Modesty: Lydia Davis and Duro Olowu

Lydia Davis writes stories whose central plot point is the very act of thinking. In a small and beautiful chapbook called “The Cows” (2001) she describes a field with cows across the street from her house near Pittsville, in upstate New York. Not a blink of the cow eye goes unnoticed by this author. Night falls on the cows, and then it’s a new day, and the cows are still there. Just recently, during a talk at Wellesley College, Lydia Davis mentioned how she feels she’s come to the end of her life as a translator; her most recent work, a new version of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” took three years to complete. “Now it’s time to get on with me,” Davis said. But her tone wasn’t that of a boaster; in point of fact, she offered this bit of information shyly, tentatively, like a girl who was new to writing, and had discovered something as liberating and frightening as the first person narrative. She would have to learn to say “I.” Even though some of Lydia Davis’ many stories are told in the first person, as is her beautiful 1995 novel, “The End of the Story,” her writing has rarely been about her personality. Indeed, she takes Renata Adler’s here-but-not-here fictional voice even further by making the white space between her paragraphs wide and then wider. It’s the white space–the pause of reflection–where Davis’ various narrators reflect on what has become before, and what will come after, and whether their consciousness has a right to exist at all. In the end, reading Davis is not like reading at all; one watches her stories develop right before one’s very eyes, like a photographic negative finding itself made into a picture. Her work as a translator was about her intellectual interest in making language be something other than what it was–French–and turning it into something else–English–and how that transformation can and often does transform the translator, too. But one got the sense, during her talk, that Davis regarded translating as a kind of forked tongue enterprise by now, a twice-told tale that suited her humility once as she worked behind the scenes, working her way up to an “I” that fights to know itself, quietly, diligently. Humility is rare enough in literature, and rarer, still, in fashion. But modesty was at the heart of Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu’s latest collection. He finds sustenance in heritage. His eye for prints, and the cut of fabric around the print the story has to tell on its own, makes a light that reminds one of his native land, where surface and form combine to illuminate if not help create a better being. Indeed, one is reminded, looking at Olowu’s latest, distinctive work, of the tenets of African style: one’s outside reflects the inside, while the inside emits something of one’s place in the world, the joy to be had in costuming as a higher form of communication. But Olowu has roots in London, too, and as the models shimmied not too ostentatiously in his lovely bits of there but not there fabric during his recent show, I was reminded of the prints David Hockney’s muse, textile designer Celia Birdwel, created for her late husband, Ozzie Clark, in the nineteen-seventies. Like Clark before him, Olowu is interested in style but not at the expense of personality; Olowu dresses the woman who knows how to say “I” without shrieking it.