Not long after discovering Paul West, I read Guy Davenport (1927-2005) for the first time. Essayist, translator, painter, poet and short-story writer, Davenport never became a household name, prompting John Jeremiah Sullivan to define him as a cult writer, but one whose “work has none of the thinness of the cult writer” and “who seems destined to endure.” I think so; I hope so. With West Davenport shares the qualities of imagination and eloquence; he does not have West’s lexical wizardry, instead his writing builds around short, powerful, epigrammatic sentences, like the ancient Greeks he translated. One short-story in A Table of Green Fields, for instance, doesn’t have commas. A voracious reader and a college teacher for decades, erudition also naturally seeped into his fiction. Like Jorge Luis Borges, we can say of him that he writes books from other books; armed with infinite knowledge, Davenport takes us in journeys through time, geography, the sciences and the arts to instruct us and delight us. “Writing, like painting, was my escape from the academy,” he said to Sullivan.
Davenport saw writing as play, as having fun. Although he flirted with a creative writing course, he soon saw the limitations of traditional writing. “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.).” To his short-stories he gave the names of “assemblages” and “collages.” In an interview to B. Renner, apropos of how he wrote, he added: “I put in what seemed good images and quotations, and hoped that they'd work.” A Table of Green Fields, containing ten stories, demonstrates this method: usually they involve real-life figures, obscure episodes culled from biographies or history books, digressions into essayism, a constant change of structure, and jarring juxtapositions of sources and styles. A lover of the concrete and visual, his approach to character eschews interiority and favours action and landscape; personality is in speech, gestures, and mood.
The first story, called “August Blue,” constitutes a synthesis of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Each of its four sections jumps around in time and character, and their interconnectedness comes out obliquely, if at all. The first section starts with Jesus’ boyhood and resembles the start of any other story. “On the way to school, just past the bird market, there is one of the largest fig trees in Jerusalem. It was believed by some to be as old as the temple and to have a special blessing on it whereby the figs were fatter and sweeter than any others in the world, except, of course, in the Garden of Eden. They were, in color more blue than green. The milk that bled from its stems when you pulled one of its figs cured warts, the quinsy, and whooping cough.” Jesus’ classmates long to taste those figs, and Jesus unexplainably obtains some for them. In the classroom their teacher lectures them about the Phoenician and Phoenician alphabets and how the Hebrew letter alef relates to them (Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel has an excellent chapter on this, by the way), then they discuss the letter yud and Jesus miraculously produces figs to give his teacher. His classmates call him meshuggeh, the Yiddish word for crazy.
The second section introduces us to James Joseph Sylvester, a real-life British mathematician lecturing in pre-Civil War Virginia, and a Jew witness to the xenophobia, laziness and indiscipline that characterises the American privileged class. In the concise, direct way he describes Sylvester’s life, Davenport becomes essayistic: “He was a member of the Royal Society. At age twenty-seven he had distinguished himself with so brilliant a series of mathematical papers that he had been invited to come to Virginia. Jefferson’s plan was to bring the best minds of Europe to dwell in this academic village, as he liked to call it. And now Jefferson was dead, leaving his faculty of European geologists, chemists, linguists, historians, and mathematicians to carry on his work of civilizing Virginia and her sister states.” A remarkable passage, to me, it illuminates the future – it echoes another famous collection of European minds in America – and builds bridges into the past; a persistent idea I keep finding in my recent readings of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon concerns this idea that America, far from representing a new thing, results from a continuation of European culture, both the culture and the stupidity and narrow-mindedness. Just consider the morons poor Sylvester has to put up with: “Professor Sylvester’s problem was one he had never before met. His students, all healthy, strapping young men from the richest families, were illiterate. They knew nothing. He could scarcely understand a word the said. They came late to class, if at all, accompanied by their slaves. They talked with each other while Professor Sylvester lectured. The strangest thing about them was that they did not want to learn. Take Ballard. He was from Louisiana, some great plantation with hundreds of slaves. He was a handsome lad, beautifully dressed.” And yet these students “duelled, and fought with Bowie knives. They drank themselves into insensibility. They came to class drunk. When Sylvester tried to find out why this was allowed, he was reminded that the students were aristocrats.” As I have pointed out, his xenophobic, slave-holding students disrespect and insult him because of his Jewish roots; he starts carrying a sword cane; when two brothers go too far he stabs one of them and departs Virginia. A happy epilogue explains to us that he gets a job at John Hopkins University and founds the first mathematical school in the USA, “where he introduced the Hebrew letters shin and teth into mathematical notation,” and “[y]ears later, the great Georg Cantor, remembering Sulvester, introduced the latter alef as a symbol of the transfinite.” It took its time but we get a connection, sort of.
