Guy Davenport Essay - Davenport, Guy, Jr. (Vol. 6)

Davenport, Guy, Jr. (Vol. 6)

Davenport, Guy, Jr. 1927–

Davenport is a short story writer, essayist, poet, editor, illustrator, translator of classical Greek, and teacher. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

This is the age of suspiciousness, of the psychological backward glance, of the writer who figures in his own fiction as an implicated character or a puppeteer protagonist, not so much through some access of honesty as through an increased awareness of what imagination entails.

Into this development, the fictions of Guy Davenport congruously fit. Davenport has a sophisticated, erudite mind which he isn't ashamed to show, even to show off. These six stories [in Tatlin!] better dubbed assemblies or constructions or narrative editorials, range far and wide into literature and culture, raising the ghosts of an interesting team: Herakleitos; the Dutch philosopher Adriaan van Hovendaal; Franz Kafka and Max Brod; the Abbe Breuil, the discoverer of Lascaux; Samuel Butler of Erewhon; and Tatlin, the Soviet engineer-sculptor.

The point is that not only these few, but, say, Descartes, Edmund Spenser, Isaac Newton, Clive of India, De Lesseps of the Suez Canal, are all worth invading and impersonating. The corollary point is that the fiction writer need no longer restrict himself to "pure" invention. A fiction has arrived that can address itself to anything known and rearrange it into fresh and startling configurations that have little to do with What Happened Next.

Davenport's long title-story confronts us with a full-size glider which Tatlin designed after Leonardo's ornithopter, an airplane with flapping wings—lovingly described as "a bird's ossature with syndactyl wings." What is fascinating, in this cinematic synopsis of a life lived to the full in spite of an ideological straitjacket, is the way Tatlin's mind is made to reveal itself both as a denuded power and through its things, its concrete output, while Soviet history rumbles its bloody way (embodied in black-and-white full-page portraits of Lenin and Stalin larded into the text).

Embedded in this imaginary feat is something else, an excursion into the even more engrossing life of Tsiolkovsky, the deaf and ignored rocket pioneer, functioning in "Tatlin!" as an almost choric figure, especially when the moon crater named for him shows up at the end of the story.

Another story, "The Aeroplanes at Brescia," evokes an article Kafka wrote about his visit in 1909 to an Italian air-show, where he sees Bleriot and an agitated-looking chap who turns out to be Ludwig Wittgenstein. This just-about-perfect piece is as rich in ambience as exact in focus, and more immediately captivating than the reconstruction of how a French dog named Robot helped the Abbe Breuil discover a paleolithic cave full of astonishing drawings.

The Herakleitos piece opens out like a fan, inviting the pensive reader to halt, move back, revisit the instances after getting the point, revise the point after refeeling the instances. The way forward is one of the ways back.

The other two pieces are just as finely balanced, just as replete with mind-tingling moments, from the vibrations of a year called 1830 to Andre Chenier introducing himself ("I was guillotined thirty-six years ago … I am a ghost"); to the dawn in Butler's Erewhon, when the wind from Sarawak blows as the starlight fades in the arc of Sagittarius; the Conowingo hydroelectric station conjures up the Pons Aelius; and, as the linear mosaic unfolds, the Royal Dutch Marines, Sir Philip Sidney, Bosch's Saint Anthony and the fish of Lascaux come together, complementing a trio of indefatigable sensualists who, taking turns, also keep coming together under the Baltic sun of a venereal utopia.

As one's impressions of this brilliant book settle down, it seems that nothing relevant has gone unimplied, nothing irrelevant hasn't been suavely shut out. Reading Tatlin! is rather like staring at a Magritte painting while listening to Stockhausen in a sauna designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Appropriately, it closes with the very thought on dreaming and rain that Beckett adapted from Wittgenstein in Molloy, and with Neil Armstrong's left foot in the dust of our moon. Davenport's majestic fabrications multiply one's sense of the buzzing blooming confusion that has been fattening since the big bang, and he will be a churlish reader indeed who won't register thanks for having his incredulity increased on the level of educated, allusive talk.

Paul West, "And Much, Much More!," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 11, 1974, p. 3.

In recent years, [Guy Davenport] has displayed the versatility of a cultural G.P., appearing variously as translator (of Archilochus and Sappho), editor ("The Intelligence of Louis Agassiz"), poet ("Leaves and Flowers"), essayist, critic, teacher and illustrator; ["Tatlin!"] bears the imprints of all. Along with an occasional nod to fiction, it manifests the poet's concentration on resonant verbal texture, the specialist's reverent, if not rapturous, familiarity with classical civilization and intellectual history, and the abstruse density of the difficult academic essay. Davenport's immense erudition courses through the book like a current in a river that takes us through some exotic, alluring terrain. But it's an outing that requires some special enthusiasm and equipment; he makes few—most readers will say too few—concessions to comfort.

None of these stories can be readily summarized. Plot is minimal; their substance collapses in synopsis. Incident and sustained dramatic encounter are negligible; characterization is slight. Yet the stories are repositories of a lush and learned linguistic and imaginative verve, and though the locales range from Ephesus in the sixth century B.C. to Amsterdam in the 1960's, each possesses a grainy authenticity that seems the sure, indigenous product of its own time and place. Davenport reaches back in time and across cultures with the ease of an angler whose every languorous cast is a catch….

Davenport's subject is much the same as Constructivism's utopian aim: the integration of art with life and society. (p. 16)

Pedantic self-display mars [some stories]. Are the untranslated paragraphs of Latin prose and verse or the conversations in Dutch really necessary? By such means, Davenport pares his audience until an ideal reader of "Tatlin!" resembles no one so much as himself. A corollary of this impulse is his exasperating penchant for the arcane…. [The] verbal preciosity is recurrent.

