The Guy Davenport Reader
Erik Reece, Editor
Guy Davenport seems comfortable in any genre. Personal essays, nostalgia, parables, translating (and interpretating) the ancients, neo-pornography, dialogue, art criticism, and literary criticism. And when we write "criticism," it is not the drabs and the dregs that you'll find in literary journals flooding from logorrheic PhDs born of the fusty English Departments at Berkelely, Yale, or Columbia. For whatever else he is, Davenport is an entertainer ... to the point of being able to take literary dullards like Kafka and Poe and turn them, too, into charming entertainers.
One of the most fetching chapters here is "Belinda's World Tour." When little Lizaveta of Prague was taken home in her pram, it was found that she had lost her doll Belinda. "Her grief was the more terrible in that they had a guest to tea, Herr Doktor Kafka of the Assicurazioni Generali."
Franz addresses himself to the weeping Lizaveta. He tells her that while she was at the park, her beloved doll had "met a little boy her own age, perhaps a doll, perhaps a little boy, I couldn't tell, who invited her to go with him around the world. But he was leaving immediately. There was no time to dally." However, Herr Kafka reveals that the boy asked him to explain to her that he would write daily. And he does.
Over the next few weeks, picture postcards arrive. One from London, with a picture of the London Bridge. Another from Cøpenhagen, where Belinda is staying with "a nice gentleman named Hans Christian Andersen." A third from Japan, with views of Fujyama, being "a blue mountain with snow on top." It's enough to make you want to have known Franz Kafka when we were quite young, or, maybe even better, his amanuensis, Guy Davenport.
§ § §
Davenport is capable of writing straight, great, learned set pieces. "The Death of Picasso" has to do with Picasso's death (they hear it on the radio), but it turns into an extended idyl on an island named Snegren, "a hump of old red sandstone in the cold North Sea." It's the chance for us to be with Davenport and his young love Sander for a few days.
They are building a hutch. In the first few pages, we'll have enlightening asides on Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh (during the time they lived together). Then, Sander tells Davenport (and us) that "Italian looks like Latin respelled by an English tourist." The writer then remembers that the French philosopher Henri Bergson "went around calling the American pragmatist William Jones." All the while there's Schubert's second quartet on the radio, "fine against the mewing of gulls and the somber wash of the sea."
Davenport certainly makes us wish we were on that island with the two of them, as he meanders around in the arts, pulling all so many strings together: "Painter feels the body of the sitter as he works, two mimeses. Open hand in David, the beauty of legs in Goya. Watch contours and see what else they bound other than the image we see: thus Freud found the scavenger bird. Philosophical rigor of moralists: Goya, Daumier, van Gogh. It has taken a century for drama to catch up with the painters. A line through Molière, Jarry, Ionesco."
Themes refine, become subtle and articulate from age to age: children who will become artists brood in window seats on art they absorb into the deep grain of their sensibilities: Mr Punch and Pinocchio in the lap of Klee become metaphysical puppets in a series of caprichos to Mozart rather than the Spanish guitar ... we hear on the radio that Picasso is dead.The key to this is that it's all very offhand. Davenport lets the arts run together in his mental Mixmaster. And he's not necessarily showing off, doesn't seem to be: he's just having fun, taking us along with him as he meanders around in the playground of Western humanities, ending (in this case) with a brief on Picasso.
And Davenport being Davenport, it includes a sideways look at Picasso's Spain: "Natural rhythm, as all the variations of fish and leaf make a coherent harmony. A fish is a leaf ... Wine, bread, table: his Catholic childhood. Perhaps his Catholic life. Lute, guitar, mandolin: the Spanish ear, which abides life as a terrible dream made tolerable by music."
Davenport draws us in through brief references to our common knowledge, then, raises the magnifying glass and brings the whole scene into focus:
Spain and Holland. Felipe's expulsion of farmers and bankers, whom he saw with fanatic eyes as Muslims and Jews, shifted the counting houses to Holland. Spain dreamed on its pagent of men dressed in black and women in shawls, surrounded by agonies they kept as symbols to validate, as ritual, the cruelty they claimed as their piety: the lynching of ecstatics, heretics, and humanists, the slaughtering of bulls, the sending of navies and armies against all other cultures of the Mediterranean ... Silver to the east, pepper to the west, silver and pepper, wool and cloves, gold and wheat, cannon and Titians.
