Reviews — From the April 2004 issue

There Must I Begin to Be

Guy Davenport’s heretical fictions

Discussed in this essay:

The Death of Picasso: New & Selected Writing, by Guy Davenport. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003. 380 pages. $26.

One consistent feature of truly innovative writing has been how it lays claim to a previously overlooked milieu, turning what once was tedium or even taboo into appropriate material for fiction. Flaubert made art out of the shallowness of the bourgeoisie; Joyce allowed the drama of one’s own bodily functions to play a prominent role in the proceedings; Barth made the process and principles of storytelling into viable literature. For the young writer, then, in addition to learning the craft upon which all quality depends, much of the drama of the early years involves finding, or failing to discover, his subject.

The early work of American writer Guy Davenport offers an illustration of this proposition. Author of forty-seven books of commentary, poetry, translations, and fiction, and winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Davenport published his first writings in a Duke University literary magazine in the 1940s. So regular a contributor to The Archive did he become that the magazine’s young editor in chief, R. D. Loomis (who went on to be executive editor of Random House), offered an apologia for the suspicious abundance of Davenport’s contributions: “To some it might seem that he has an ‘in.’ The truth is that Guy simply writes more and better than the other contributors.” Readers acquainted with Davenport’s later essays would find themselves on familiar ground in the May 1948 issue of The Archive. There is Davenport’s book review of The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913, in which the college senior writes, “Many of Kafka’s earlier stories appear here in fragmentary form….This book will, in time, become the finest index to Kafka’s work and life.” Or his essay, entitled “Jackson Marshall: American Primitive,” wherein the young critic makes a case for a St. Louis writer no one had heard of: “There’s a writer whom few people will probably get a chance, at present, to read….Jackson Marshall, 34, is a primitive writer, just as Grandma Moses, Horace Pippin, and Henri Rousseau are primitive painters.” Or his profile of illustrator and engraver Claire Leighton, in which Davenport freezes the image, and idea, of the demanding artist engaged in tireless enterprise: “She taught art at Duke for two years, but quit abruptly when she realized that the co-eds she was working with were not near as zealous and serious about their drawing as they should be.” These early texts provide a jolt of recognition: their authoritative manner and absence of jargon are perfectly congruent with Davenport’s six decades of subsequent literary and art criticism. How surprising, then, to come upon the many short stories Davenport contributed to The Archive and see that they resemble none of the fiction Davenport has written since. Take “That Lonesome Road to Macon,” in which a young black man named Foster dreams of leaving his small, white, racist town for a better life elsewhere:

Every house had its light. They were flimsy, unpainted, weathered clapboard houses. Their insides smelled of tallow and kerosene and human flesh. Every house had its black washpot in the backyard and its flowerpots of geraniums and ferns on the front porch. A V-8 Ford jangled its fenders as it cut into the rough surface rut of a road that went through St. Paul’s Alley with its length of dust and clay. Foster’s hands curled up into fists and he breathed with deep inhaling because he liked to feel himself breathe. God! Why can’t a fellow pick up and pull out of this? What the hell makes it so hard? It’s yours and it’s not yours. You grew up into it (rolling hoops and teasing girls and putting pins on the railroad track for Number Ten to flatten out). You got your first job at the fishmarket and rode your bicycle through St. Paul’s on your first delivery with all the pride a boy can have.

These vivid, tactile details (“putting pins on the railroad track for Number Ten to flatten out”; “A V-8 Ford jangled its fenders”; a road is a “length of dust and clay”) evoke a childhood spent in a southern country town-such as Anderson, South Carolina, where Davenport was born in 1927. Another story from The Archive, “A Visit from Marie,” features a young, newly married black woman who entrusts her life savings to a white woman she knows only slightly, uncertain that it would be safe around her new husband. And in “Three Dead Flies in a Goblet of Wine,” a well-to-do white girl’s long wait for a young man whom she fancies to call is played out against conversations with her florid old uncle and a downtrodden black maid. In tone and language, subject and theme, all of Davenport’s early stories were Southern Stories. And yet, during the two decades that followed Duke, while Davenport wrote hundreds of articles that appeared in organs both obscure (Curled Wire Chronicle, Arion) and mainstream (Life, National Review), not another jot of published fiction arrived. When, twenty-two years later, Davenport began publishing short stories again, they were unrecognizable beside their antecedents. The eight volumes of stories Davenport has published since 1974–totaling more than 1,600 pages–feature only one story, two pages long, set in the South.

