The Guy Davenport Reader

Guy Davenport; photograph by Jonathan Williams
Counterpoint Press has just released The Guy Davenport Reader, edited by Davenport's literary executor, Erik Reece. It's a good, basic overview of Davenport's work, and a nice opportunity to review some of the highlights of that work. Davenport was one of the greatest of American writers, and a single 400-page book can only offer a brief taste of his large and eclectic oeuvre, but it seems to me that the Reader achieves what it sets out to achieve: to bring together various genres of Davenport's writing (fiction, essays, poetry, translations, journals), and, in Reece's words, "to make an argument for the extraordinary range and even, yes, the accessibility of this remarkable writer."

Accessibility is, of course, in the mind of the perceiver, and poses particular problems with Davenport's work, a fact that befuddled reviewers pointed out with every book he published. As a Rhodes Scholar, he wrote the first Oxford University thesis on James Joyce, and he later visited with Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett, so his devotion to literature often considered "difficult" was longstanding. But he wasn't only devoted to the heights of Modernism — his knowledge of ancient literatures was tremendous (7 Greeks is a marvelous collection of translations); he not only had a comprehensive grasp of European and American cultures and histories, but also those of many other regions; and he maintained a long interest in various writers and philosophers many readers would consider esoteric, particularly Charles Fourier.

But the challenge of Davenport is not merely his wide range of references. His fiction in particular causes some readers to struggle because, though they are written in a remarkably clear and precise prose, many of the stories thrive on juxtapositions and collage. They are, as Davenport called them (following Pound and others), assemblages. (Typically eclectic, Davenport said that this collage form was influenced not only by the Modernists, but perhaps even more so by the experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Gregory Markopoulos.) The fictions have no conventional plot, the purpose for including some scenes and conversations may not be easily comprehended even at the end, and Davenport had no interest in following the sorts of precepts offered by countless "how to write" manuals: action based on conflict and resolution, characters that create the illusion of psychological roundedness, etc. His interests were elsewhere: in form, style, and imagination. His stories provide another obstacle to accessibility as well: many of the best of them are about naked young men discovering the pleasures of their penises. More than one reviewer referred to Davenport's stories as pedophiliac or pornographic.

As far as I can tell, Davenport never published a single uninteresting page, which means that editing an anthological overview of his work could be easy: throw in anything, and it's great! But then there's Reece's goal of accessibility, and there the problem lies. I think he's overcome it as well as can be done, including some of Davenport's more immediately delightful writings without entirely glossing over the nature of this writer's work.

The book opens with Davenport's early story "Robot", his only fiction to be included in a Best American Short Stories volume (and one of only two included in an O. Henry Awards collection, the other being "The Richard Nixon Freischütz Rag", also included here). It's an excellent opening, a tale of the discovery of the Lascaux cave paintings — "Robot" is the name of the dog who falls into the cave, revealing it to young men in the area — and beautifully captures a sense of the best and worst of humanity: the awe of the ancient amidst the terror of war as the Nazis bear down on France and the resistance prepares. I was also pleased to see a few of my personal favorites of Davenport's fiction included: "A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg" (about Robert Walser, and in many ways the closest Davenport came to writing a self-portrait), "Belinda's World Tour" (which I wrote about in 2007), "Gunnar and Nikolai" (a good introduction to Davenport's naked boy stories, not nearly as dense as the others, nor with quite so much attention to penises), "The Concord Sonata" (Thoreau!), and "Autumn Blue" (a quartet of scenes from very different times and places, all revealing something about the crossing of borders — a perfect example of how juxtaposition can open a short story wide beyond its pages).

The essays are nicely chosen, often exploring ideas from the stories, as well as giving a sense of Davenport's primary concerns as a writer and person. A new reader to Davenport should perhaps start with the essays — "On Reading" would have made a nice preface to the book instead of being stuck past the middle, and "The Geography of the Imagination" and "The Symbol of the Archaic" are useful to anyone seeking an understanding of Davenport's art. The two poems ("The Medusa" and "The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard") are likely to be the least known works in the book for experienced Davenportians, and thus nice to have, and I was especially pleased to see all of his translations of fragments from Herakleitos and Diogenes included, as his work returns frequently to these two philosophers (it would have been nice to include the story "Herakleitos" from Tatlin!). Additionally, some of his translations of Sappho, Anakreon, and Archilochos are included, as is the translation of Rilke's first Duino Elegy, originally from Davenport's longest fiction, Apples & Pears (and not a straightforward translation, because it was done as if by one of the characters therein, as Reece notes). The collection ends with selections from Davenport's journals that he originally included in The Hunter Gracchus.