The third section, the shortest, describes a journey to a place called Ely Minster. When I finished the story I looked it up and discovered, thinking myself clever, that Davenport had merely transcribed an excerpt from Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Thro' The Whole Island of Great Britain, Divided into Circuits or Journies; but as he explains in the Author’s Notes, he actually mixed Defoe with writings by Samuel Pepys. And the relevance of the Isle of Ely, perhaps, comes from serving as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s burial ground, which I guess has something to do with mathematics, infinity and language, themes from the previous sections.
The final section concerns real-life British painter Henry Scott Tuke, who in 1894 painted “August Blue,” the painting shown in the book’s cover and which alludes to one of Davenport’s favourite themes. Tuke liked to show naked and semi-naked young men, like this:
A naturalistic section set in 1922 (an important year for Modernism, an era and topic that fascinated Davenport), it finds the painter and some male friends enjoying a little outing by a riverbank for something modelling, bathing and apricating. A mystery surrounds one of the painter’s friends, someone called Aircraftsman Ross whose portrait he paints; as the narrative progresses, though, we realize this rank and name cover his real identity. Once you learn it, it changes the narrative’s whole dynamic. The Author’s Notes give a clue to his identity, although you still need to do some sleuthing. I’ve provided you with a few more clues.
What does this section have to do with the rest of the story? I can’t fathom any connection; it may exist, more thematically, or spiritually, than narratively. For me, though, this story encapsulates the book: in some ten pages it shows dazzling erudition, pedantry, fine writing, imagination, strange juxtapositions and lots of cocks.
My favourite story – perhaps because of its conventionality compared to the others – comes right after “August Blue.” “Belinda’s World Tour” starts with an episode from a Franz Kafka biography: allegedly one day the Prague writer met a little girl in the street crying because she had lost her doll; Kafka comforted her by telling her that the doll had left on a journey across the world, and for weeks wrote her postcards. In Davenport’s take, Kafka, in order to help her overcome this loss, “as this was the first tragedy of her life and she was indulging in all its possibilities,” tells her that Belinda met a little boy or doll called Rudolf, “who invited her to go with him around the world. But he was leaving immediately. There was no time to dally. She had to make up her mind then and there. Such things happen. Dolls, you know, are born in department stores, and have a more advanced knowledge than those of us who are brought to houses by storks. We have such a limited knowledge of things.” Unlike realist fiction, instead of describing Davenport creates, he adds, he opens up possibilities; I so much want to believe something like this happened, the great Kafka consoling a child because he couldn’t bear seeing her sad.