Freedom from regional limitations is a familiar trope of twentieth-century literature. As James Joyce wrote in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use: silence, exile, and cunning.” Davenport, who has written illuminatingly on Joyce (and, in 1949, wrote the first thesis ever on that author at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar), did not, as Joyce did from Ireland, exile himself from his native land. Davenport has spent all but a handful of his seventy-six years in the American South, the last forty in Lexington, Kentucky. Still, the fiction he has written never features the region. As Davenport said in a recent Paris Review interview:

There has been a kind of liberation [not writing about the South]. I don’t have to imitate anvbodv’s dialect. When my [characters] speak, they speak pretty much a neutral English, and I like being in that box, as it were. They can’t ever use a phrase I grew up with, so it forces me out of certain habits.

The kind of freedom Davenport suggests, then, is highly particular: rather than an erasure of all limits, as the word “liberation” might imply, he wishes instead to choose his boundaries-to insist on them, even. And, indeed, he has replaced those regional influences with literary ones. Whereas a typical twentieth-century dictum of creative writing programs was “bury your influences,” Davenport exults in them. Not only is the presence of Kafka, Joyce, and Stein felt in his spare, musical prose, but the lives of these “giants in whose shadows I grow my mushrooms,” as Davenport has called them, are often the very subject matter of Davenport’s stories. Yet none of these stories are Bildungsromans like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Davenport isn’t interested in dramatizing how a person comes to create art; he investigates, instead, how the sensitive individual who creates art survives in a society that is frequently inhospitable to such sensitivity. In many of his stories, Davenport makes the struggles of the artist when not engaged in the act of creation the stuff of fiction.

Davenport’s latest book, The Death of Picasso: New & Selected Writing, waives the typical distinction between fiction and fact: its twenty-seven pieces–chosen and arranged by their author and drawn from the last thirty years of his writing life–include both critical articles (three of which first appeared in these pages) and fiction. In a quiet commentary on the interdependence that Davenport has always acknowledged between his criticism and his stories, the collection’s table of contents does not even differentiate between the two types of writing. The Death of Picasso flows from essay to story and back again.

The apparent oddity of this organizing principle is in part explained by how similar Davenport’s preparations for writing criticism are to his preparations for writing fiction. Although, for many writers, it is not at all unusual that years of research would precede the composition of a novel or a biography, it is thoroughly unusual that Davenport will often engage in a decade of research before writing a short story. In his essay “Ernst Machs Max Ernst,” Davenport explains the pleasure he takes in filling his stories with facts: “To realize certain details I studied the contemporary photographs of Count Primoli, read histories of aviation, built a model of Bleriot’s Antoinette CV25, and collected as rich a gathering of allusions to the times as I could.” These particulars provide Davenport with a narrative foundation from which he is nonetheless free to depart. For unlike the writer of historical fiction, Davenport is not handcuffed to history. He isn’t really trying to get things right:

What urged me on was knowing that I would get everything wrong,every detail, every emotion, every image . . . . My sense that in writing about [historical characters) I would helplessly include an invisible meaning which I could myself never read (but others could).

