Guy Davenport

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Davenport, Guy, Jr. 1927–

Davenport is a short story writer, essayist, poet, editor, illustrator, and translator of classical Greek. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Richard Pevear

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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 figures are represented as having wisdom, though what they think remains unthought in the stories. Fiction is a medium for reverie, for the romance of reality, for synthetic portraiture; it is not a medium for thought. But the preponderance of thematic ideas in these stories seems to call for thought. Ideas are not presented as traits of character; on the contrary, characters are chosen because they represent ideas. But the repetition of the same cluster of ideas throughout the book makes one feel, after a while, that the characters are trapped in them and limited by them, that they are tired of speaking these incantations that have frozen them into attitudes. The end of "Tatlin!" and the end of "The Dawn in Erewhon" have the same melancholy; it is like a sudden aging. Fiction encourages us to see the characters in Tatlin! as living human beings, but the author's hand pushes them toward abstraction and caricature. Yet the author is forbidden by the techniques of fiction to let his hand show. (p. 145)

The story ["The Dawn in Erewhon"], which draws together the other five and at the same time reflects back on them, is itself polymorphous; it maintains the spell of fiction, yet is also a fantasia on the writing of fictions; its ideas,...

(This entire section contains 893 words.)

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particularly its Utopian theme, are presented seriously in one place but travestied in another; its ideal man, both thinker and gymnast, rebirth of the archaic in the modern, is shown at the same time to be narcissistic, epicurean, vague, pretentious, and ill-at-ease. Why is it all so curiously two-sided? I think that is the right question to ask of the story, provided it is asked inquiringly. Reverie and critical intelligence mingle in various ways inTatlin!; here they are in complex opposition. If the story were resolved either into consistent fiction or into satire, it would lose its peculiar rightness.

The puzzle of Adriaan van Hovendaal holds the materials of the story together. He is presented rather simply, as a light-hearted visual thinker, an orderly sensualist, a dreamer of worlds…. Adriaan van Hovendaal is a man of leisure. He thinks analogically, brilliantly, easily; he has an appetite for thinking. But his thought meets no opposition, and therefore it has no conception of necessity and is devoid of will. In this contradictory condition there is a real and disturbing truth, a truth of character that is also a truth of history. It seems almost to have taken the story by surprise.

Pathless on all paths: something of this realization comes over Adriaan van Hovendaal in the next to last chapter of the story, though its tragic poetry is colored by epicurean melancholy and a stoic resolution. His pathlessness is the impasse of fiction, the inner condition of our time, and if it has been recognized critically before, it has rarely been given such familiar likeness. It is a portrait relieved of gravity but not of seriousness, at once a self-confession and a self-satire, a study in the problematics of the modern neopagan, city-dwelling intellect. (pp. 145-46)

Richard Pevear, "'Tatlin!', or the Limits of Fiction," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 141-46.

Richard Wertime

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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 persona for Guy Davenport…. At the story's conclusion, Herakleitos and his "family" naue eir offerings in the temple of an unnamed female deity, who is probably Artemis, Mother of Lions; and the book Herakleitos lays at her black basalt feet, in announced fulfillment of his promise, is also this one, Tatlin!, Davenport's own.

Tatlin! may be properly said to crest with "Herakleitos." The two stories following it, the one very short and the other very long, are, if not darker, at least more complicated and troubled by perplexity. But the figure of Herakleitos persists; and he has emerged by the work's end as one of the two presiding geniuses of the author's philosophy. The other is Pythagoras, inventor of abstract order, lover of pure numerical harmony. These two exist in absolute complementarity and paradoxical otherness; together they unite the worlds of mind and random matter. Blake figures heavily in this synthesis too….