Additionally, there is a marvelous afterword by Reece, remembering Davenport as a teacher and friend. I was especially taken with his description of Davenport in the classroom:
As a teacher, Guy lectured. Or rather, he talked for fifty minutes in elliptical patterns, moving from one subject to the next much like an electron. Sometimes Guy would draw arrows back and forth on the chalkboard, from Vico to da Vinci to Samuel Beckett to Buster Keaton. But more often, he just leaned against the board, rolled a piece of chalk back and forth across the palm of his right hand, and talked. Rarely did he speak directly to whatever text we happened to be reading.
Reece relates that Davenport's attempts at class discussion proved disappointing to the teacher and bewildering to the students, so he resorted to lecture. His approach to grading the students' writing was less than enthusiastic: papers were returned "neatly creased down the middle and on the back was a generally low grade with a one- or two-word explanation." He apparently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, received bad course evaluations from numerous students and came to see himself as a failed teacher. (He retired soon after winning a MacArthur "genius" grant.) The anecdote is not only interesting in itself, but also adds an extra frisson to the depiction of James Joseph Sylvester's struggles as a teacher in "Autumn Blue".  Reece writes: "I think the failure was more on our part, as students. Too many of us lacked that one thing Guy thought so vital to education — curiosity."

Curiosity is essential for anyone approaching Davenport's work. It is work that is immensely rewarding and hugely pleasurable, but often daunting, especially if, like me, your knowledge of ancient history, mythology, and languages is superficial. But that, too, is where some of the pleasure lies, and I'm forever grateful for having grown up as a science fiction reader, because it trained me to be patient with the unfamiliar — indeed, to embrace it.

There has been one previous career-spanning Davenport selection, made by the author himself shortly before he died, The Death of Picasso: New & Selected Writing, which included only his prose. Of the fifteen stories in the Reader, eight of them were included in The Death of Picasso, though only one of the ten essays was ("The Hunter Gracchus"). The translations, poetry, and journals are nice to have in the new book, but I personally prefer the more substantial and, yes, sometimes less "accessible" Death of Picasso as a single Davenport book, even though it lacks a few of my favorite pieces that Reece includes ("Robot", "Autumn Blue", "Spinoza's Tulips", "On Reading"). I also love that The Death of Picasso does not differentiate the writings by genre — they are not marked as "fiction" or "essays" or any other label. It's disappointing to have Davenport re-genred in the new book, though I suppose necessary for making him more "accessible" to an audience less familiar with his writings.

While recognizing that, as an aficionado, I am not the target audience for this book, I must admit some disappointments with The Guy Davenport Reader. First, and quite literally most superficially, is the cover, which is awful: a Polaroid snapshot of Davenport wearing a Wittgenstein t-shirt and apparently looking down his nose at us, and then the title presented as the guy / davenport / reader, which caused my eye to see it first as a statement about "the guy". Readers of the Davenport/James Laughlin letters will know that he cared about the presentation of his books and the design of the covers, and so it is annoying to see Davenport rendered in such a way (despite the cleverness of the image suggesting the book offers its own "snapshot" of the writer). The inner design is better, with a pleasant font and, most importantly, proper layout of the dialogue in the stories, which Davenport, like Joyce, wrote with dashes rather than quotation marks, and desired (also like Joyce*) for the dashes to start at the left margin and be the same size as the paragraph indentations for exposition (as described in his December 4, 1992 letter to Laughlin). Unfortunately, the book was not proofread with enough care, and numerous obvious mistakes slipped in.

A more substantial disappointment is that the book contains nothing new, and so its audience is more limited than it needs to be. This is a book for people either new to Davenport or people who are casual readers of his work and not devotees. Which is probably the majority of people who might encounter a book such as this, but still I wonder how difficult it would have been, for instance, to include more selections from Davenport's journals than just the ones he'd already published himself. Or (though it might make him roll around in his grave) some of the juvenilia Wyatt Mason quotes from in his excellent Harper's essay on Davenport. Or an interview or two (his Paris Review interview is excellent, though also openly accessible online, so another would be preferable). Or any of the many uncollected reviews he wrote for such places as The New York Times, National Review, Harper's, and The New Criterion** — these are often quite a great pleasure to read, even when they are about long-forgotten books.

I made it a habit a few years ago to scour academic databases for unreprinted Davenport writings, and found plenty of reviews that deserve to be reprinted (as well as an essay on the Confederate flag, in which he considers the nature of flags as symbols, and also says, "Nothing could be clearer than the signal to African Americans of the Confederate battle flag: it is one more affront. It is a persisting trace of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, discrimination, insult, disrespect. It is naive of the South Carolina legislature to imagine it isn't outrageous, demeaning, and morally tacky"). Most of Davenport's writings after The Hunter Gracchus collection in 1997 remain uncollected, and a book of the occasional reviews he didn't himself see worth collecting along with his later works would be a treasure, much like George Steiner at The New Yorker from a few years ago.***

