“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.
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 “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
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