No 7 - 1982
Guy Davenport : Fictions For Our Time
The Geography of the Imagination, forty essays. 384pp. Pbk. $10.00.
Eclogues, eight stories (with illustrations by Roy R. Behrens). 238pp. Pbk.$7.50
Both published by North Point Press, 850 Talbot Avenue, Berkeley, California 94706, USA. North Point books are distributed by the New York State Small Press Association, and also by Gnomon Distribution. (See “Distributors” for addresses.)
1. It is now shocking to me, says Guy Davenport in one of the essays in The Geography of the Imagination, that I realized so few connections between things as a child. And a character in one of the stories in Eclogues says, I want to write a history of the imagination in our time.
2. Taken together, these two statements sum up the activity and the range of Mr Davenport’s writing, both expository and creative. And it is typical of him that the second statement, which sounds as if it might come from one of the essays, emerges instead inside a fictional work, since in Mr Davenport’s case both his essays and his stories are closely interwoven and interdependent.
3. It is a sad comment on our depressed times - at least, in England now - that Mr Davenport’s writing, which is nourishing, enriching, informative, intuitional and creatively innovative, is likely to remain unknown and unread.
4. Why should this be ? Because of the state of fiction and publishing in this country at the moment. A few years before the First World War, Ford Madox Ford declared that there was no reason why poetry should not be at least as well written as prose. One could probably make out quite a good case nowadays for reversing the sense of that statement.
5. A lot of poetry has been published in the UK in the last ten years and has been given a great deal of attention, critical and otherwise. Magazines devoted entirely to the art have been born, have flourished for a time, and died, to be replaced by others. But in all this time the outlets for good prose have remained very few indeed; and the quality of prose writing, and of critical thought about it, has suffered as a result. In the current economic situation, the prospects are even worse.
6. In the UK now we live in the stale aftermath of the Victorian realist tradition. The last notable prose experiments occurred in the pages of Wyndham Lewis’ BLAST magazine in 1914 and 1915 and in some of the later novels of Virginia Woolf in the early 1930s. When contemporary British novelists like Beryl Bainbridge, Anthony Burgess, Brigid Brophy, etc., can be described by critics as highly original writers one can begin to see to what depths our standards have descended. Only the work of such notable eccentrics as Gabriel Josipovici and B.S.Johnson alleviate this dismal situation - and the latter, whose thoughts on this subject as well as his works are extremely relevant, is dead.
7. In his last published work, Johnson wrote : “…the neo-Dickensian novel not only receives great praise, review space and sales but also acts as a qualification to elevate its authors to chairs at universities.” And a little later in the same article: “Only when one has some contact with a continental European tradition of the avant-garde does one realise just how stultifyingly philistine is the general book culture of this country.”
8. Neither of these statements can be applied in any way to Mr Davenport’s work. But I doubt if Johnson had heard of Guy Davenport. I doubt if more than a handful of people in the UK at the present time have heard of him. And given what is admired by our critics and our publishers it is extremely unlikely that their number will be extended in any way. This will be our loss.
9. Obviously, Mr Davenport has a reputation in the USA. And this reputation has initially been made by his more academic books : The Intelligence of Louis Agassiz, Carmina Archilochi, Sappho: Songs and Fragments, Herakleitos and Diogenes, Archilochus, Sappho and Alkman. A classicist and a translator of the classics, the unwary might think. No; this is only part of the story.
10. Davenport’s reputation as a creative writer has been made within the last ten years, at least in terms of book publication. This reputation rests on : TATLIN ! (1974), Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979) and now Eclogues (1981). To these must be added what appears to be his latest work, the Fifty Seven Views of Fujiyama, a fifty-seven page fiction that appeared in Granta magazine No.4 in 1981.
11. The publication of his essays in The Geography of the Imagination at the same time as the stories in Eclogues now enable us to assess a certain body of his completed work. The essays are especially helpful in this respect since they amplify, explain and comment on the themes of his stories and show how much of a piece, how consistent, all his work and thinking is. Often one can find the genesis of a story in an essay. And one can note how the stories amplify and extend the essays.
12. What does the creative work consist of ? TATLIN ! contains six stories which deal with aspects of the life and work of Vladimir Tatlin, Kafka, Herakleitos, E.A.Poe, the discovery of the Lascaux caves and a very long work on the Dutch Fourieriste philosopher, Adriaan van Hovendaal. Da Vinci’s Bicycle contains ten stories which deal with, among others, themes taken from Picasso, Joyce, Richard Nixon, Leonardo da Viihci, Pound, Robert Walser.
