Guy Davenport on Writing and Reading
|Guy Davenport, illustration from Apples & Pears|
I've just begun reading Andre Furlani's Guy Davenport: Postmodern and After, a magnificent book (so far), and went to track down one of the items cited there, a 2002 interview by B. Renner for the website Elimae. Alas, the site seems to have died, but god bless the Wayback Machine: here it is, cached.
The interview is not as meaty as some others, for instance Davenport's Paris Review interview, but it's always interesting, and I was particularly struck by this:
DAVENPORT: At Duke I took Prof Blackburn's Creative Writing course (Bill Styron and Mac Hyman were in the class) and got the wrong impression that writing is an effusion of genius and talent. Also, that writing fiction is Expression of significant and deep inner emotion. It took me years to shake off all this. Writing is making a construct, and what's in the story is what's important. And style: in what words and phrases the story is told. (William Blackburn, the full name. His guiding us all toward autobiographical, confessional, "emotional" writing is -- in reaction -- why I write about concrete objectivities that are fairly remote from my own experiences. I like to imagine how other people feel in a world different from my own.)Also:
ELIMAE: Almost none of your stories take place in the U.S. or involve American characters. Is there a particular reason for this? Are Americans and the U.S. less noteworthy than other peoples and places, especially Europeans and Europe, or is it as simple as a matter of going to subject matter that hasn't already been done to death by other American writers?And then there's a Davenport desert island list!
DAVENPORT: A clever critic might note that they are all set in the USA. "Tatlin!" is a fable about totalitarian governments strangling creativity, not always blatantly and openly. At the time I was lecturing on Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, the classic study in our time of Government and The Poet. Vladimir Tatlin's genius suffocated by Stalin seemed to me to be paradigmatic and timely. I learned from Kafka's Amerika that you don't have to have a realistic knowledge of a place, and from Nabokov that "realism" is simply a fashionable mode.
We are still immigrants. Culture imports and exports. There was a great anxiety that European culture would be obliterated twice in the 20th century. I became interested in "Europe" through Whistler's etchings.
ELIMAE: Here's my version of the "desert island" question: if you could select any six books (besides your own) originally written in your lifetime, and be the author of those books, which six would they be?Finally, I also found an interesting mention of Davenport in this interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose whole response about the connection of writing and reading is great, but here's the Davenport part:
DAVENPORT: Your 6 books question is diabolical! I couldn't have written any of 'em.
Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples
P. Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower
Michel Tournier, Les Meteores
Isak Dinesen, Anecdotes of Destiny
Mann, Doktor Faustus
That said, how do you get to be a better reader? I asked Guy Davenport this question one time, because talking to him could really make a person despair; he just knew so much, he’d read so much in many languages, but not in a pedantic or scholastic way, in a really passionate way. He gave me what I thought was very solid advice, which was: first of all, start reading and don’t stop. The other thing is to follow your interest. He said there ought to be a phrase, “falling into interest,” to go with falling in love.
Follow your interest; follow the writers who energize you, not the ones who exert a sense of obligation on you. The books that do the one or the other will change, as time gone on. The landscape shifts. Don’t adhere to systems unless that feels good.