All safely gathered in – Guy Davenport, Stanley Spencer

Piper-Enjoying-Paintings

Here’s a recent arrival: Enjoying Paintings, edited by David Piper, a Pelican Original (at twelve shillings and sixpence), published in 1964. I ordered my secondhand copy at the prompting of a few lines by Guy Davenport—another prodigious instigator of book purchases and readings, not unlike his admired Ezra Pound.

In March 1966, Davenport wrote to Hugh Kenner: ‘[Rene] Odlin tells me the Egyptians wrote letters to the dead, the temple being the post office.’ A month later, he advised: ‘Do add the Penguin Enjoying Paintings to your library (ed. David Piper) – contains essays on specific works by essayists who write in the gracious olden manner. Ayrton on Watteau, for instance. Piper on Holbein also excellent. And an essay on Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, that has moved me more than any contemporary work of English painting. And more than anything in American painting.’[1]

Davenport didn’t say that this essay is by the painter Carel Weight, one or two of whose early paintings are a little reminiscent of Spencer’s own, nor did he mention, and may not have known, that Spencer also wrote letters to the dead, specifically to his first wife Hilda, beginning with a December 1950 letter and continuing until his own death nine years later. At no point did Spencer refer to her being dead. Some of the letters ran to a hundred pages.[2] More than fifty years after his own death, his younger daughter Unity, herself a painter, ends her autobiography, Lucky to be an Artist, with a moving letter addressed to her father.[3]

Unity-Spencer-Lucky

This very high value placed on Spencer’s painting is introduced fairly abruptly but Davenport’s interest in him manifested itself many times and in several contexts.

The attractions of Spencer’s work seem to have been the painter’s direct engagement with a world which is there, the human body crucially a part of its natural beauty; pictures often crowded with puzzling details that required an intense and knowledgeable gaze; and a figure of the kind that he felt too often evaded conventional critical and historical habits of classification. Davenport’s enthusiasms frequently tended to be for the maverick, the misunderstood, the overlooked, the misread and the misrepresented.

‘Christ Preaching at the Henley Regatta’, Davenport’s story in Eclogues, plays on Spencer’s Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta, a painting ‘made of a collage of elements: Dufy, Mallarmé, et d’autres choses.’[4] A few years later, Davenport’s essay ‘Stanley Spencer and David Jones’ begins by pointing to Roger Fry’s part in what was ‘a necessary revolution’ but one which had unforeseen consequences. The hierarchical placement of technique over subject ‘calcified into a dogma: the subject of a work of art is negligible.’ So a good many British artists largely disappeared from serious critical consideration. Davenport views Spencer and Jones as ‘spiritual twins’, together constituting ‘a thoroughly British phenomenon: nonmodernist modernism.’ He adds that, ‘The meaning of a work of art is efficacious only insofar as its charm elicits a response. Thus a new kind of art, like Spencer’s and Jones’s, must educate an audience before it can communicate.’ He remarks also that: ‘Modernism has been owned and operated by various groups with their own interests to look after.’[5] In an essay from the early 1940s, David Jones wrote: ‘“All must be safely gathered in”, as Mr Stanley Spencer said to me, with reference to the making of a picture (a more apt expression of the artist’s business I never heard).’[6]

Dufy-Regatta-at-Henley

(Raoul Dufy, Regatta at Henley: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

In an essay on Jonathan Williams, Davenport discusses English eccentricity, then the tradition stemming from Blake’s Ancients, seeing it for the most part as ‘a tangled and untraced path in and out of official literature and art.’ He mentions Charles Doughty, Tolkien, Edith Sitwell, Bruckner – and Stanley Spencer: ‘we await the historian of these visionaries.’[7] Elsewhere he suggests that Balthus and Spencer ‘illuminate each other’, the latter’s ‘intrepid religious grounding’ comparable to Balthus’ ‘privileged, undisclosed, but articulate psychology’, both of them expressing ‘a sensual delight in the material world that is openly hedonistic’. Davenport sees Balthus in ‘the distinguished category of the unclassifiable, like Wyndham Lewis and Stanley Spencer’, remarking that, ‘If modernity ended by trivializing its revolution (conspicuous novelty displacing creativity), it also has a new life awaiting it in a retrospective survey of what it failed to include in its sense of itself.’[8]

Most evidently, there is, in Thasos and Ohio—a selection of Davenport’s poems and translations—The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, which opens the book:

The Cookham dead begin to rise
When God with April in his eyes
Ended in O its midst the night.
To dogwood flowered hard and white,
To rain and violets overhead,
Sharp music lifted up the dead,
In cuckoo song and silence born,
A silver brilliant hunting horn.