13. Eclogues contains eight fictions which examine such subjects as Thebes under Spartan rule, the Athens of Diogenes, the U.S.Civil War, Stanley Spencer, modern Bordeaux, Picasso and van Hovendaal again, and T.E.Hulme. It can be seen at once that the essays parallel the knowledge that lies behind the treatment of all these themes, but in a naturally more explanatory fashion : there are essays on Pre-history, Wittgenstein, Ives, Melville Ronald Johnson, Tolkien, Pound, Stevens, Olson, Jonathan Williams, Eudora Welty and Zukofsky; on J.B.Yeats, Hopkins, Marianne Moore, Mandelstam, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Agassiz, Tchelichew, the magazine Poetry, Kilmer’s Trees, Ozymandias and Joyce. There are some sure personal pieces, in particular the last essay, Ernst Machs Max Ernst, in which Mr Davenport describes the genesis of his stories.
14. The best explanation of Davenport’s most common method of composition in the essays is to quote a passage in full. This comes from The House that Jack Built, an essay which among many other subjects deals with Pound’s Cantos.
15. Henri Rousseau around 1906 painted a charming landscape of the Pont de Sevres, and placed a balloon in the sky - there had been balloons in the skies of France since Benjamin Franklin’s day. Next year, the ruddered dirigible La Patrie took to the air, and Rousseau added it to his landscape. Next year, Wilbur wright flew at Le Mans while Bleriot watched in tears of ecstasy, and Rousseau added the Wright Flyer No.4 to his sky the world’s first painting of an aeroplane.
In Dublin that year James Joyce invented a young man named Stephen Daedalus. Ezra Pound had just begun a long poem on which he would write for sixty-seven years and never finish
Henry James, out walking his dachshund on the South Downs, saw Bleriot complete his Channel crossing in 1909. Kafka saw Curtiss and Rougier fly at Brescia. Gertrude Stein included Wilbur Wright among her Four in America Robert Frost wrote a ‘Kitty Hawk’.
And there was a day when Ezra Pound brought James Joyce to the studio of Constantin Brancusi, who had metamorphosed a mythological Roumanian bird, the Maiastra, into an image of pure flight, and who had sculpted a tombstone for Rousseau on which Apollinaire had written the epitaph.
Brancusi’ s portrait of Joyce is a spiral labyrinth, an ear. He kept it pinned to his wall, and told people that it was a symbol opposite to that of ‘la pyramide fatale’, by which he meant the idea of fitful material progress.
16. Mr Davenport weaves these details back and forth in an intricate tapestry that shows us how the developments of Modernism are bound togther in a complex historical process, interdependent and inter-reacting. Each image contributes to the total whole.
17. Like any excellent teacher - and I imagine Guy Davenport is all of that - he gives us in these few lines a mini-picture of an age. It is all there, the connections hace been made for us, a map of Modernism is slowly being drawn and we can follow all its outlines and investigate them for ourselves.
18. After the passage quoted, he goes on to bind up on one thread Picasso’s murals, Yeats, the Sala dei Mesi in the Schifanoia Palace, the ground plan for Pound’s Cantos and a personal discovery of his own that seems to confirm his interpretation of the origins of the Cantos. Like Hugh Kenner (to whom, significantly, the book of essays is dedicated, and to whom tribute is paid in the book), Mr Davenport’s mind ranges over a vast chain of significant detail and makes sense of it all for us.
19. It may be argued that there are limits to his interests that many of the same themes return in different essays. This is probably true. But it is better to know a few things well than to skate ignorantly on the surface of too many. Some critics may carp that Modernism is old hat now, but all discoveries need to be continuously re-interpreted in the light of each new age. Mr Davenport successfully proves to us all that nothing in the arts has been so exciting and so influential since the achievements of those great pioneering spirits in the first forty or so years of our century.
20. As in Pound’s Cantos, so in Mr Davenport’s essays the imagistic method is the organising principle. And it is this method, too, which is the main basis for his stories. These may be called ‘historical’ in a limited sense, in that they are all centred around real characters. Mr Davenport does not ‘invent’ in the way that is expected of our praised novelists and story writers today. The Aeroplanes at Brescia, for example, in TATLIN ! is based on an episode taken from Max Brod’s diaries.
