Getting it on the page: a few notes on Guy Davenport’s ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’

Courbet, Gustave, 1819-1877; Pomegranates

(Gustave Courbet, Pomegranates: People’s Palace and Winter Gardens, Glasgow)

Half a pomegranate, falling from the middle shelf of a refrigerator, has a startling effect upon a kitchen floor. On my hands and knees, I grope under cupboard and table, picking up seeds.

Responding to William Carlos Williams—‘We have/ a microscopic anatomy/ of the whale/ this/ gives/ Man/ assurance’—the Czech poet and scientist Miroslav Holub wrote ‘Wings’:

We have
a map of the universe
for microbes,
we have
a map of a microbe
for the universe.

We have
a Grand Master of chess
made of electronic circuits.

But above all
we have
the ability
to sort peas,
to cup water in our hands,
to seek
the right screw
under the sofa
for hours

This
gives us
wings.[1]

Referring to Ovid’s story of the invention of wings—the master craftsman Daedalus and his lost son—Guy Davenport wrote that the first two stories in Tatlin! ‘are both the tale of Icarus told in different styles’. The first story is ‘Tatlin!’, the second, ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia.’

The Air Show at Brescia, 1909

(From Peter Demetz, The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002): Blériot is on the right)

This is probably the most discussed of Davenport’s short fictions, perhaps not least by the author himself, both in interviews and in the discussion of his stories in ‘Ernst Machs Max Ernst’. This is in part because it was based on Kafka’s first published writing, his report of the airshow at Brescia (8–20 September 1909), which appeared in La Sentinella Bresciana, in part because the story represented Davenport’s own first foray into fiction since ‘undergraduate days’: he was forty-three when he wrote it, he says, though that was his age on its first publication – the writing of it was more likely 1967-1969. Edward Burns points to the letter of 10 February 1966, in which Hugh Kenner asked Davenport if he knew of any evidence that Kafka’s novel The Castle drew on the castle at Brunnenberg, Merano, where Ezra Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz lived with her husband Boris, and where Pound himself lived for a while after his return to Italy. Not until September 1967 did Davenport mention Kafka’s ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’.[2] Davenport’s story first appeared in The Hudson Review, in the issue for Winter 1969-1970.

In ‘Ernst Machs Max Ernst’, he discussed the ways in which he went about assembling material for his story: Kafka’s article,[3] of course, from which he draws several details and phrases, including the passage from La Sentinella Bresciana, describing the forthcoming air display; Max Brod’s biography of him, what Davenport could discover of people who were there (the poet and novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio, the composer Giacomo Puccini), ‘as well as of people who might well have been there (Wittgenstein).’ He studied contemporary photographs, read histories of aviation and built a model of Blériot’s Antoinette CV25. ‘Notice everything’, Franklin, a young character in one of Davenport’s later stories says, ‘Know where everything comes from, a hundred years back.’[4]

Franz Kafka (right) with Max Brod’s younger brother, Otto, at the Castel Toblino near Trento, Italy, 1909

(Max Brod and Kafka, via New York Review of Books)

‘I knew that Kafka’s first entry in his notebooks that led to writing The Castle was made at Merano, where he would have been gazing at the castle in which Ezra Pound was living at the time I was writing. What kind of symbol (if any) this constructs I do not know, but I felt that something was inside the image. It can be said of all my involucra [anatomical term for envelope] that I hope there is a meaning inside, but do not necessarily know. I trust the image; my business is to get it onto the page.’[5]

One of the most unsettling aspects of reading Davenport’s stories is his own repeated assertions that his fictional art is ‘primitive’—‘This last term is slippery, and has several implications’, as Erik Reece remarks[6]—and references to these writings as his ‘ravings’. Yet they proceed from a breadth and depth of knowledge—historical, artistic, literary, scientific, anthropological—that is consistently astonishing; they also draw upon a vocabulary that frequently evidences an intimate relationship with Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, references to which are scattered through Davenport’s essays. There are also words, phrases, sentences, in French, German, Dutch, Latin, Greek, Italian, Danish.

Reece-Balance

The subjects chosen for stories in Tatlin! ‘are all in the position of being, as fact, almost not there’, Davenport writes, noting that he sidestepped verisimilitude of the Gustave Flaubert or Walter Scott kind at the outset, deciding that his ‘best hope of a sustained reality would be one like Max Ernst’s world, which is always of verifiably real things that are not, however, where they are supposed to be’ (Geography, 376, 377). Indeed, that constantly unsettling vocabulary, the jolts and blanknesses and near-misses (your dictionary has that word, more or less, yet not quite in the form that Davenport’s used it), is a major, integral part of disrupting what is sometimes the trance, the state of suspended animation in which we find ourselves with some naturalistic prose. Ford Madox Ford wrote that, ‘Carefully examined, a good—an interesting—style will be found to consist in a constant succession of tiny unobservable surprises.’[7] The surprises in Davenport’s fiction, if not quite constant, are certainly not tiny and inarguably not unobservable.

In ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’, which takes place just five years before the beginning of a machine age war of unprecedented destructiveness, Kafka and Max Brod are accompanied by Max’s brother Otto: ‘The newest style, he said, is always in love with the oldest of which we are aware. The next Wiedergeburt [rebirth, regeneration] will come from the engineers.’[8] Present in Davenport’s story, though not in Kafka’s, is ‘[t]he man named Wittgenstein’, who is ‘again holding his left wrist, massaging it as if it were in pain’ (Tatlin! 70). There was, of course, another ‘man named Wittgenstein’, one of Ludwig’s elder brothers, Paul, a concert pianist who lost his right arm in the First World War but afterwards taught himself to play with his left hand so successfully that he was able to continue his career.

Wittgenstein-New-Statesman

(Ludwig Wittgenstein via The New Statesman)

Since the autumn of 1908, Ludwig Wittgenstein had been registered as a research student in the Engineering Department of Manchester University, where he had gone to study aeronautics. ‘It was his apparent intention to construct, and eventually to fly, an aeroplane of his own design.’[9] He began by experimenting on the design and construction of kites. The Wright Brothers too had so begun. ‘The kite was their beginning, not the bird. That was da Vinci’s radical error’ (Tatlin! 55).

In a 1991 exchange, Laurence Zachar remarked: ‘A proportionately large part of your work is Utopian. It deals with happy people, in an ideal place where there is no violence.’ Davenport responded that ‘The Dawn in Erewhon’ the novella that closes Tatlin! is all about a Utopian vision. Communism is a Utopian vision, first story [‘Tatlin!’]. In “The Aeroplanes at Brescia”, there’s the implicit sense that aeroplanes were going to stop all wars; the Wright brothers wrote a famous letter to the War Department which paid no attention to it, saying: with the aeroplane, there can be no more troop movements because they can be observed from the air, and therefore no more wars.’[10]

Bleriot-25Jul1909-EngCh.NYT

(Louis Blériot, 25 July 1909, having just flown across the English Channel: via New York Times)

When the story first appeared in the Hudson Review, a paragraph on the final page put that assertion into the mouth of Otto Brod but Davenport must have felt that such an unbearably painful irony was too easy, a little too obvious. It was omitted when revised for book publication.

Nevertheless, like so much of the history of flight itself, Davenport’s story ends in tears:

‘—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.’ (Tatlin! 70).

Davenport once said that he wanted ‘several transformations of each tale simultaneously, because we have reached this possibility.’ He added: ‘The story about Kafka, for instance, which follows his own account of the event, is based on a scene in Proust, where the aeroplanes are not at Brescia but at Le Bourget. It was Proust, not Kafka, who wept inexplicably when he saw an airplane for the first time.’[11]

GD_Apples_pears

This has another fictional relation in Davenport’s work. In Apples and Pears, the narrator, Adriaan van Hovendaal, and Sander, on the island where they often spend time, are talking of buying the house on Spiegelgracht: it will be another island but in Amsterdam, their version of Fourier’s Utopia. ‘Adriaan, he said, there are tears in your eyes.’[12]

And, after all, was it actually Proust who wept? Or was it, rather, his narrator, the ‘almost’ Proust, ‘Marcel’:

All of a sudden my horse reared; he had heard a strange noise, I had difficulty in controlling him and not being thrown to the ground, then I raised my tear-filled eyes to the spot from where the noise appeared to be coming, and I saw, fifty metres or so above me, in the sunlight, between two great wings of glittering steel that were bearing him away, a being whose indistinct face I fancied resembled that of a man. I was moved as might a Greek have been setting eyes for the first time on a demigod. I was weeping also, for I had been ready to weep from the moment when I recognized that the noise was coming from above my head – aeroplanes were still a rarity in those days ­ and at the thought that what I was about to see for the first time was an aeroplane.[13]

One final ‘transformation’, perhaps.

 

References

[1] Miroslav Holub, ‘Wings’, translated by George Theiner, in The Fly, translated by Ewald Osers, George Theiner, Ian and Jarmila Milner (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1987), 43. In ‘Histology’, this reads ‘There is/ the/ microscopic/ anatomy/ of, the whale/ this is/ reassuring’: William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems, Volume II: 1939-1962, edited by Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1988), 419.

[2] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, xii.

[3] Franz Kafka, ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’, in The Transformation and Other Stories: Works Published During Kafka’s Lifetime, translated and edited by Malcolm Pasley (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 1-10.

[4] See the title story in The Jules Verne Steam Balloon: Nine Stories by Guy Davenport (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 108,

[5] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 374.

[6] Erik Anderson Reece, A Balance of Quinces: The Paintings and Drawings of Guy Davenport (New York: New Directions, 1996), 45. One such implication is the rebirth of the archaic in modernism, a reminder that industrial and military innovations are ‘not the only indicators of progress’.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 197.

[8] Guy Davenport, Tatlin! Six Stories (New York: Scribner’s, 1974), 53.

[9] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1991), 28.

[10] Laurence Zachar, ‘Guy Davenport. Lexington, Kentucky: December 1991’, Effets de voix (Tours: Presses universitaires François Rabelais, 1994).
See: http://books.openedition.org/pufr/3904 (accessed 20 March 2019)

[11] Guy Davenport, ‘From Indifference to Attention’, New York Times Book Review (4 April 1982), 30.

[12] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 153.

[13] Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time. 4: Sodom and Gomorrah, translated by John Sturrock (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 423.

 

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