GD-Thasos

In the following 212 lines, fifty or so named figures arise—a touch of verbal equivalence to the Jann Haworth and Peter Blake design for the sleeve of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—many of them familiar from other Davenport writings: Michael Ventris, who deciphered the Linear B script, Ruskin, Alan Turing, Charles Doughty, Hugh Miller, Christina Rossetti, Wittgenstein, Henri Rousseau, Babbage, Stan Laurel (also on the Beatles album cover, together with Oliver Hardy) – and Spencer himself, of course.

And Stanley Spencer rose upright,
Who, naked as a swimmer, stood
As best his sleepy body could
Beside his tombstone while his wise
And deep and dark untroubled eyes
Watched the startled, exultant dead
Take flesh of fire in flesh’s stead.[9]

Stanley Spencer wrote of his painting: ‘The resurrection is meant to indicate the passing of the state of non-realization of the possibilities of heaven in this life to the sudden awakening to the fact. This is what is inspiring the people as they resurrect, namely the new meaning they find in what they had seen before.’[10]

The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

(The Resurrection, Cookham: Presented by Lord Duveen 1927: © Tate Gallery)

The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard is a huge – 108 x 216 in/ 274 x 549 cm – painting, begun in 1924 and completed in 1926. ‘He painted it in a small room over a public house in the Vale of Health, Hampstead. Outside was a fairground, and Spencer used to say that the only way he could ever get far enough to see his picture as a whole was “to have two pennyworth on the swings” and glimpse it as he shot by the window.’[11] That’s a wonderful image. Penelope Fitzgerald, born in 1916, wrote to Howard Woolmer in 1990, ‘I’m glad you like the Spencer Resurrection and the Cookham pictures – I used to be taken to see them when I was quite small, and indeed Stanley Spencer was a familiar sight on Hampstead Heath in those days with his pram full of canvases.’[12]

There were many resurrections in Spencer’s body of work but The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard represented, he thought, a consummation of all his work up to that point.[13] There are many interpretations of it but I doubt if anyone feels confident that they’ve plumbed its depths, not least because, as Carel Weight remarks, the painting is ‘a great piece of autobiography which can tell you more about its author and his immediate family than any self-portrait could have done’.[14] So Spencer’s wife Hilda appears at least three times and his favourite dresses of hers a couple times more; his brother-in-law Richard Carline is there two or three times, and Spencer himself twice.

GD_Hunter_Gracchus

(The jacket painting is Spencer’s Swan Upping at Cookham: Tate Gallery)

As against Wyndham Lewis—‘The lines define, the surfaces are expanses of ink or graphite or paint, NOT cloth or flesh or any texture whatever’—Spencer, ‘by contrast, painted textures only.’[15] Spencer was ‘before all else a poet for whom the natural beauty of the world [ . . . ] was the primary fact.’ Of Spencer’s extensive and unfinished series, Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta, Davenport wrote that it was going to be ‘a very crowded. Bosch-like tangle of people, picnicking, and punts. A great deal of eighteenth-century British humor comes from too many people in a space (Rowlandson, Hogarth, Smollett). This very British theme becomes for Spencer an objet-petit-a [Jacques Lacan’s unattainable object of desire], an intimacy with gratuitous sensual content’. Spencer’s art exemplifies ‘an insistence that the world (not a world created ideally by a choice of attentions) is there.’[16]

Though he spent time during the First World War in the Beaufort War Hospital and later served in Macedonia, experiences which had a huge and lasting effect upon him—and resulted in some extraordinary pictures—the centre of his life and art was Cookham. There’s a world in William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and in William Carlos Williams’ Rutherford – there’s one more distinction in Spencer’s case, which is the erasure of that line between the secular and the holy, between the human, godly and angelic realms. ‘Everything is holy and everything is connected’, Alexandra Harris wrote of Spencer’s work.[17] And so it is.

 

Notes

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 781, 789.