As an example of the wonder that is still to be mined in Davenport's uncollected writings, consider this, from a review of various books of poetry in translation, from the winter 1971/72 Hudson Review, on Paul Celan:
Celan is undoubtedly a distinguished poet. His distinction, however, puts him severely beside or perhaps ahead of his time. Kafka in 1910 was speaking to the Europe of 1940. Celan's angular, odd precision with things beyond a sense of the precise may well be written for lonely readers in pressure-chamber outposts in the anthrax forests of Mars.
Or his marvelous New York Times review of the posthumous Shirley Jackson collection Come Along With Me in 1968:
Everyone has felt the anthropological echo in "The Lottery," and if we look carefully at her characters and plots we can see how subtly they suggest rites and mysteries. Writing itself was a kind of ritual for her, a defining of pressures and tensions which cannot be named but which can be dispelled if approached closely enough. In this concept of the writer as a sorcerer dealing in pervasive fears she resembles two other brilliant writers, Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, with whom she shared the ability to construct narratives of strictest contemporary reality that nevertheless prove to be transparent of surface, allowing motifs and fables as ancient as our civilization itself to show through.
His 1970 takedown of Gore Vidal's Two Sisters is quite amusing — it begins, "Gore Vidal, the author of 'Myra Breckinridge', complains throughout this snappish little essay ... that the young no longer read. Considering the source of this complaint, it sounds like Marie Corelli sighing in 1922 that romance is fading from the world," and ends, "And if the young have given up reading, it may be that they have been deflected by an encounter with cotton-candy frivolities like this new wisp of tushery from Mr. Vidal's typewriter."

That same year, Davenport published in the spring Hudson Review a fascinating review of various fictions by such writers as Joyce Carol Oates, Witold Gombrowicz, Richard Brautigan, and Robert Coover in which one insight after another pops up, for instance:
There has been a resuscitation in the last few years of the surrealistic story of the kind practically every era of literature has found useful. Apuleius, Novalis, Walser, Hawthorne, de Lampedusa — one could define a very distinguished company of writers whose mastery of realistic narrative has crossed the bounds of Horace's plausible and evident world and explored a hyperbolic reality in order to follow the elusive into an imaginary infinity.
It ends with Coover, in a paragraph that might apply to Davenport himself:
Mr. Coover's skills are many, and his sensibilities diverse and startling. But above all his virtues he ought to be praised most for his returning to literature that awe and wonderment which no amount of pessimism or scientific certainty can ever remove from the fact that we are, that we exist, and that we exist in a damned strange way utterly divorced from what reason argues or passion claims, and that we do not know why.
There are many more such reviews, and while they mostly lack the weight and import of Davenport's full essays, they make for marvelous reading, and would have fit well into this book.

Despite my disappointment that The Guy Davenport Reader contains no previously uncollected or particularly difficult-to-find work, it is nonetheless an excellent introduction to this extraordinary, singular writer, and I would not hesitate to recommend it as a starting place. I hope that it is just the start to Davenport's books being reissued and his uncollected writings being brought to the light. It would be nice for a new generation of readers to encounter some of his longer works, too, particularly The Dawn in Erewhon (a novella in Tatlin!), but those are really not items for the uninitiated.

*Update, 2016: Having more recently looked at a lot of the evidence in Joyce's manuscripts, letters, etc. since I wrote this post, I am far less certain that Joyce desired this typography. But it is clear Davenport did, and he thought Joyce did.

**It's interesting that he wrote for The New Criterion, as one of its founders was Hilton Kramer, who wrote a long and noxious review of Davenport in The New York Times, leading Davenport to write to Laughlin that Kramer was a "pitiful wretch" and referring to "Hilton Kramer and his pack of puritans" with their "pea brains". Interestingly, The National Review and New Criterion are both politically conservative magazines. Davenport's political views were too idiosyncratic to fit on a simple conservative/liberal scheme. (His admiration of Pound was certainly not an admiration of Pound's fascism — indeed, Davenport refused to allow his books to be published in Germany because he was so aghast at the Holocaust.) Fourier, whose ideas he found so fascinating, was a kind of socialist, and Davenport told Laughlin that he had always voted for Democrats until in 1996 he voted for Ralph Nader. He had little interest in the politics of aesthetics, though, and some contempt for the cultural turn in academia, making the conservative magazines an easier fit for some of his work.

***Davenport and Steiner are similar as essayists (though Davenport is the more accomplished stylist), but the Laughlin/Davenport letters contain an interesting tidbit about Steiner reading Davenport, as Davenport related to Laughlin on June 26, 1995: "I was dashed last night to learn (from Joan Crane) that when George Steiner wrote his piece on me in The New Yorker years ago ... he had read two stories and faked a general knowledge of my oeuvre. He has since, to his dismay, read more, and decided that I'm an awful and evil writer. That's his problem. He should have done his homework in the first place."

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