Most of the narrative comes in the form of short texts written on the postcards Belinda writes the little girl from around the world, full of national stereotypes and literary jokes. In London “[t]hey all carry umbrellas, as it rains constantly, and long poles to poke their way through the fog.” In Copenhagen they stay “with a nice gentleman called Hans Christian Andersen. He lives next door to another nice gentleman named Soren Kierkegaard. They take Rudolf and me to a park that’s wholly for children and dolls, called Tivoli. You can see what it looks like by turning over this card. Every afternoon at 4 little boys dressed in red (and they are blond and have big blue eyes) march through Tivoli, and around and around it, beating drums and playing fifes. The harbour is the home of several mermaids. They are very shy and you have to be very patient and stand still a long time to see them. The Danes are melancholy and drink lots of coffee and read only serious books. I saw a book in a shop with the title How To Be Sure As To What Is And What Isn’t. And The Doll’s Guide To Existentialism; If This, Then What? and You Are More Miserable Than You Think You Are.” In Russia “they read serious books here, too. Their favourite author is Count Tolstoy, who is one of his own peasants (they say this distresses his wife.). and who eats only beets, though he adds an onion at Passover.” In Japan “[e]verybody stops what they are doing ten times a day to write a poem. These poems, which are very short, are about crickets and seeing Fujiyma through the wash on the line about feeling lonely when the moon is full. We are very popular, as the Japanese like novelty.” In America “[w]e have seen utopias of Quakers and Shakers and Mennonites, who live just as they want to in this free country. There is no king, only a Congress which sits in Washington and couldn’t care less what the people do. I have seen one of those Congressmen. He was fat (three chins, I assure you) and offered Rudolf and me a dollar each if we would vote for him. When we said we were from Prague, he said he hoped we’d start a war, as war is good for business.”
No other short-story in the book illustrates so powerfully and cogently why I love literature!
Mind you, this playfulness does not exist in all the short-stories; Davenport can also write good, naturalistic narratives.“Gunnar and Nikolai” concerns a sculptor Gunnar, a sculptor, and Nikolai, a teenaged model posing for a naked statue of Shakespeare’s Ariel. “He was the spirit of the air. Like an angel,” Gunnar explains. “Nikolai thought about this, guppying his coffee and sprucing the fit of his foreskin.” Davenport devotes many pages to describing naked teenagers (Nikolai is twelve; his friend Mikkel is 13.) playing with themselves. These short-stories tend to inhabit a remarkably nonchalant and tolerant dimension wherein men don’t panic and throw fits at child sexuality and adults clearly lusting after boys; in fact in these stories everyone’s probably gay or at least bisexual. “Being naked’s fun. My grandma and grandpa, Mama’s mama and daddy, are Kropotkinites, and I’m boss in my own pants. My folks are as broad-minded green as they come, no barbed wire anywhere, good Danish liberals, to the point of being fussy. You know what I mean?” asks the precocious Nikolai. Elsewhere Davenport gives us one of his customary about penile stimulation. “Briefs down, he tickled the neb of his penis, a baby’s innocence in his smile.” Or how about this longer passage between, Nikolai and his friend Mikkel, so unabashedly homoerotic:
Fox bark, gruff. Nikolai monkeyed from the bed to the sill, replying with a cub’s whimper. Coupled hand and wrist, Nikolai pulled and Mikkel climbed until he had a kneehold, swinging his other bare leg into the room. They sat on the floor, grinning at each other in the dark. They crept like panthers, on fingers and toes, to the bed. Nikolai, naked under the blanket, watched Mikkel tug off his jersey, the tuck of his navel, a dab of shadow on his moonlit front.
In their shy and democratic privacy under the sheets Nikolai speculated on the interestingly different warm and cool places of the body, flinching from cold fingers and toes, the climate of a bed, the frankness of hands.
No wonder the criticasters hurled the worn-out obscenity label at him. In “The Lavender Fields of Apta Julia” we have a more direct sexual blossoming, this time between straight couples: Julie and Bernard, Marc and Anne-Marie, four teens discovering sex. The first couple has reached the kissing stage at least and wander off to enjoy themselves; the other two, not yet an item at the start of the story, decide to climb a tree, get undressed, bundle their clothes and drop them over their friends to scare them; this prank turns into an unexpected sexual adventure atop a tree. Next day all four reunite, Marc expecting another similar adventure. Unfortunately such experiences don’t quite happen as we plan them, which elicits a beautiful sentence that contains all the magic and sadness of childhood and life in general: “Whatever you’re scheming won’t happen. It never does. Going up the tree just happened. I couldn’t have planned it in a hundred years.”