[2] Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harvill Press, 1962), 214.

[3] Unity Spencer, Lucky to be an Artist (London: Unicorn Press, 2015), 229-234.

[4] Bernard Hoepffner, ‘Pleasant Hill: An Interview with Guy Davenport’:
http://wvorg.free.fr/hoepffner/PleasHillEng.html (Accessed 3 July 2019)

[5] Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 112-113, 121, 125.

[6] David Jones, ‘The Myth of Arthur’, in Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings (London: Faber, 1973), 243.

[7] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 188.

[8] Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (New York: Norton, 1989), 19, 18.

[9] Guy Davenport, Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations, 1950-1980 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 9, 10.

[10] Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 226, citing the Spencer collection in the Tate Archives, reference TA 733.3.1.

[11] Carel Weight, ‘The Resurrection: Cookham’, in Enjoying Paintings, edited by David Piper (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964), 225.

[12] Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 358.

[13] Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer (London: Phaidon, 1999), 59.

[14] Weight, ‘The Resurrection: Cookham’, 226.

[15] Questioning Minds, II, 931.

[16] Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus, 121-123.

[17] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames & Hudson, 2010), 179.

 

Animal to animal

Blake-Tyger

(William Blake’s Tyger)

‘Yes’, William Carlos Williams wrote to Ezra Pound on 14 June 1932, ‘I have wanted to kick myself (as you suggest) for not realizing more about Ford Maddox’s [sic] verse. If he were not so unapproachable, so gone nowadays. I want to but it is not to be done. Also he is too much like my father was – too English for me ever to be able to talk with him animal to animal.’[1]

That phrase would recur more than twenty-five years later, when Williams asked Hugh Kenner whether it might be possible to talk to T. S. Eliot ‘animal to animal’.[2] Ford and Williams became closer in the last year of Ford’s life, when he founded the Friends of William Carlos Williams.[3] Still, animal to animal. . . was there enough common ground for words to mean the same things to both parties? Would each of them even recognise the other’s direction of travel? Were their aims and ideals comparable, perhaps even within touching distance? Could they connect?

Humans and animals, humans as animals, humans becoming animals – it’s a crowded field: Ovid’s transformations, Kipling, Kafka, David Garnett’s Lady into Fox; more recently, the remarkable Sarah Hall: ‘She stops, within calling distance, were he not struck dumb. She looks over her shoulder. Topaz eyes glinting. Scorched face. Vixen.’[4]

Hall-Madame-Zero

We accept we are animals; or no, it’s those others that are animals; some animal traits we see in humans, some human traits in our dogs, cats, horses. ‘Funny buggers the human animals’, David Jones wrote to Tom Burns, while Llewellyn Powys referred to ‘that escaped, brain-mad animal, man’ and, in order to escape the human into a dreamed world, immaterial and eternal, William Butler Yeats wrote:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.[5]

Guy Davenport remarks that, ‘Odysseus declining the stupidities of hallucination and Akhilleus taming the animal within himself end one age of Greece.’ And here is the philosopher George Santayana in a later Davenport story, ‘Dinner at the Bank of England’:

The unexamined life is eminently worth living, were anyone so fortunate. It would be the life of an animal, brave and alert, with instincts instead of opinions and decisions, loyalty to mate and cubs, to the pack. It might, for all we know, be a life of richest interest and happiness. Dogs dream. The quickened spirit of the eagle circling in high cold air is beyond our imagination. The placidity of cattle shames the Stoic, and what critic has the acumen of the cat? We have used the majesty of the lion as a symbol of royalty, the wide-eyed stare of owls for wisdom, the mild beauty of the dove for the spirit of God.[6]

Santayana

(George Santayana)

Of T. H. White, author of both The Goshawk and The Once and Future King, David Garnett recalled: ‘Tim was not a mere devotee of blood sports, he was a naturalist with a gift for sharing the instincts and prejudices of all the animals he hunted or domesticated. Thus he could really enter into the soul of a hawk, or a fox, or a wild goose, or a badger. His description of Merlin’s education of Arthur in The Sword in the Stone is not a piece of fanciful writing, but full of his own experience.’[7] Patrick White wrote of his character, Miss Hare: ‘Now she recalled with nostalgia occasions when she had lost her identity in those of trees, bushes, inanimate objects, or entered into the minds of animals, of which the desires were unequivocal or honest.’[8] Some ten thousand years before the present, Julia Blackburn writes, ‘A man is preparing to go out hunting. In order to achieve the death of the animal that is to be hunted, he must become the animal. Inhabiting that other body is the first step towards possessing it.’[9]