I must scant the penultimate story (the one about Poe in Russia) in order to get to "The Dawn in Erewhon," which occupies fully half the collection under consideration, and which is the story that best exemplifies the peculiar strengths and limitations of Davenport's writing. The reader of Tatlin! will know, almost as soon as he opens the book, that it is a man of staggering erudition whose company he is sharing. And he will be impressed rightly. This is a writer, in addition, who knows the risks which he has taken, and who feels up to whatever quarrel he may have with our sensibilities…. [The] verbal diet, already rich in the first five stories, becomes in "The Dawn in Erewhon" so heavily virtuosic as to be, at times, cloying. One begins to wonder if Davenport isn't waging war against Finnegans Wake, isn't out to capture the record for the number of different vocables used. This is, let me emphasize, a first and not, possibly, a lasting impression; I would demean the author wrongly if I portrayed him here as having trundled out his knowledge for the paltry purpose of leaving his readers stunned. (pp. 951-53)

Davenport is a "layerer." Yet hearty banqueting has its limits; and these are limits that will fix themselves, like a kind of floating boundary, between the tolerance of the reader and the economy, the utility, of the author's style. Tatlin! enters a world not overly tolerant of opulence, especially verbal opulence of the traditional and allusive sort. In prose, as in poetry, the contemporary writer fears the charge of dandyism a great deal more than that of flatness. And this is, in many ways, unfortunate.

But I must still take up the quarrel. And to do so, I will have to turn to plot and structure. What actually happens in "The Dawn in Erewhon"? Although the story doesn't lend itself to easy summarizing, it does have distinct narrative strands which interweave. The most conventional and accessible of these concerns Adriaan Floris van Hovendaal, a contemporary Dutch philosopher. Adriaan teaches at a university and writes on odd subjects…. He also, and this is of equal importance, is building his own utopia, a private kingdom of freedom whose principal liberty is sex. In a sense, "The Dawn in Erewhon" is "Herakleitos" much extended; and if Herakleitos looks like a persona for Guy Davenport, Adriaan might well be his chosen alter ego…. [He has] a relationship with a girl named Kaatje…. They make love prodigiously, take sun in the buff almost as often, and blend their rapt sensuality with a daily fare of study and thought. (pp. 953-54)

[There] is a pleasantly unworldly quality to the plot's erotic aspect. And Davenport chooses to play it good-naturedly. While this strand of action works its way toward its conclusion, a conclusion not very surprising but nonetheless a little disquieting, the other strands—so different, it seems—are gradually revealing their relation to, their oneness with, the more evident doings. Out of antithesis comes synthesis. The moon is used to symbolize this synthesizing motion…. [By] the final page of Tatlin! the staggering distance separating moon and earth is closed both geographically and psychically. As Neil Armstrong takes man's first step into extraterrestrial dust, we are made to see, if we haven't already, that that familiar slogan, "whole earth," means by an implication startling in its necessary simplicity "whole cosmos" as well. With his good looks and blue eyes, Armstrong is the new Adam awakening to the new Eden, the Eden of space. "Dawn in Erewhon," then, is an aubade, a hymn; the nowhere of Erewhon is the plenum of infinity, through whose magical lens one may glimpse the back of one's head, if one has vision heroic enough.

This motif of travel as the means of achieving closure informs the other important elements of the plot. As befits the universality of paradox and contradiction, "The Dawn in Erewhon" is a sort of ave atque vale, an intricate satire à la Swift as well as a hymn to the new age. (pp. 954-55)

What do I find to criticize, then, in such an intelligent effort? The problem is one of achieving that proper blend of language and action, of securing for each an interest which will justify its density as well as carry the reader forward…. Not only does Davenport push too far in his searching out of fancy words for inessential purposes, but there is a corresponding thinness in the actual human doings which exacerbates the matter. Again, I am speaking only of "The Dawn in Erewhon." Comical prolixity ceases to be funny if overextended; and even idyllic hedonism has, for onlookers anyhow, decided limitations. The voluptuous Kaatje is a case in point: how little, really, we know of her beyond her bedding habits. There is ardor and trust and kindliness in all these characters, but not much warmth and curiosity. Or should I say, perhaps, attentiveness—attention to all the things which lie between the riot of copulation and the antipodal calm found in philosophic thought.

