just the thing. Also Jonah had a cow fetish when he was little–remind me to tell you some stories. 🙂


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