Lily-James-as-Natasha

(Lily James as Natasha in the BBC dramatisation of War and Peace)

That recognised and lived closeness of the worlds of human and animal is certainly an integral part of cultures both ancient and modern. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Natasha speaks of recalling memories until one remembers what happened before one was in the world. ‘“That’s metempsychosis,’ said Sonya, who had always been a good scholar and remembered what she learned. “The Egyptians used to believe that our souls once inhabited the bodies of animals, and will return into animals again.”’ And Carlo Levi, exiled by the Mussolini regime to Gagliano in the Lucania region of Italy, wrote: ‘The deities of the state and the city can find no worshippers here on the land where the wolf and the ancient black boar reign supreme, where there is no wall between the world of men and the world of animals and spirits, between the leaves of the trees above and the roots below.’[10]

Harry1

No wall. So near and yet so far away. Reading aloud, animal to animal, I accept the cat as prospective audience – but he keeps his own counsel and, I notice, makes no comment at all.

 

References

[1] Pound/ Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, edited by Hugh Witemeyer (New York: New Directions, 1996), 119.

[2] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 19.

[3] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), II, 537-538.

[4] Sarah Hall, ‘Mrs Fox’, in Madame Zero (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), 9.

[5] Letter of 28 August 1940: Dai Greatcoat: a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters, edited by René Hague (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 104; Llewellyn Powys, Ebony and Ivory ([1923] Redcliffe Press, Bristol, 1983), 30; ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, W. B. Yeats, The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 240.

[6] Guy Davenport ‘The Dawn of Erewhon’, in Tatlin! Six Stories (New York: Scribner’s, 1974), 200; ‘Dinner at the Bank of England’, in The Cardiff Team: Ten Stories (New York: New Directions, 1996), 13.

[7] David Garnett, The Familiar Faces (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962), 176.

[8] Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 82.

[9] Julia Blackburn, Time Song: Searching for Doggerland (London: Jonathan Cape, 2019), 171.

[10] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 616; Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, translated by Frances Frenaye ([1947] Penguin 2000), 78.

 

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.

 

Gunmen and bowmen: Don McCullin at Tate Britain

McCullin

The Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain has been receiving five-star reviews in the press. Would we quarrel with this? Hell, no. The photography—together with the magical arts practised in the darkroom—sits perfectly on a level with much of the art that, in the broadest context, surrounds it. The subject matter is often appalling, the quality of construction and composition superb, the result frequently unnervingly beautiful. A large chunk of the second half of the twentieth century, its public history and its private grief, is here. And what a hell of a century that was for so many people.

Part of the way round the exhibition, I was conscious of several strong but distinct strands of feeling. One was a recognisable impulse to weep, at the sheer unstoppable waves of slaughter, suffering, grief, loss and despair, in Biafra, in East Beirut, in Vietnam, in London’s East End, in Cyprus, in Northern Ireland, in Kurdistan, the Congo, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Iraq. I was also getting flashbacks to my reaction to Raoul Peck’s superb 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, based on a James Baldwin manuscript, when I was struck by how little progress had actually been made in the intervening years and how much of what had been so appalling then remained appalling now. On the walls of the McCullin exhibition were images from the 1970s not only of the many bloody, vicious and pointless conflicts but of homeless and destitute people, house interiors in foul condition because of exploitative landlords, anti-fascist demonstrations in London, vile racist graffiti on exterior walls. Forty years ago, fifty years ago—and those huge stretches of time simply fall away or dissipate like smoke when you open a newspaper or turn on the news now.

Waterloo-Bridge

We’d walked along Waterloo Bridge, where a great many people were demonstrating to draw attention to climate emergency here in our last chance saloon, most of them young, since my generation and the one before it have proved themselves so utterly useless in this regard, trashing the planet while wasting twenty or thirty years after a good number of the relevant facts were already known, so the response at this absurdly late stage must necessarily be more radical, more comprehensive, more disruptive, than if intelligently conceived, planned and executed policies had existed before now.