21. Assemblages of history and necessary fiction he has called them and this is a very accurate description. Some of the stories’ details are highly historical, ascertainable, factual; others are purely conjectural, but filling in the omissions of history with a fair degree of apparent verisimilitude - ‘necessary’, in fact for the completion of the picture.
22. The sixth story in ECLOGUES is called Lo Splendore della Luce a Bologna. It is composed in 17 sections, or short ‘takes’, which relate obliquely to each other. Light, in fact, the precisely described visual details, is what binds these 17 disparate sections together.
Section 1 : A train brings a party of philosophers to Bologna. T.E. Hulme in a carriage with Bergson, Murray and F.C.S. Schiller.
Section 2 : Hulme sips coffee, looks about him, and finds everything perfect. All ideas rise like music from the physical.
Section 3 : Market place. Foreign habits contrasted with English
(observed by Hulme).
Section 4 : cites three occasions in his life in which Hulme would see the fingers of God at work in the universe.
Section 5 : describes street scenes. Bells clanged, chimed, charmed. Bologna smelled of hoses, garlic, wine…
Section 6 : brief account of the alchemist Vicenzo Cascariolo’s discovery of the philosopher’s stone in 1603.
Section 7 : A long passage extending over a page which introduces the Austrian Ernst Mach talking about William James. It is a mark of a sensibility enlarged by the imagination to have the overpowering curiosity, like a child not yet fully disciplined...
Section 8 : four short paragraphs advancing some of Hulme’s ideas about what developments there should be in the arts.
Section 9 : one short paragraph describing some of the philosophers. Each man is a species and cannot further be classified.
Section 10 : Merely Cone, sphere, cube.
Section 11 : Hulme using his eyes. Bolognese sights nuns, goats, partridges, goats, a herdsman talking socialist theory - essential things.
Section 12 : Discussion in Caffe Garibaldi. Hulme describing the important people in the arts in England.
Section 13 : Nijinski dancing on stage in Paris. How Hulme and Gaudier would later see him as a faun with a leopard’s balance dreaming in a liquid trance.
Section 14 : Hulme is asked what philosophy will be in the Twentieth Century. Classicism, reason, will fail, he says, because of contemporary mores.
Section 15 : Encounter in a street. Hulme meets a man in a bowler hat whom he first took to be Bergson. Hulme points out the light, the splendid light, on red roofs, long arcades, mellow light on walls. The continuity of it all.
Section 16 : The philosophers go to Ravenna by train to a reception given by the king.
At Galla Placidia Hulme stared at Byzantine mosaics, golden apostles on a ground of blue…..
Sant’ Apollinare in Classe Fuori stood in its pine grove, cylinder and rhomb, silo and barn, symbol and function inseparable. Stone and pine, gold and marble. The mosaics gleamed in moving glosses as he moved, a sheen of fire running from big eyes to the flow of beards and long calm hands clasping croziers and books.
The infinite moves both ways, inward, as here, outward, as on the Canadian prairies, radiant without bounds, focussed in a design of sharp lines, concavities, surfaces.
The full moon rose over the pines like the red face of a jolly farmer above a hedge.
24. What is important in a piece like this one is the lack of narrative. Narrative, the telling of a coherent story, could not cope with matter such as this. Narrative would trivialise it. So Guy Davenport dispenses with narrative and concentrates instead, as Viktor Shklovski would have done, on form, the expression of the inner emotion.
25. The controlling factor is the disposition of the various elements next to each other as in a collage. In this way, the life and the ideas of Hulme are an integral part of this process. Apart from Pound, these devices are crucial also in Olson, and the later work of Claude Simon and Alain Robbe-Grillet. And in this way Davenport’s work takes its place along side that of the European avant-garde.
26. The stories in ECLOGUES, like the stories in his previous books, are models designed (as Davenport points out in one of the essays) to find the truth in the past and pass it on. They are built of disparate pieces sentences, paragraphs, snatches of dialogue are slowly worked on and then fitted together in a meaningful conjunction that goes beyond mere narrative. It is these stories’ authority of detail, of place, of time (Davenport speaking of Hugh Kenner) that gives them their force, their lucidity, their relevance to our times, expressed in language that is a very flexible, appropriate and poetic tool.
27. “What happens,” said B.S. Johnson, “is nothing like as important as how it is written, as the medium of the words and form through which it is made to happen to the reader..”