"The Aeroplanes at Brescia," a story included in The Death of Picasso, offers an example of the meaning and pleasure we can hope to find in Davenport's inventions. An account of a 1909 air show attended by Franz Kafka and his friends Max and Otto Brod, "The Aeroplanes at Brescia" was the first story Davenport published after his two decades of fietiona 1 silence. Some of me details of the account were harvested from Max Bred's biography of Kafka, others from Kafka's own newspaper account of the air show, also titled "The Aeroplanes at Brescia." It is typical of the echoes to be found throughout Davenport's work that he based his first mature, published work of fiction on Kafka's first published writing of any kind. Set six years after the Wright brothers spent their world-changing twelve seconds above the bluffs of Kitty Hawk, Davenport's tale has very little plot: as with many of his stories, we pass time in the presence of men experiencing the world in close company. The trio arrives in Italy, attentive witnesses to the air show and its environs. What holds this story together, in the absence of a loud progression of events, is a quiet network of images observed. Take the opening paragraph:

Kafka stood on the seawall at Riva under the early September sky. But for his high-button shoes and flaring coat, his easy stance had an athletic clarity. He walked with the limberness of a racing cyclist. Otto Brod, with whom he had spent the morning discussing moving pictures and strolling along the shore under the voluble pines and yellow villas of the Via Ponale, lit a cigar and suggested a light beer before lunch. A wash of sweet air from the lake rattled a circle of pigeons, who flapped up into a shuttle of gulls. A fisherman in a blue apron reclined on the harbor steps smoking a small pipe. On a staff over a perfectly square building rippled the Austrian flag with its black, two-headed eagle.

The language is deceptively plain: "yellow villas," "sweet air," "blue apron," "small pipe"--most of the words are of one or two syllables, most of the phrases irreducibly direct. But beneath the bright calm of this apparently simple surface, Davenport is sewing a texture of turbulence. The paragraph contains a host of images relating to flight: an empty sky, a fluttering coat, a cyclist's agility (early planes were powered in part by pedaling pilots), trees speaking with wind, rising smoke, birds, and a fluttering flag flying the image of a double-headed eagle. You do not consciously note the underlying agitation upon first reading; you register it, though, and it builds, deliberately, to the release toward which the story moves. "No aeroplanes were in the air when they arrived." And when Kafka and the Brod brothers do see the planes, when the brink of flight is reached, nothing rises: "The propeller was stubborn, and worse than stubborn, for it stalled after a few hopeful whirrs as often as it refused to spin at all." The possibility of flight ebbs, and then:

It seemed to slide rather than roll, and darted one way and another like a goose on a frozen river. Kafka was appalled by its desperation and failure of grace before he reflected that the most agile birds are clownish on the ground. Surely there was danger that it would tear itself to pieces before it got into the air. Now it was making a long curve to the left, hopping and sliding. Then it wagged its wings and flew up, bouncing once in the air while no one breathed.... --Franz! Max said before he considered what he was saying, why are there tears in your eyes? --I don't know, Kafka said. I don't know.

We, however, do. The sight of something soaring inspires the heart to rise along with it. What makes the story's end moving, and very different from how a writer like Joyce would handle it, is where Davenport centers the gravity of Kafka's epiphany: we are kept outside of Kafka at the moment he feels most. The last image Davenport gives us, despite all the careful preparation for the release of flight, is not of grandly rising planes but of one friend turning to another, to acknowledge a moment of emotion.

Like Brod, we are witnesses-not to the official narrative of history but to the reality of experience. The success of this fictional moment does not depend on our knowing anything about the real Franz Kafka. Still, if we should happen to have a passing familiarity with Kafka's dark comedies of human bondage-a man turned into a beetle, an artist starving behind bars, an innocent accused of guilt-the visible release from earthly ties provides a meaningful counterpoint. And should we recall that Kafka's own name means blackbird (a fact that Davenport slips in to an earlier story in The Death of Picasso), there is an added poignancy in seeing this earthbound man, who made black humor out of that which weighs upon us, responding to a moment of release.

By gently guiding the reader to such moments, Davenport's art cultivates our attention, an attitude that Davenport imbues with an underlying moral weigh-to As he posited in a 1982 New York Times Book Review essay, "Two people attentive to a detail of the world make a society, and the object they find significant has crossed over from meaninglessness to symbol. Art is always the replacing of indifference by attention."