GD-GB

The other response I recognised was a recurrent desire to shout obscenities at the top of my voice, remembering then a moment in a Guy Davenport story, typically highly allusive, sometimes cryptic, culturally wide-ranging, stylistically elegant, which abruptly and shockingly lurches into quite another register. ‘The Bowmen of Shu’ centres on the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed at Neuville-St.-Vaast on 5 June 1915 at the age of twenty-three, and consists of 42 sections, varying from a single line to several pages, interspersed—in the version included in Apples and Pears—with thirteen drawings, two by Gaudier and the others by Davenport. Section 10 reads: ‘THE SOLDAT’S REMARK TO GENERAL APPLAUSE / Fuck all starters of war up the arse with a handspike dipped in tetanus.’ And yes, I think, yes, I second that emotion. And please include all the suppliers of arms and the political and financial shysters that actively or passively facilitate such slaughters.

Men with guns. Always a particular cause, a particular locality, particular grievances, occasions, pretexts, justifications. But that particularity leaks away, blurs, dilutes, leaving only men with guns. Dead children, grieving parents—and men with guns.

It is, in any case, one of the very best exhibitions, if also one of the most harrowing, I can remember seeing.

‘A house is a ship turned upside down’: some notes on Guy Davenport’s ‘Tatlin!’

GD_JW_via_Jacket

(Guy Davenport by Jonathan Williams via Jacket)

Due partly to my prolonged (and continuing) immersion in the Davenport-Kenner letters, partly to the frequent references—and some generously supplied scans of Davenport essays and reviews—in emails exchanged with the writer Greg Gerke, I’ve just begun rereading Guy Davenport’s stories. While I’m forever peering into various volumes of his essays and art criticism, my reading of most of his fiction dates back between fifteen and thirty years. I’d like to think that I know a bit more now than I did then—not just about Davenport or modern literature but things more generally. I certainly know enough to tread warily, one assemblage at a time. So, a few notes suggested by that reading and a strong awareness of the recurring question prompted by all Davenport’s writings: how does he know that? Perhaps two questions, the other being: how does he do that?

‘Tatlin!’—Vladimir Tatlin, the Russian painter, architect and designer—is the title story of Davenport’s first collection (dedicated to the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard) and its opening story, though actually the last of the six in order of composition, which was ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’, ‘Robot’, ‘The Dawn in Erewhon’, ‘1830’, ‘Herakleitos’, ‘Tatlin!’.[1]

GD_Tatlin

In the summer of 1969, Davenport wrote to Hugh Kenner: ‘I’m at work on a piece of prose not like anything I’ve done before, or anybody else to my knowledge—a breakthrough, I think (I hope), and an invention. It’s the kind of thing I’ve wanted to do for the longest, but have never been able to organize my imagination enough to get ahead with it. It is essentially the biography of Tatlin’.[2]

‘You would seem to have invented a new genre’, Kenner wrote to him in March 1970, ‘the assemblage, as by a postulated consciousness, of the clues to some unnoticed event’, adding, to distinguish Davenport’s perspective from a work by Hilaire Belloc to which he referred, ‘you don’t use the point-of-view of an imaginary spectator, but a “consciousness” as in the Cantos.’[3]

GD-JL-Letters

To James Laughlin, more than twenty years later, Davenport traced the emergence of his fictional strategy: ‘The breakthrough came when I realized that I mustn’t write about anything from my own experience, or anybody I’ve known, but to work with pure imagination, and to work with that hiatus between the mind and the world in which the pragmatic always fails and the imagination has to take over.’[4]

‘Tatlin!’, like a number of other Davenport fictions, includes the author’s drawings, designed as integral parts of the text—‘Tatlin! began as a painting’.[5] Peter Quartermain comments that ‘all his stories are written as though they were drawn and hence call attention to themselves as made works’[6] and Davenport remarked to Laughlin: ‘My fiction is a kind of drawing.’[7] These drawings are beautifully achieved, elegant, detailed, with exquisite cross-hatching: one of Vladimir Tatlin in snazzy striped trousers, holding a straw hat in his right hand (and looking, to my eye, not unlike the young Pablo Picasso), two of Lenin and then a third following five representations of Tatlin’s artworks, some of those reproduced in Camilla Gray’s book on Russian art which Davenport acknowledged on Tatlin!’s title page.[8] But the final three drawings are all of Joseph Stalin and the modernist artists, poets and painters, scientists and Constructivists who had seemed for a while to be in tune with the revolution are by this time dead, dishonoured or in exile.