28. It is in this creative use of form, rather than plot, that Davenport’s importance as an artist lies. An old principle perhaps, going back as it does to the Russian Formalists, but it is one that our British writers have turned their backs on. Until they learn some of the lessons of the arts in this century, which Mr Davenport has ably pointed out to us in his essays and demonstrated in his fiction, prose writing in the UK is going to go on stagnating in the past. Equally, while our critics go on praising the endless stream of anecdotal descriptiveness that issues from our publishing houses, Mr Davenport is not going to receive the recognition that he deserves.
29. All I can do here is to insist that anyone who really cares about the art of writing should instantly read all of Mr Davenport’s stories in conjunction with two of his essays : Narrative Tone and Form and Ernst Machs Max Ernst.
30. From the first I see a pattern here : a movement from assuming the world to be transparent, and available to lucid thought and language ( - the Victorian realist tradition - ), to assuming .... that the world is opaque. This would seem to be the assumption of Joyce, Borges, Beckett, Barthelme,
The radical change in twentieth-century narrative is of form. There has been a new understanding that literature is primarily literature and not a useful critique of manners. And there has been a vigorous search for new patterns to the novel. (But not in England, Mr Davenport.) Cubism, a nonsense word for a style of painting invented by Picasso and Braque, was essentially a return to an archaic mode that understands painting to be the same thing as writing....
Cubism must have developed when the artist considered how much of his sketch must be finished. Finishing involves a stupidity of perception....
The architectonics of a narrative are emphasized and given a role to play in dramatic effect when novelists become Cubists; that is, when they see the possibilities of making a hieroglyph, a coherent symbol, an ideogram of the total work. A symbol comes into being when an artist sees that it is the only way to get all the meaning in....
Cubists include visual information which would require several points of view. Perspective commits itself to one point of view. The Sound and the Fury is therefore a Cubist narrative. Les Fauxmonnayeurs, Fowles’ The Collector and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Mandelstam’s The Noise of Time, Cortazar’s Hop-Scotch, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.
31. From the second All I have done in TATLIN ! is to forage among certain events with multiple causes and effects, and to mythologize them, as Max Ernst pictured the world in a temporary agnosis, to induce a stutter of recognition. My diction is labored and chiseled, out of a Shakerish concern for the built, and out of a desire to make it as sensitive as I could to ‘the pat of a shuttlecock, or the creaking of a jack’ (a phrase recorded by Johnson in the Dictionary).
32. To this one might add this is exactly what Mr Davenport’s subtle, energetic and variable prose does manage to do, in - to quote his own words about Stan Brakhage, one of his own heroes - ‘narrative’ (that) is a succession of images that do not tell a story but define a state of mind.
33. On the back cover of THE GEOGRAPHY OF THE IMAGINATION a photograph depicts Mr Davenport leaning against a small filing cabinet, on top of which is a row of what look like art books, the nearest of which is NOA NOA. Behind him there is a painting of Buckminster Fuller and on the wall beneath that a drawing of a First World War biplane - possibly the Fokker referred to in the last story of ECLOGUES. Art, invention and discovery, and science - explorations of the spirit and the mind. Mr Davenport’s concern with the men who made these discoveries in our age is a concern which lets us see ourselves with fresh eyes.
34. In one of the photographs in poet and publisher Jonathan Williams’ little book of PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHS (and Mr Williams is himself the subject of one of the essays), Guy Davenport in a wide-brimmed hat, blue shirt and dark pants, stands in front of the white clapboard wall of his own house in Lexington, Kentucky, hands locked in front of his crotch, smiling enigmatically “in a somewhat silent, Shakerish mood and garb” as Williams notes. He goes on to say “That Proteus could be born in 1927 in Anderson, South Carolina, should give the Republic a genuine reason to let out a few joyous yawps.
35. And not only the Republic, but the rest of the world as well. Mr Davenport is the creator of works that should both astonish and inform us all, for whom we should all be grateful. But in the UK this is unlikely to happen. “…my experience (is),” said B.S.Johnson, “that the incomprehension and weight of prejudice which faces anyone trying to do anything new in writing is enormous, sometimes disquieting, occasionally laughable.”
36. “Shall we forever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring out of one vessel into another ?” asked Sterne, to whom Shklovski looked often for example. If this is what we do not want for our fiction, then we should look to Guy Davenport for another example.
TATLIN ! - Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1974.
DA VINCI’S BICYCLE - Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore,1979.
PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHS by Jonathan Williams, Coracle Press, London,1979.
Quotes from B.S.Johnson : AREN’T YOU RATHER YOUNG TO BE WRITING YOUR MEMOIRS? - Hutchinson & Co Ltd, London, 1973.
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