In Davenport's work such replacements of indifference frequently find narrative form with men" sharing respites from the ceaseless separateness of being. Conversations are one means to that concord, as when naturalist and philosopher George Santayana, in "Dinner at the Bank of England," visits a British captain in his quarters. Santayana begins:

--Spirit lives in matter, which gives rise to it. We are integral with matter. We eat, we breathe, we generate, we ache. Existence is painful. --Do try the walnuts. They're excellent. Do you think we live in good times or bad? I mean, do you want us all to be materialists? --I am content to let every man and woman be themselves. I am not them. When man is at last defeated and his mind bound with ungiving chains, it will be through a cooperation of science and what now passes for liberalism.... Liberalism in its triumphant maturity will be its opposite, an opaque tyranny and a repression through benevolence which no tyrant however violent has ever achieved .... There is no fanaticism like sweet reason. You are as yet free, being wonderfully young, and having the advantage of the liberty of the army. --Liberty, you say? --The most freedom anyone can enjoy is in constraint that looks the other way from time to time.

Here, the beauty of the conversation is, in part, a function of its fact: that an old Spanish aesthetician could seek, and find, good company at the hearth of a young, handsome British soldier is intrinsically cheering.

Beyond the fact of it, however, is the larger import of this fictional banter. There is something of Beckett's disjointed gallows humor to Davenport's parrying "Existence is painful" with "Do try the walnuts." Like all rich humor, though, this is built on a lean truth: walnuts, a symbol of the sustenance that hospitality affords, can indeed make existence less painful. And Santayana, who believes "we are integral with matter," puts forward an idea of freedom that echoes Davenport's own imperative of liberation through the recognition of certain limits: "The most freedom anyone can enjoy is in constraint that looks the other way from time to time." Rather than succumb to the "tyranny" of liberalism and the "fanaticism of sweet reason," both of which are impositions on the material realities of human experience, Santayana is "content to let every man and woman be themselves."

The most daring of Davenport's stories attempt to dramatize a world in which men and women can be themselves. They take their instigation from the ideas of Charles Fourier (1772-1837), a French philosopher whose writings probed the unhappiness of humankind. That unhappiness, Fourier believed, could be redressed through a system of his devising called the Harmony, and many of his underlying assumptions resonate with Santayana's musings in "The Bank of England." As Davenport explained, again in The Paris Review, last year:

[Fourier's] perception was that we have made a mess of what we had absolutely no need to make a mess of, that we can live far more successfully in human relations. First of all we must decide on a unit in which to live…. Fourier was constantly saying, “I do not want to change human nature,” while saying under his breath, “because it’s impossible.” He simply wanted to accommodate it. Everybody has different desires. And in the Harmony, you have a society that is either tolerant or wise enough to allow for that.

Fourier theorized a complete system of how that unit would function, everything from a new frankness of human interactions to a new relationship with animals (four-year-olds would ride around on German shepherds) to an elaborate prescription for which houseplant should go in your window on a given day of the year. In addition to finding Fourier delightful for devising so baroque a system of living with happiness as its end, Davenport is most deeply interested in Fourier’s anticipation of, and challenge to, Freud. “Practically everything Freud got hold of,” Davenport says, “Fourier had already divined, and drawn different conclusions. So I became fascinated, and this percolated and percolated.”

Two thirds of The Death of Picasso is devoted to Davenport’s stories in this Fourierist vein. Set in a world in which certain received ideas about human interaction and psychological development are revoked, the stories read as if the Fall never happened and Freud was never there to assemble the pieces of our shame.

