The Jules Verne Steam Balloon
No one writes like Guy Davenport; he has created an imaginative world that is immediately recognizable, unmistakably his. Davenport’s first book of stories, TATLIN!, published in 1974, astonished readers with its historical range and its uncanny empathy with its subjects, re-creating classical Greece and twentieth century Russia with equal authority, bringing Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka fresh to life. In subsequent collections-- this is his fifth--Davenport has intermittently repeated those triumphs of imagination, but increasingly his fiction has narrowed in scope. More and more of his stories are set in a simulacrum of the contemporary world, nominally the Netherlands or Denmark but in fact a never-never land where athletic men and women (and boys and girls) discuss philosophy, write books, paint pictures, and indulge in endless sexual play. For the most part, the sex is neither romantic nor perverse but rather almost hygienic.
THE JULES VERNE STEAM BALLOON continues in this vein, mixing small delights with larger disappointments. The collection includes several very short pieces, all of which have the blend of authenticity and essential strangeness that distinguished Davenport’s first stories. “Pyrrhon of Elis,” about a Skeptic philosopher who was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, and “Jonah,” a retelling of the biblical tale, are written with the economy of poetry. In the longer, linked stories that make up the bulk of the volume, Davenport gives free rein to the obsessions that have come to dominate his fiction, to such a degree as to alienate many readers. Even in these skewed fantasies, however, there are passages of great beauty and liveliness, provocative juxtapositions which reveal connections between seemingly disparate realms of experience. How the insight coexists with the skewed vision is a puzzle that the stories themselves do not begin to solve.