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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Tatlin! is the collection of short stories that made Davenport one of the most admired and studied fiction writers in modern American literature. Most of the reviewers who commented on the volume when it appeared admitted that they had seen nothing like these highly sophisticated and polished stories, either in subject matter or technique. The stories range from the title piece, about the founder of Constructivism and Russian Formalism, to a story about young boys who stumble on the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, France, in “Robot,” and move through the deep Greek past in “Herakleitos” to an imaginary past of the writer Edgar Allan Poe in “1830.” The volume ends in an imaginative descent into Holland as a sensual “netherland” or underworld, where a Dutch philosopher attempts to regenerate an earthly Eden by means of the body.

The second story in the collection, “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” was actually the first story that Davenport published and concerns a famous air show at Brescia, Italy, in 1909 in which most of the world’s renowned pilots took part. The construction of the story has become as famous as the story itself; Davenport initially began it as an essay on writer Franz Kafka, but in the midst of his research, he discovered that Kafka’s first published newspaper story was titled “The Aeroplanes at Brescia.” Though Kafka’s story was a piece of journalism, Davenport views it as a typical Kafka short story and uses, in his own story, every sentence that Kafka wrote. However, Davenport makes important changes to suit his own style. Accompanying Kafka was Max Brod, a character in Davenport’s story as well as Kafka’s first biographer. Davenport also used every sentence of Brod’s report of the air show at Brescia in his story. Again, he rearranges both Kafka’s and Brod’s sentences in highly imaginative ways to produce a composite narrative that fuses all of their perspectives into a typical Davenport story.

Davenport employs similar methods in many of the other stories in Tatlin! . In the title narrative, he tells the story of the difficult life of Vladimir Tatlin, founder of Constructivism, an engineer, designer, painter, sailor, teacher, and folk musician—a veritable modern Renaissance man whose genius was crushed by the life-denying strategies of communism. Davenport, also a highly respected artist, interweaves his own...

(The entire section is 740 words.)