Despite this grounding in philosophical and theoretical particulars, gone from these stories are Davenport’s famous names–no Kafkas or Santayanas, no Fouriers or Freuds. They are replaced by names like Mikkel, Magnus, Holger, Jos, Sholto, and Rutger, Danish names for the pre-adolescent boys who populate the Scandinavian Everyland of Davenport’s imagination in which these stories are set. The Scandinavia of it hardly matters; had Davenport been born in Copenhagen, he probably would have set the stories in Kentucky. An imaginary Denmark is sufficiently exotic and distant that it can serve as backdrop for Davenport’s reimagining of Western civilization along Fourierist lines. Fourier found the bourgeois family unit suffocating and murderous; Davenport seeks to reinvent it in a network of boys who are members of a scout troop. No scout troop is complete, of course, without a scout leader, and in that capacity Davenport casts Hugo Tvemunding as paterfamilias, “assistant Classics master and gym instructor at NFS Grundtvig, Troop Commander of Spejderkorps 235, and doctoral candidate in Theology.” Hugo has a girlfriend called Mariana and a philosophy called humanism:

I have only my Mariana, that delightful girl, and my classical scholarship, and my Boy Scouts, and my sober round of reading, gymnastics, my thesis for the Theological Faculty at the university, my painting, teaching, learning. I can share what I feel. Not always well, but the possibility is there. I believe what the Boy Scout Manual says: Forget Yourself.

Hugo is a paragon of balance: body and mind, teaching and learning, religion and science, art and philosophy, community service and individual betterment. Naturally, conspicuously, his physical perfection is Ideal. So too his pack of boys: they are, in Fourierist form, all bright, open, curious, and creative. And, without question, interested in exploring their sexuality, from which Davenport certainly does not shy away.

In one of Davenport’s new stories, “The Owl of Minerva,” two scouts, Adam and Sholto, stray from their troop and happen upon a derelict seasonal house. Together, they break in (using penknives, damaging nothing) and explore. With “his chin on Sholto’s shoulder” Adam cuts through vines and crosses the threshold. Once inside, they play house: they sweep, they clean, they mop floors, and they “mouth mimic kisses.” Muddy from their exertions, the boys strip and bathe together:

–You’re beautiful, Sholto, wet and shiny…. –I’m a year older. Shouldn’t I be the one to get fresh? –In friendly numbers the divisors of the one that add up to the other, and vice versa, are a new assembling of the other number’s components. Pythagoras. A friend is yourself in another person. –…Anyway, I like you. You’re scrumptious. –Our dicks are the same size. –Mine had better grow.

“The Owl of Minerva” is Davenport’s variation on a theme that has interested writers throughout literature–the parable of innocents in a garden. William Golding’s bloodthirsty children of Lord of the Flies are one recent, cynical permutation; the Enlightenment ironies of Voltaire’s Candide offer another, more satirical alternative; and the book of Genesis, of course, has its own, characteristically punitive, version. Davenport’s Garden, abandoned but pristine, is a world of potential waiting to be seized. Unaware of what befell the prior tenants, innocents fill the house, and each other, with endless stores of goodness. As such, “The Owl of Minerva”–a tide that refers to the dark condition of human ignorance into which illuminating wisdom at last enters–ends not with a figurative expulsion from unfathomable paradise but with a literal embrace of its earthly availbility: after groping together in the dark, the boys hold hands and talk about what they’ll eat for breakfast.

That Davenport’s two boys might forge joyful bonds in nature should be an acceptable alternative to Golding’s version, in which children left to their own devices hack one another apart. Alas, few critics have seen it that way. When a seventy-five-year-old man writes about little boys falling in love, describes them admiring each other’s dicks, rubbing noses, blowing kisses to each other, it seems his work can’t escape the most literal interpretations. As Davenport explained to The Paris Review:

When Tatlin! [Davenport's first collection of stories] was accepted for publication, I remember being anxious and frightened, truly frightened, that reviewers would say, “This is pretentious.” What they said is, “This is obscene.”