But [there is] something happier, and as common: the comeliness and cadence of his language, or its reverberantly suggestive surface….

Despite their diversities of time and place, the stories have common themes; the most pervasive one is the vital propinquity of the archaic, the presence of the oldest in the newest, the suggestion that we live "in the phoenix time of antiquity." Trends, fashion, language, culture, shift like desert sand over abiding human truths. "All of time," [a character] comments, "is still one history." Among the book's many motifs, flying is the most effective: Tatlin's glider opens the collection, Neil Armstrong's step on the moon closes it; flights actual and imagined, aspirations of all kinds, appear regularly between them.

But it is ideas that engage Davenport's most persistent attentions. He has a knack for the characterizing gesture, but not for character. We get much of man's works, but little of man; there is much here to praise, but little to remember. Finally, the embroidery and the fragmentary looseness grow wearisome. "The familiar owns our love, the strange claims our intelligence," [he] remarks, and by the time we have finished this vaporous book, touched by felicity, we are more than a little ready to agree with him. (p. 18)

Andrew C. J. Bergman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 20, 1974.

Technically, Davenport is a master. Scenes from ancient Greece to modern Holland are set [in Tatlin!] with impeccable authenticity and mood; minor historical figures appear with precision of characterization that can result only from perfectly understood and felt research. Motifs interweave from story to story—a tall Chinese vase used as a prop in one story appears in another, a minor theme in one becomes a major in the next, and is referred to in others. The result is a kind of fugue, a coherent series of stories with all the playful artistry of that intricate form, complicated and immensely enriched by Davenport's commitment to historical accuracy and contemporary significance. (p. 175)

Lee T. Lemon, in Prairie Schooner (© 1975 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1975.

[This] I think, is what Davenport is attempting in all of the stories in [Tatlin!]: to establish new connections between old and new, to discover further dimensions in the continuum of human history, and, by explaining to us a past that we do not understand, to afford us a measure of hope for our tawdry present, our seemingly hopeless future….

Life does go on and mankind does endure, Davenport is telling us, but that is one of the difficulties: in story after story he is telling us. He is a man of extraordinary learning, and his intellect is miles ahead of his talent as a writer. His forms simply will not mix. If we want to know about the art and religion of prehistoric man, there are books on the subject uncomplicated by dogs chasing rabbits and boys who speak obscenities in French. [Sullivan is referring to the story "Robot" in Tatlin!] If we are looking for fiction, then most of us have in mind a narrative flow, a concatenation of events in time. And we want people, characters who participate in those events in ways that reveal something to us about the human condition. These are satisfactions that we do not get in Davenport…. (p. 538)

Davenport's work is saved by the depth that it derives from the sheer strength of his mind: he … sees … into the agonies that attend our fallen humanity. (p. 539)

Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Summer, 1975.

Tatlin! is a demanding book, and only a reader well-educated in the humanities and sciences will be able to follow it fully. Some familiarity with the pre-Socratics, with aeronautics, with Edgar Allen Poe, Greek mythology, Erewhon, various cultural movements taking place immediately after WWI, and the history of Western philosophy is necessary. Though the style is reasonably direct, it is dense in meaning and association. There are likely to be at least a dozen or two words unfamiliar to the reader; they are useful words, though, and not used needlessly. The major problem for the reader will come from the untranslated passages and dialogue in other languages, unless the reader has a thorough knowledge of Latin, Russian, French, German, Italian, and Dutch.

The well of knowledge from which these stories flow is nearly as deep and wide as that of Pound. Within the first six lines of the first story, for example, we are presented with Constructivism, Lenin, pterodactyls, and Leonardo da Vinci. The profound wealth of allusions and brief explanations is on the whole well-integrated within the stories, and the flow of associations is often the flow of the story. (pp. 190-91)

The emotion throughout the book is that of the excitement, wonder, and awe of discovery and creative achievement: Tatlin's encounters with Picasso and Chagall in Paris, Kafka witnessing the flight of man, the finding of Neanderthal Man's unimaginably ancient art and religion, the Arcadian learning the wisdom of Heraklitos in dialogue, the mapping and naming of the asteroids, the imprint of feet upon moon dust.

Philosophical fiction, as presented here, has no plot or conflict—only man interacting with his ideas and creations. The approach is wise, as plot or conflict would not only be irrelevant, but distracting. Largely absent also is personality within the characters: with the exceptions of those of "Robot" and "1830," the characters are presented as physique and idea. Without mistakes or ordinary problems to distract them, they are almost interchangeable. The pleasant surprise is that their lack of real personality is hardly noticeable. These are characters whose lives have transcended common reality. Interest is kept high by Davenport's excellent and original feel for fictional forms and by a high ability to evoke cerebral excitement.

Like science fiction, philosophical fiction is faced with an inherent character vs. concept dilemma: how to present and develop the desired concepts without either miring the story or sacrificing the needed vitality and conviction which fully fleshed characters bring. Davenport shifts nearly all of his efforts to the concept side of the dilemma, and it is testament to his talent that the stories still live and convince. Only once does this judgment turn out to be unwise, in the lengthy love-making scenes of The Dawn in Erewhon. Lyrical and slightly over-detailed, these sections … illustrate Davenport's conception of the beauty and naturalness of the body, but as a whole they are the weakest part of the book, because within them the most personal of all human activities is seen to reveal next to nothing of the characters. (pp. 191-92)

Despite this flaw in one story, Davenport's whole achievement is unique. By tapping an immense erudition and by combining traditional and avant-garde techniques and forms to write about actual persons and events, he has created a vast flowing poetry celebrating the mind of man. It's a good book to read before walking underneath stars. (p. 192)

Curtis Johnson, in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1975 by Chicago Review), Vol. 26, No. 4, 1975.