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 the spirit of reverie. And it seems to me that the origin of the stories must have been more in reverie than in thought: dreams of an educated mind, the sort of thing that comes into your head as you sit among the books and objects in your study….
Reverie attaches to ideas as well. "The Dawn in Erewhon" is a tissue of ideas that are elegantly formed, savored for their resonance, made fragrant with strong coffee and the honey and tar of tobacco, and never really thought. They are ideas as beautiful objects, ideas as tokens of an ingenious mind; what counts is not the ideas themselves but the feeling of having them. (p. 144)
Dreams of the wise man are an important part of Tatlin! These...
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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, revolving meditations on the philosophic problems that have most vexed our century. Davenport has virtually contrived a new genre to house the breadth of his interests. Happily, to my mind, his work is still fictive in essence. In fact, its most striking attribute is not the intelligent commentary on the human condition—and there is plenty of that—nor yet the dazzle of its language, about which I shall have a good deal more to say later; it is, rather, the keenness of the eye which observes. It is a funny, often hilarious book, one packed with the drama of the mundane, the minor. It also jolts us by rehumanizing historical figures who have grown remote and unreal with the passage of time. Franz Kafka appears implausibly as a tourist off in Italy, and Edgar Allan Poe appears in a parallel tale, in St. Petersburg. We watch the philosopher Herakleitos take his morning exercises with slave, student, and servant-girl. Like the humor, such characterization is didactic in its intent: we are forced to be sceptical of overly lofty notions and encouraged to see the unity in the diversity of the world. Davenport's Herakleitos says that "the most beautiful order of the world is still a random gathering of things insignificant in themselves." This "in themselves" is tricky. For the artist both does and does not "give" his subjects beauty. As another character says, in rather more impacted language, "It is elective affinities that knit the discrete particulars of the world into that artificial fabric whose essence we perceive as beauty." Kierkegaard provides the means of reconciling these statements in his definition of admiration as happy self-surrender. Tatlin! is a work informed, indeed, suffused with admiration.
The first story, "Tatlin!", is an epic of sorts in miniature—though I suspect that such a description of it will strike some readers as odd. It concerns one Vladimir Tatlin, versatile Russian of this century, who … was a victim of the Soviets' brutal and stifling ideology. What the story does, essentially, is to weave together pieces of this man's personal life with pastiche glimpses of the restless Western world during the years that Communist Russia was promoting, then reneging on, its political promise. The final effect is panoramic: art, aviation (both enduring themes in all these stories), engineering, modern philosophy, world travel, childhood dabblings; all of these collect to express the "spirit of the age," which, though less grim for Davenport than it was for Joyce and Pound, is nevertheless bewildering and awesome in its complexity. (pp. 949-50)
["Tatlin!"] acts as an induction to the rest of the book in both its presentation of character and its technical brilliance. The utilization of counterpoint; the sprinkling of aphorisms; the energizing use of names of everything imaginable; the entrelacement lifted, perhaps, from medieval narrative; the devotion to quaint tidbits that light up suddenly—these typify, like the character of Tatlin himself, much of what follows. (p. 950)
In "The Aeroplanes at Brescia," the second story in the collection, we find Franz Kafka off in Italy with friends, a reminder of the fact that Kafka is not, indeed, a character in a fiction by Kafka. The story is set at an aerial show…. At the end of the story, while the show is winding up, Kafka's eyes mist over suddenly with an undefinable emotion. Does he feel the odd joy of watching a new era open? Or are there darker intimations, a vague prophetic sense of what this new era will bring?
The next story, "Robot," extends the theme of ambiguity as well as the kindly, whimsical tone. It chronicles the discovery of the Lascaux cave-paintings by a dog and a group of boys out playing in the woods…. Random accident, here, shades over into serendipity, into epiphany, and the implication is that the same is true of most of man's great discoveries.
The next story in the book, "Herakleitos," is about celebration, and is itself a celebration. A young man, Knaps, has come from his rocky Arkadian homeland to listen to the wisdom of Herakleitos. The story spoofs beautifully the life of a college teacher; of all the characters assembled between the covers of Tatlin!, Herakleitos is most conspicuously a...
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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….
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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...
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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 are about explorers and pioneers. At his best, Davenport belongs in the same company as his "foragers" of language and experience.
Jack Sullivan, "Books in Brief: 'Da Vinci's Bicycle'," in Saturday Review (© 1979 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 6, No. 14, July 7, 1979, p. 46.
"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 brains wherein thousands of words have died, and people suppose that they know what they are saying when they say (Richard Nixon said it), "The world is watching us." Five little words. And who knows the meaning of "The"? (p. 1241)
Hugh Kenner, "Assemblages," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1979; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXI, No. 39, September 28, 1979, pp. 1238-41.