Davenport's journey in a sentence is worthy of Proust, Joyce, Nabokov, filled as it is with philosophical, artistic, literary, and scientific allusions (maybe even a dab of hot air); he's outdogging the shaggy dog; words tossed in the pot not to show off smarts (he has plenty) but because he likes setting off fireworks (and hot air balloons) ... tossing out the bombs with bon-bons alike, pulling together in a few sentences enough literary hooks to take us up on a ride over Bittersfeld as "our shadow flowed over a red tile roof, a barn, three Holstein cows, a railroad track," leading us to "that delusion of travel where you can't be sure if you are moving or the scene outside is wheeling by on its own," finally bringing in the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach,
who leaned over bridges and waited for the flip-flop of reality whereby he knew he was on a swift bridge flying down an immobile river, and none of us knows whether our train or the one beside is sliding out of the station.
§ § §
To read Davenport, at times one only needs a sense of the droll. At others, one feels that it would help to have a Doctorate from Harvard in hermeneutics, with an advanced degree in epistemology from the Sorbonne.
Yet when he finally touches down, he does so with finesse. He meditates on his young love Sander, who has a habit of parading around au naturel. For all the sophisticated wizardry, Davenport seems to be in love with (or at the least in lust with) his young companion who we find, at one point, down on his elbows and knees, "panting like a dog."
I ask why the boondoggle, out of waggish curiosity. I get a gape and stare and something like a bark. Patches of the young mind remain animal and inarticulate, not to be inspected by sophistication, such as a grave study of toes, heroic stretches on waking, the choice of clothes, the pleased mischief, lips pursed, eyebrows raised, of padding about in the torn and laundry-battered, blue shirt only, tumescens lascive mentula praeputio demiretracto.
Like Gibbon, we have here a writer who drifts into classic Latin when we get to the most revealing passages.
§ § §
Davenport grew up on the Georgia-South Carolina border so of course he spoke southern language, esp. when he found a black family with the same name as his. They "traded family histories, black being as talkative and open as poor whites are silent and reticent, until we discovered that their folk had belonged to ours. Where-upon we were treated as visiting royalty; a veritable party was made of it, and when we were leaving, an ancient black Davenport embraced my father with tears in his eyes. "O Lord, Marse Guy," he said, "don't you wish it was the good old slavery times again!" Only a little reverse paternalism here, no?
One of the best chapters tells of meeting the photographer Eugene Meatyard [see Figs 2 and 3] with his friend, Stan Brakhage. At the time, Davenport and Meatyard lived in Lexington, Kentucky. Davenport tells us that the photographer didn't develop his film more than once a year: "He didn't want to be tyrannized by impatience, and I suspect that he didn't like being cooped up in the darkroom. He was a lens grinder by profession," had his own shop for selling spectacles.
One could usually find the Meatyards up to something rich and strange: making violet jam (or some other sufficiently unlikely flavor), model ships, fanciful book covers; listening to a superb collection of antique jazz, or to recordings which Gene seemed to dream up and then command into existence of, like the Andrews sisters singing Poe's "Raven" ("Ulalume" on the flip side, both in close harmony.) He had a recording of the wedding of Sister Rosetta Tharp. He had a looseleaf notebook of thousands of grotesque and absurd names [no mention here of his own]. He was a living encyclopedia of bizarre accidents and Kentucky locutions. One evening he turned up to tell with delight of hearing an old man say of the moving pictures these days that by God you can see the actors' geniotrotties.
"Gene's extraordinary difference from any type sometimes puzzled people when they first met him. One evening the Montaigne scholar Marcel Gutwirth was in town, and he and Gene and I had a marvelous evening of talk while watching a new litter of kittens spring around the living room. When I walked Professor Gutwirth back to his hotel afterwards, he asked who this Monsieur Meatyard might be."
"Oh, Gene's wonderful," I said. "He knows more about modern literature than anyone at the university, but he's never read the Odyssey."
"But, ah!" Marcel Gutwirth said, "What a reading the Odyssey will have when he gets around to it!"
One wants to take Davenport a chapter or two at a time. Since there are thirty-five in all here, I would hope in the month you dip into it you will be as pleased as I was, pleased as punch to find again a writer from the far past who can enthrall with his ability to run from "The Richard Nixon Freischútz Rag" to Herakleitos and Diogenes keeping us panting (and barking) along with him all the while.