It is not altogether surprising, though it is nevertheless disconcerting, that even after the publication of twenty previous books Guy Davenport should not be better known, more widely read, and more frequently anthologized than he is. There are of course reasons, not least his being a scholar and a writer’s writer. Six of his twenty books are, after all, translations of ancient Greek poets; two others collections of his own poetry; one “a specimen book” of Louis Agassiz’s scientific writings; three are collections of essays on various, mainly literary topics. Of Davenport’s nine books of fiction, the first two, Tatlin! (1974) and Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979), rank with the very best of the twentieth century. That all but one of the twenty have been published by small and university presses has surely contributed both to the making of his reputation and the limiting of his audience. This seems especially true of the very attractively produced works published throughout the 1980’s by North Point Press, which unfortunately has since suspended operations. Thankfully, Johns Hopkins University Press, which originally published Da Vinci’s Bicycle, has reissued Eclogues (1981) and The Jules Verne Steam Balloon (1987) as well as Tatlin! (first published by Scribner’s). The release of A Table of Green Fields by New Directions, situated somewhere between the exclusivity of small and university presses and the wide distribution capability of firms such as Scribner’s, is even more encouraging.
In approaching Davenport’s work, his fiction in particular, readers need to keep in mind that the writing is dense, even difficult; it appears highly unconventional, very different from other essays and “stories.” Yet his work also seems strangely familiar and, its obscurity notwithstanding, delightful, a feast for eye, ear, and mind. Wide-ranging and often literally amazing, the stories rarely turn in on themselves for all their self-conscious artistry and erudite display. Davenport’s “understanding of the world is always”-as he has said of Ezra Pound’s-“directed towards making us share the understanding he has found in other minds.” Like Pound, Davenport is devoted to the archaic, to “something lost… energies, values, and certainties unwisely abandoned by an industrial age.” In Davenport this “foraging” in the past seems at once cerebral and surreal, the narrative counterpart of the “time machine” mentioned in A Table of Green Fields, “H. G. Wells’s as modified by Alfred Jarry.” More often than not Davenport’s time-traveling narrator and his reader end up in a world less postmodern than pastoral in which youths, often Scandinavians, prove intellectually and sexually inquisitive in equal measure.
This inquisitiveness serves as alternative to the acquisitiveness so typical of the industrial age. As Gunnar the sculptor-mentor says to Nikolai, his model and pupil (as well as his model pupil), “The century’s mystery is that intelligent children become teen-age louts, who grow up to be pompous dullards. I’d like to know why.” There is nothing dull or pompous or loutish in Davenport’s writing, which for all its intellectual and intertextual heft (evidence of Davenport’s own wanting “to know why”) seems surprisingly limpid. Perhaps, though, one should say “deceptively limpid,” for more often than not the clarity of his writing masks Davenport’s mastery of a multiplicity of sources, sources with which he often plays fast and loose. In this he is not unlike “the convicted embezzler 0. Henry,” whom Davenport has called “one of literature’s masters of sneaking beautifully falsified information past the reader.” Embezzler and archaeologist, Davenport is also a brilliant architect (and fine illustrator), master of the architectonic structure that has, for modernists and postmodernists alike, displaced conventional narrative form and its preoccupation with linear plot, character development, and Jamesian alternation of scene and picture. Davenport develops, or rather assembles, his fictions differently, juxtaposing elements “free to form associations of their own.”
Though clearly related to T. S. Eliot’s method in The Waste Land (1922) of “shoring up the fragments against the ruin,” Davenport’s method works to affirm the power of the redemptive imagination rather than, as in Eliot, the need for a more narrowly defined spiritual salvation. The method is particularly evident and especially effective in “August Blue,” the first of the ten stories in A Table of Green Fields. Set in contemporary Jerusalem, the first of the story’s four parts deals with a famous fig tree whose fruit appears more blue than green, the three boys who pass it every day on the way to school where they learn about the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the alef and Beth embedded in the story’s title. Set chiefly in 1842, the second part concerns the efforts of a young English Jew, James Joseph Sylvester, recently arrived at the University of Virginia, to teach mathematics to aggressively anti- intellectual students more interested in gambling, drinking, Jew- baiting, and maintaining their sense of aristocratic privilege than in realizing the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer. Sylvester eventually makes his way to the more congenial atmosphere of Johns Hopkins University, “where he...