This "middle zone," as it were, is where the most important action in our literature occurs. Earlier I said that most of the characters in Tatlin! lead disjunctive lives, lives alleviated by periods of happy conjunction. "Erewhon" appears to be an exception to this rule, but in fact it is not. Probably our lives are for the most part lived disjunctively; and I admire Guy Davenport for expressing his impatience with the usual sorts of relationships on which our fiction gluts itself. But the fact still stands that his particular sort of realism, of conjunction-in-disjunction, inverts the essential condition of intimacy as most of us know it, and as the Western novel has known it for a couple of hundred years. The tension in most fiction, both good and bad, results from a revelation to someone—someone "close" to someone else—that the conjunctive state by which they have been habitually defining themselves has become, or is becoming, a fraud, a mask, a mere formality. It is then that the painful fragility of human relationships opens up into something which can only be rendered fully by means of a visible social act. It is only then, for instance, that tragedy—a word used often in the pages of Tatlin! to describe the intellectual quandaries that modern man has fallen into—can possibly occur. The point at which the lovers have arrived at the conclusion of "Erewhon" is pregnant with suggestions of just such complex human developments. But it is as if the story's form has conspired with authorial reticence to keep them from maturing.

It had occurred to me, along the way, to cite Hawkes's The Blood Oranges as a piece of fiction whose merits and problems are parallel to those of "Erewhon." But Tatlin!, even "Erewhon" alone, dwarfs John Hawkes's novel. It dwarfs many another novel to have appeared in recent years as well; it is, for all the complaints which I have marshalled here, a brave and magnificent undertaking—arrogant, individual to a nearly perverse degree, endlessly rewarding in its bestowal of special benefits. Tatlin! is not likely to attract a wide following—such works never do, at least not quickly—and it is not very likely to encourage imitation. This would suit Guy Davenport. Tatlin! is a summa, in design a cosmic comedy; it is tragical-comical-historical-pastoral; scene indivisible and poem unlimited. One could do worse. (pp. 955-57)

Richard Wertime, "Book Reviews: 'Tatlin!'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1975, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXIX, No. 4, Winter, 1975, pp. 948-57.

Hugh Witemeyer

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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 is not exclusive and cannot be demonstrated in terms of specific sources or passages. Some of Pound's most important contributions to Tatlin!, in other words, are difficult to isolate because they are integral to Guy Davenport's imagination, and inseparable from the very conception of the book….

[Four other influences are also evident:] Pound's biographical presence; his influence upon Davenport's presentation of the Mediterranean world; the vision of a cultural vortex in the title story; and the fusion of eros and intellect in the long concluding story. These features of Tatlin! are not just modernist; they could not exist as they do if Pound had not been in the movement. (p. 57)

Pound, then, contributes several identifiable threads to the rich tapestry of Tatlin! He is, to be sure, only one presence among many in a set of stories that draws from an astonishing variety of sources. But discussion of this book should begin with its constituent elements, for Tatlin! is constructed according to a principle stated by Herakleitos in the story that bears his name: "Men who wish to know about the world … must learn about it in its particulars. Our knowledge will never be complete, just as our understanding will never be complete." (p. 60)

Hugh Witemeyer, "Ezra Pound's Presence in Guy Davenport's 'Tatlin!'" in Vort (copyright Barry Alpert, 1976), Vol. 3, No. 3, 1976, pp. 57-60.

George Stade

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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 predecessors, Cuvier, Linnaeus, Buffon and Swedenborg, "all searched out the harmonies, the affinities, the kinship of the orders of nature." Mr. Davenport, like the artists in these stories, searches out the attractions, proportions and destinies among the orders of history, literature and human nature. "All of nature is series and pivot," says Fourier, and so are all of Mr. Davenport's stories. (p. 9)

[Davenport's] methods and doctrines are pretty much those of high modernism, of Pound, Eliot and Joyce, as are its difficult beauties. With that observation in mind, the stories at first struck me as dated, as anachronistic, for all their formidable art and intelligence, as derivative, for all their unconventionality. The modernist moment is past; in theory, at least, different moments call for different methods. But on the second go-around my preconceptions crumbled before the human impact of the stories; they now struck me as simply very good, by any standard, except that of immediate accessibility. They struck me as good for the usual reasons, for the author's ear for dialogue, for his heart, his head, his sense of humor. (p. 28)

George Stade, "Fiction in the Modernist Mode," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 17, 1979, pp. 9, 28.

Jack Sullivan

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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.

Hugh Kenner

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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 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.


Guy Davenport Short Fiction Analysis


Davenport, Guy, Jr. (Vol. 6)