(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Within a few years, Guy Davenport will be the subject of seminars; there will be a shelf of books explicating his work and dissertations aplenty. George Steiner began a long retrospective review in The New Yorker (Nov. 30, 1981) on a note of discovery: “The works of Guy Davenport, professor of English at the University of Kentucky, are not easily come by.” Soon it will become unnecessary to discover Davenport.

Davenport is not exclusively a writer of fiction; indeed, he did not write his first story until he was forty-three. His Archilochos Sappho Alkman: Three Lyric Poets of the Late Greek Bronze Age (1980) was nominated for the American Book Award for translation. In addition, he has published several other volumes of translations. The Geography of the Imagination (1981), his first collection of essays, earned nominations from both the American Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle.

All of Davenport’s skills—as a teacher, as a translator, as a reviewer and literary critic, as a painter and draftsman—are brought to bear on his fiction. He has said, with characteristic self-deprecation: “I could not write at all unless I had found a way to exhaust, in my small way and to the best of my ability, the subject I’d chosen.” That “small way” is a bit deceptive: an early story, “Robot,” “required seven years of reading, a visit to the site of the story in France, a knowledge of prehistory, modern history, a sifting of my own experience.”

Davenport’s first collection of fiction, Tatlin! (1974), introduced a new form of the short story as distinctive as that of Jorge Luis Borges or Donald Barthelme. For a writer who often reads to steal, such a discovery is equivalent to a chemist’s isolation of a new element after nature’s storehouse had supposedly been exhausted. The innovative form seems an easy trick, once it’s done, and invites imitation just as a powerful new concept (“the unconscious”) attracts applications. Davenport had the honor of being widely imitated long before his work received critical attention. His second collection of stories, Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979), was equally good, and in recognition of the achievement of those two collections, Davenport was given the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award for fiction in 1981 by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Now there is Eclogues, a third brilliant collection of six stories and two novellas. In addition, the reader may want to look up several recently published stories which will make up a substantial part of Davenport’s next collection. “Joop Zoetemelk Gagne Le Maillot Jaune” (Antaeus 40/41, 1981) is another piece from the “Erewhonisch Schetsboek” of Davenport’s imaginary Dutch Fourieriste philosopher, Adriaan van Hovendaal (see “The Dawn of Erewhon” in Tatlin! and “The Death of Picasso” in Eclogues). “Fifty-seven Views of Fujiyama,” published in the literary magazine of Cambridge University (Granta 4, 1981), will one day be listed among the finest stories of this decade. It is a rare blend of formal originality and deep feeling, one of the most sweet-tempered stories in contemporary literature. The story is an assemblage of two “plots” which never meet in the narrative: the first page of text begins Davenport’s free rendering of Matsuo Bash’s Narrow Road to the Deep North (1694); the facing page describes Davenport and a companion setting out on a journey of their own. The story proceeds like this, in alternation, to its end. Finally, Davenport’s most recent fiction is the lovely small-press publication, Trois Caprices (the Pace Trust, Louisville, Kentucky, 1981), which includes three very short stories: “Pyrrhon of Elis,” “Bronze Leaves and Red,” and “Les Exploits de Nat Pinkerton de Jour en Jour.”

Eclogues contains Davenport’s characteristic variety of historical settings and narrative voices, in stories with seductive, wonderfully improbable titles. The title of the collection itself suggests a pastoral mood. Among the stories in Eclogues there is one which draws on Theocritus, and a novella which draws on Virgil; there are elegiac notes in “The Death of Picasso” in keeping with another strand of the pastoral tradition. More important than any specific echoes, however, is the lighthearted pastoral spirit which informs a number of the stories.

The first story in Eclogues, “The Trees at Lystra,” is based on Acts 14: 6-20. Narrated by a boy (a narrative voice at which Davenport excels), it tells how Paul (here called “Paulus”) and Barnabas heal a man who is lame and are taken for gods by the townspeople who worship them as Zeus and Hermes. When they explain that they are merely men who heal with the power of God, they are driven out of town by an angry mob. Although Davenport deviates slightly from the New Testament...

(The entire section is 2044 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Best Sellers. XLI, October, 1981, p. 244.

Book World. XI, September 6, 1981, p. 4.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, April 15, 1981, p. 518.

Library Journal. May 15, 1981, p. 1096.

Publishers Weekly. April 17, 1981, p. 48.

Village Voice Literary Supplement. October, 1981, p. 3.