The longest short-story, “O Gadjo Niglo,” written in sentences built to avoid commas, narrates the story of teenager Jens and two male friends with whom he discovers sex. First he meets Tarpy, a poor, dirty, lonely boy, a sort of village idiot, maltreated by his father; Jens befriends, washes him, and ventures into sexual play with him. As before Davenport doesn’t shy away from details: “He had less hair than I above his peter. His was ginger. Mine was springy and black. He asked if mine felt good. He slid his foot out and waggled it against mine. We were friends. He said we could make it last or come quick and then come again. I was near enough to my sneeze to say quick. My milky drop jumped out. Tarpy took longer to reach his sneeze and hot blush spread up my back and slid down again as a chill when I saw the amount of spunk that he spurted. A blob spattered two fete away. Another just fell short of the first. A third ran into his fingers.” And there’s more, this is the most sexed-up story in the book: “He lay back in the grass with one hand under his head and the other on his peter like a big stemmed pink mushroom. It is as I’ve measured fourteen centimetres long. And there is a mushroom like Tarpy’s peter. Phallus impudicus. Mine is twelve but growing. The more you play with is the bigger it gets. Three times and we would go on a ramble for beetles.”
Later Tarpy disappears, the narrator gets sick his parents hire a young nurse called Florent to tend him; they become friends and go camping alone, which allows Davenport to write more scenes about penises. Hardly any conflict exists in this short-story, just a succession of events, descriptions of nature and masturbation. Jens grows up, like the girl who lost Belinda he experiences his life’s first tragedy, discovers about friendship and letting go, matures and learns that the world is not a simple place. And yet it never gets dark or pessimistic, it’s also about pleasure and fun, and living in a light-drenched world. “Sweet beyond sweet,” the narrator exalts. About this short-story Matthew Stadler wrote that “Davenport was a kind of naturalist of human Eros--Eros in the mind as well as the muscles.” When Sullivan asked the writer why he wrote so much about naked boys, he replied, “Self-indulgence, I suppose.”
More to the point, though, I think the awakening of sexuality is coterminous with the awakening of all sensibility. Joyce certainly makes the one depend on the other. The moment when Stephen Dedalus becomes an artist, he’s looking at what most excites a Victorian, namely a woman’s legs all the way up to the thigh. She’s lifted her skirts, dabbling in the ocean.
All the stories surprise, but not all delight; some surprise because how much disappointment and awkwardness they cause. One story uses William Wordsworth’s sister as the protagonist without really doing anything with that; one called “And” is nothing but the translation of a translation of a real-life papyrus fragment, not even a full page long. “Mr Churchyard and the troll” follows a famous philosopher to Troll Wood to talk to a troll; the troll may be real or the man may just be insane; but knowing who Mr. Churchyard is (and it’s not hard to get the joke) will only improve the story for five or ten seconds, and then it continues to be rather monotonous.
In “The Concord Sonata” Davenport distils Henry David Thoreau’s life into several fragments, of oscillating quality and interest. Explaining part of how he composed the story, he explain in an interview, “The immediate instigation was a search for the source of the mysterious passage in Walden (about losing a dog, a horse, and a dove). I found it in Mencius (whom Thoreau read in a French translation in Emerson's library). My first thought was to write a "found at last!" essay, as no scholar of Thoreau had found the source.” Although the story is uneven, he nails the old Transcendentalist in one pithy line: “Thoreau was most himself when he was Diogenes.” Davenport also restates Thoreau’s influence on civil rights leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And we learn from him that the author of Walden perfected lead pencils.
