Davenport, Guy, Jr. (Vol. 14)
The highly developed critical sensibility of the modern era is a product of fiction. The Tatlin! stories are, in part, essays in a criticism by mimesis. The most difficult thing for an article to convey about the writing in Tatlin! is its subtle use of known voices and styles of prose…. The book is, simply, superbly written, and I know of no one in our language who can equal its accomplishment.
In method the stories are comparative, analogical; they develop through parallels and oppositions, through contrasts built around the same motif—for instance, the motif of the flying machine, which Tatlin attempts to humanize in his glider or "air bicycle," which appears in the Kafka story as an awkward bit of flying junk, but reappears in "Robot" as the Messerschmidt, and in "The Dawn in Erewhon" finally as the craft that takes Neil Armstrong to the moon. It is a historical-critical method, aware of evolutions, affinities, echoes, recurrences; a method that will join together the German planes flying reconnaissance over southern France with the discovery of Aurignacian paintings at Lascaux.
But it is above all a fictional method. The stories are described in the book as "assemblages of history and necessary fiction."… But the stories function least as assemblages, more as essays in criticism, most as fictions. (pp. 143-44)
The ruling spirit of Tatlin! is not constructivism, it is...
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[The six stories in Tatlin!] have a maturity, a philosophic depth, and a richness of effect beyond the reach of the younger writer, even one like Thomas Pynchon, whose artistic ambitions and temperament are not so different from Davenport's. What distinguishes these two, mainly, is a difference in orientation: Davenport is an erstwhile friend and devoted student of Ezra Pound's; and in its intense, eclectic and well-nigh overbearing erudition, Tatlin! is offered to us as a fit companion to, if not a worthy competitor of, The Cantos, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, and Eliot's major works. This is no small self-assertion; but then, Davenport's fiction asks to be weighed on such scales. And if I have reservations, they pertain to the problems of esoteric fiction in general, and are couched within an admiration that I hope will become self-evident. (p. 948)
Tatlin! is, to begin with, more than an aggregate of stories. As much as Welty's Golden Apples, or Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, or Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn—all so very different—it is a cohesive, total work. Two longer pieces, both novella-like in their scope, frame four shorter tales. In subject and effect these middle pieces are lighter than the two flanking stories. As other reviewers have pointed out, this is not "short fiction" in the customary sense. These are tales full of essaying, imaginative renditions of historical facts,...
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Tatlin! is historical fiction of an unusual kind. It is concerned more with the sensibility than with the events of the period it covers. That period is our own; four of the six stories are set between 1900 and 1970, and the collection is unified by a vision of modernism in art, science, philosophy, and politics. Like Hugh Kenner, Davenport believes that the intellectual life of the twentieth century is qualitatively different from that of any preceding period. Tatlin! attempts to do in the form of fiction what The Pound Era attempts to do in the form of literary criticism: to characterize the distinctive mental habits, or the unique intellectual "signature," of the modern age….
[Pound's] influence upon the six stories is indirect but pervasive. To begin with, he affects the structure and texture of the book, which are consciously modernist. The structure is ideogrammic, in that the six stories are discrete and independent, yet unified by a network of recurring themes and images. The texture of the prose is dense, allusive, polyglot, discontinuous—"difficult" in the way that Eliot, Joyce, and the men of 1914 are difficult. These features are not uniquely Poundian, but Pound has clearly helped to shape them. Similarly, Davenport's sense of the integrity of human history, and of the power of the past to inspire and define the present, owes a great deal to the author of the Cantos. But again, the influence...
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Different styles, times, places, characters are juxtaposed [in "Da Vinci's Bicycle"] sans connective or commentary, except that they comment on one another. They reflect on one another in ways too complex and numerous for commentary to fix in words. Less is more. The gaps fill up with meaning. But there is more to it than that. For one thing, the stories reflect on one another with the kind of variable light that the parts within the stories also shed on one another….
In Mr. Davenport's [stories], Mussolini, like Nixon, Mao, Nero and numerous others …, is one of a series of farcical and ferocious despots. Pound, like Leonardo, Gertrude Stein and many others, is one of a series of artists whose concern is to discover or create order. But then we remember that Mao, in the first story, is also a poet. Then we remember that Gertrude Stein, in the first story, plays Napoleon and that Alice B. Toklas calls her "Augustus Caesar." In the fifth story we will read that Stein "has cut her hair short to look like a Roman emperor and to be modern."
But by this time, halfway through the book, the motifs have become so numerous, so complex in their combinations, that the mind cannot hold them together. One can only enjoy them as they occur and recur and intertwine…. Behind the appearance of fragmentation and inconsequence, the various series distribute harmonies. And so it is with the world: Fourier, like his immediate...
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[Almost] everything about Da Vinci's Bicycle … is complicated. Writing in the tradition of Joyce, Pound, Beckett, and Eliot (all of whom appear in allusions or as actual characters), Davenport mixes chronologies, tones, voices, languages, and chunks of other learned books to create dizzying collages that are often impressive in their cleverness and intricacy, but sometimes wearying in their self-conscious erudition.
In several passages, both qualities appear at once. Of a balloon trip he writes, "It was like striding over a sea of gelatin, that bell-stroke swing of our nacelle through the rack of the upper air on elastic wicker, wind thrumming the frapping with the elation of Schumann strings allegro molto vivace." One admires the musical effect but resents the musical analogy. Schumann doesn't sound any more like balloons than Stravinsky ("The crickets sing around us, fine as Stravinsky") sounds like crickets.
The best stories, ironically, are the simplest. In "Ithaka" we meet an anguished Ezra Pound, back from the asylum for the criminally insane…. In "The Wooden Dove of Archytas," an ancient Greek narrative involving the ascension of a steam-operated dove is juxtaposed with a 19th-century tale of sorcery…. With its double crescendo and deftly orchestrated imagery, the story carries the reader to some nice heights too.
It is appropriate that these enticingly experimental stories...
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"Ten stories" is the publisher's description of Da Vinci's Bicycle. Davenport's own word for what he makes is assemblages. His paragraphs array and elaborate discrete themes: the Paris of Miss Stein and Picasso, the anatomy of the wasp, the myths of a Dogon cosmologist, the Wrights, Charles Fourier; also the young photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue, and Da Vinci drawing a bicycle (as he did). All are found actualities. All are foragers, enamored of the particulate. All make up worlds out of innumerable acts of perception. And all are themselves made on these pages out of words, more than half of them monosyllabic, the way Seurat made large intricate pictures out of little spots of paint.
Nothing attracts Guy Davenport like a world almost impossible to imagine, requiring reconstitution atom by atom. (p. 1240)
Imagine. But we cannot imagine more than we are, and even Davenport's personages are all oblique self-portraits, even the Richard Nixon who utters banalities in China, a thing we are all of us doing much of the time. The most remarkable is the voice of the last strict fantasy, Robert Walser of Biel, who has experienced the world as widely as Odysseus…. [He] assembles memories and bizarre observations, and writes above the final blank space, "But let us desist, lest quite by accident we be so unlucky as to put these things in order."
There is an order which is death, placid in...
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