A notice in The New York Review of Books, in 1975, went so far as to dis- miss Tatlin! the book that contained “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” with: “People who desire an easy method of learning the anatomy of the genitalia may find these stories valuable.” The New York Times, too, has lamented Davenport’s fictions as “erotica that’s often eloquent, but unsettlinglv prurient.” And in Bookforum last year, the poet Robert Kelly described Davenport’s work in this mode as “polymathic pederasty.” If we take a moment to reflect, not upon the vague and frightening reality of the outer world–a world in which we hesitate to let children play unattended for fear, reasonable fear, that some sexual horror will befall them–but upon the specific and illuminating world forged in a story like “The Owl of Minerva,” we see no harm befalling these imaginary children. They are alone, in nature. They are absolutely safe. They are capable, playful, kind. They clean a stranger’s house, clean themselves, love each other. And nowhere in any of Davenport’s stories are his children witnessed having sex. Thus the notion that this could be pornography, or pederasty, is difficult to support.

That so many of Davenport’s readers and critics have seen naked boys and thought smut, have seen love and decided it “unsettling,” is an expression of the problem Davenport wants us to get past, not sexually but intellectually. For what these stories do–if we can escape what Davenport has called “our end-of-the-century comstockery and liberal puritanism”–is encourage us to question what kind of world we have built for ourselves. It is as Davenport has Santayana tell his soldier in “Dinner at the Bank of England”: “that all thought and therefore all action stands on a quicksand of tacit assumptions. What we believe is what we are and what we expect of others.” Davenport’s Fourierist fictions are figurative expressions of a desire for release from the narrowly defined jails–verbal, philosophical, practical–that our beliefs can erect. They are no more operating manuals for how to build a civilization in which boys might endlessly frolic naked than Hamlet is an expose about the paranormal or the Inferno a piece of travel writing.

The longest story in The Death of Picasso is Davenport’s short novel “Wo es war, soli Ich werden.” Its eighty-nine nonlinear sections feature Hugo and his scouts freely pursuing friendship, amusement, conversation, knowledge, and love. If these many visits to the Garden seem repetitive, they are so in the manner of Picasso’s sixty portraits of Fernande Olivier, or Van Gogh’s thirty-nine of himself, or Cezanne’s scores of Mont St. Victoires: visits to a destination that rewards repeated consideration, exhausting neither representation nor interpretation.

The novel’s title is a line from one of Freud’s lectures. Given Davenport’s appreciation of Fourier’s having “divined, and drawn different conclusions” from those made by Freud on the basis of similar observations, we should be prepared for a dose of authorial mischief. It manifests, in part, in Hugo’s comment to a friend:

You were interested in Freud’s enigmatic statement that where it was, there must I begin to be. The oyster makes a pearl around an irritant grain of sand. Nature compensates. A tree blown over will put out a bracing root to draw itself upright again. Deaf Beethoven composed music more glorious than when he could hear. Stutterers write beautifully. That is, one source of strength seems to be weakness.

Hugo’s translation of Freud, “where it was, there must I begin to be,” is very different from the standard version by James Strachey: “Where Id was, there Ego shall be.” For Strachey’s Freud, Ego overwhelms Id; our unconscious desires are sublimated pathologically into personality. For Davenport’s Freud, “I” is not a tyrannical trumping of what nature gives us but a natural, beautiful outgrowth of experience, however painful.

Of course, there are no right translations, only more or less interesting interpretations. If it is true, as Wittgenstein had it, that the limits of language are the limits of one’s mind, then it is also true that some language is more limiting than others. If the language of fiction is to be of any lasting use, as Davenport cajoles us again and again to see, it must struggle to define–and, in so doing, attain–moments of liberty. In his own fiction, Davenport has succeeded in that regard, finding new ways to dramatize one, suggestive question: What if we were free? In their language and form, their intelligence and art, his stories remain some of our most eloquent, individual, and lasting answers to that inexhaustible question.

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’s last review for Harper’s Magazine, “The Critic as Artist,” appeared in the July 2003 issue. He is currently a Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

More from Wyatt Mason:

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