He likes weird juxtapositions and uses them abundantly, and sometimes they don’t work: in “Gunnar and Nikolai” he interpolates the story with the Olympian gods talking, for no reason I can discern; in “The Lavender Fields of Apta Julia” he abruptly finishes the story with a brief history of the word lavender. “It was [filmmaker Mike] Leigh,” he says in an interview, “who showed me a new way to end a story: you simply walk away from it after having changed the subject. At the end of Nuts in May, an incomparable satire, the camera finds a pig eating from its trough while the credits run. So I end “The Lavender Fields of Apta Julia” by abandoning the story for botanical information about lavender.”
“Meleager,” another one of his teenage boy stories, is rather cryptic because Davenport switches between the story Sven and excerpts from a 1771 Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Geometry; by the time the story shows up stories about sexual blossoming have become repetitive, and I fear the narrative doesn’t improve with such details as: “A figure bounded by four sides is called a quadrilateral or quadrangular figure, as ABDC. Quadrilateral figures whose opposite sides are parallel care called parallelograms. Thus in the quadrilateral figure ABDC, if the side AC be parallel to BD which is opposite to it, and AB be parallel to CD, then the figure ABDC is a parallelogram. A parallelogram having all its sides equal and its angles right is a square.” Imagine this several times in a short-story; not very exciting, I’m afraid. I think pedantry and erudition is only fun when it shows you stuff you wouldn’t know but is worth knowing. This is just a maths lesson from school.
Still, when Davenport hits the target, the stories thrill and enthrall; and his liberal use of allusions and intertextuality invites the reader to try to see things that may not exist, to make connects that he may not have intended. Is there anything to say about the fig tree in “August Blue?” Why does he say there was a fig tree in the Garden of Eden? The fig tree is sexual symbol; does that mean something? In the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo, instead of the customary apple tree, Michelangelo painted a fig tree, to link the eating of the Tree of Knowledge with sexual desire. Should we make something of that? Did Davenport know that? Is that relevant? Or does his erudition give the overeager reader carte blanche to indulge in apophenia and pareidolia? (1). He creates an ambient that just demands over-interpretation.
Finally, I have seen him likened to Borges; I suppose these items built around literature and philosophy permit some comparisons; but then I think Borges and Davenport share the principal similarity of innovating while remaining quite traditional. Borges, for all intents and purposes, just told fantastic stories in the vein of his beloved 19th century British storytellers: he respected classical structure too much to, like Davenport, just stop a narrative without a climax, without a resolution, without something that built to a point that said, “This had to happen.” Davenport, on the other, for all his digressions, grounds his stories a lot more on characters and conventional literary themes: love, freedom, childhood, sexual maturity. You wouldn’t find Borges writing about that; Borges, the man who annulled humans from literature; Borges who turned short-stories into descriptions of concepts – a library with every imaginable book; a book with infinite pages; supernatural artefacts like the Aleph and magical coins – Borges who turned humans into concepts, like Funes the Memorious. Borges turned ideas into characters. Davenport still needs human characters to express his. And Borges still believed in that old contract between writer and reader, I think he wrote to please and entertain and made sure his storytelling and language remained invisible; Davenport is too intrusive, calls a lot of attention to himself. Davenport came late to fiction: his first collection of short-stories, Tatlin, came out in 1974, and although he’s described as a late Modernist, and seldom grouped with writers like John Barth and William H. Gass, to me it seems clear he breathed the same air they did. I don’t mention this in a negative or positive sense, it’s just to explain I think the Borges comparisons aren’t that valid. Nevertheless Davenport, on the strength of this book, is a remarkable, inventive, original writer who deserves to be better known and more widely read. I know I’ll return to his short-stories in the future.
1 My word processor tells me apophenia doesn't exist and recommends using apothecia, the plural of apothecium, that is, “the fruit of certain lichens and fungi: usually an open, saucer-shaped or cup-shaped body, the inner surface of which is covered with a layer that bears asci.” I love it when the machine replaces one arcane word with another. Strangely it also tells me apothecium doesn't exist, although its plural does.