Da Vinci’s Bicycle is Guy Davenport’s second collection of stories. His first, Tatlin! (1974), introduced a new form of the short story, as distinctive as that of Borges or Barthelme and already widely imitated. Since the publication of Da Vinci’s Bicycle, his brilliant fictions have continued to appear in journals and little magazines (see particularly “Christ Preaching at the Henley Regatta,” North American Review, June, 1979; and “The Death of Picasso,” Kenyon Review, Winter, 1980), and a third collection, Eclogues, is forthcoming.
Sentence by sentence, Davenport’s stories are built with a sure hand and unfailing excellence. It is this quality which led John Gardner (On Moral Fiction) to number Davenport among the few contemporary writers who will outlast the century, “if sheer precision and uncompromising artistry count.” Davenport is that good, yet the terms of Gardner’s praise—however just—are forbidding: “uncompromising artistry” might suggest the extreme intransigence and the willful private language of a writer like the German novelist Thomas Bernhard, who has said that anyone who claims to understand his books is a liar. Davenport invites understanding—one of his favorite words is “clarity”—whether he is layering an allusive elliptical text or doing a bit of slapstick in the manner of Eudora Welty, one of his acknowledged masters. He never neglects the oldest, simplest pleasures of fiction: the pleasure of surprise, the pleasure of the strange and new (“A hero without a journey is like a saint without a vision . . .”), the delight in naming.
Davenport brings many talents to his fiction: he is an accomplished painter and draftsman, a classicist and a translator, a scholar of modern literature, and a dedicated classroom teacher. None of these talents is irrelevant to an understanding of his art—in a sense they constitute his apprenticeship, since he did not begin the first story in Tatlin! until he was forty-three—but the particularly strong link between his painting and drawing and his writing should be singled out. Like Tatlin!, Da Vinci’s Bicycle is illustrated with a number of drawings by Davenport. Writing about his own fiction, Davenport has said: “A page, which I think of as a picture, is essentially a texture of images,” and he notes that “to write” and “to draw” are the same verb in Greek. Readers should come to Da Vinci’s Bicycle with that visual expectancy and receptiveness which is usually reserved for the darkness of the movie theater.
Da Vinci’s Bicycle, then, is a collection of stories which share an imagistic method and a common theme: “the instinct to forage,” Davenport calls it, the insatiable human desire to know. “The pervasive idea of this work is, as Bernard Sylvestris said in the twelfth century, that man was created to understand the world.” Understanding begins with wonder, with curiosity; curiosity begins with the title: Da Vinci’s bicycle? Davenport supplies a drawing, and the information that he derived it from The Unknown Leonardo, where in turn it was taken from a recently discovered drawing by an eleven-year-old apprentice of a bicycle “drawn or perhaps built by Leonardo.” This bicycle satisfies Davenport’s taste for fragments: “I like things that almost don’t exist.” The title story in Tatlin! was based on scraps of knowledge about the Russian Constructivist, Vladimir Tatlin, most of whose works have been lost, and about whom very little is known. There is no story in Da Vinci’s Bicycle corresponding to the title, but the bicycle appears in two of the stories, principally in the first story of the book, “The Richard Nixon Freischutz Rag.” This brief story interweaves three “plots”: President Richard Nixon visiting China and talking with Chairman Mao; Leonardo Da Vinci in his workshop; and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas visiting Assisi.
This barebones summary is adequate to outline Davenport’s characteristic procedure: he invites the reader to make connections between seemingly unrelated elements. Thus, while Leonardo rhapsodizes about the voyage of Columbus, knitting East and West, the reader has in mind Mao receiving Nixon. And soon after Leonardo has imagined a phalanx of bicycles “bearing lancers at full tilt,” Davenport jump-cuts to the bombing orders Richard Nixon gave before flying to China, including “a thousand targets in Laos and Cambodia bombed by squadrons of B-52’s.”
Da Vinci’s bicycle becomes an extraordinary symbol of human knowledge, of the “instinct to forage,” in which good and evil seem inextricably tangled. Leonardo in his workshop is Man the Knower. He sees the hidden harmonies of nature’s laws, and, like Newton, who filled volumes with his interpretations of Daniel and the Apocalypse, sees occult harmonies in history. The bicycle itself testifies to this perception of harmony and order, for as long as the machine remains in motion it will stay in balance, “as the flow of a river discouraged a boat from wandering.” Yet Leonardo’s reverie takes a sudden turn when he sees cyclists going into battle, trumpets blaring. This image is both wonderfully comic and tragically prophetic: the B-52’s which Nixon sent over Cambodia and Laos were the cumulative handiwork of a thousand lesser Leonardos, generations of men seeking to know, to understand. The “instinct to forage” is perhaps the instinct which moved Adam and...
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