letatlin-1932.jpg!Large

‘Tatlin!’ begins with a section entitled ‘Moscow 1932’, the artist’s Constructivist works and his flying machine—a glider ‘for everyday use’—hung from the ceiling, like ‘the fossil skeleton of a pterodactyl.’ ‘Tatlin’ is the first and fourth word of the story; by the eight line, Lenin has been mentioned three times. Then we read: ‘This is no place to continue talking about M. N. Ryutin’s remarks concerning Comrade Stalin, mimeographed and running to many pages, said by people who knew to foreshadow a change.’[9] Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin had consolidated his position as supreme leader before the end of that decade. Ryutin’s writings argued against some central Communist policies and for the removal of Stalin. It didn’t end well—though Ryutin wasn’t executed until 1937, as part of the ‘Great Purge’.

The story moves through St. Petersburg’s Bloody Sunday in 1905, when the march led by Father Gapon resulted in at least 200 deaths; Tatlin as busker, as sailor, in Paris meeting Picasso, Chagall and others; Tsiolkovsky, Russian space science pioneer; Tatlin in the classroom; and the dissipation, perversion and betrayal of the revolution.

The second page of text introduces a good many more names and several themes which bulk large in Davenport’s work: not only flight but the crucial link between modernism and the archaic—‘What is most modern in our time frequently turns out to be the most archaic’ (Geography of the Imagination, 21)—the reaching back over great stretches of time common to Pound, Joyce, Gaudier-Brzeska, Picasso, Modigliani, Khlebnikov and others. ‘Tatlin had gone back to Daedalos’ (Tatlin! 3). This will be another recurring theme or motif in Davenport’s essays and stories: the labyrinth, the marriage of art and science and, of course, flight again, while—‘At Teraspol there were cobwebs in the barley, wasps at the panes, and cats in the knitting baskets’ (Tatlin! 10)—wasps, cats and barley will also crop up many times in the Davenport oeuvre. And Tatlin in the classroom? ‘Every force evolves a form, he taught’ (Tatlin! 16)—the title of a volume of Davenport essays and a dictum he took from Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers.

GD_Every_Force

Among names here which will also recur are those of Frank Lloyd Wright, Ruskin, Rousseau, Osip Mandelstam, Fourier, Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Nijinsky. A list like that might in turn prompt a reader to wonder just how many names the story actually includes, either as character or reference. In fact, in a story of fifty pages of good-sized type and generous margins, twelve of which are given over to the drawings already mentioned, there are close on one hundred and forty named painters, sculptors, poets, pianists, engineers, political and historical figures, architects, film-makers, chemists, explorers, aeronauts, dancers, composers and journalists. Some are unfamiliar – but can, of course, be looked up, far more easily than when Davenport first published these stories. A few details I paused over: Marya Ivanovna, apparently a Pravda journalist. Was this also an historical character? Then I realised that it was a patronymic form and there’s really no obvious way of finding out—though somewhere, inevitably, there will be a scholar of 1930s Russian media who will know the answer—in fact, it crops up in a number of literary texts: there are characters so named in Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth and Resurrection, Grossman’s Life and Fate and Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent. Ivan Alekseyevich threw me for a moment but is, I think, the writer known as Ivan Bunin.

I hesitated too over a reference to the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II in 1881 – did Davenport make mistakes? Answer: very rarely, certainly as far as I’m aware. And was it a mistake – or a private joke or a cunning postmodern playfulness wholly unfamiliar to me? A mistake, apparently – it was, in any case, emended: when I looked at a later printing, the last of the Romanov rulers had indeed become Csar Aleksandr II.[10]

One phrase that came to mind, given Davenport’s lifelong study of Ezra Pound, was ‘Life and Contacts’, the subtitle attached to Pound’s long poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, first published in 1919 – thought, when it appeared, with Homage to Sextus Propertius, in Diptych Rome-London (1958), in a limited edition of 200 copies, the terms were reversed (‘Contacts and Life’). Pound wrote to his publisher: ‘Note inversion in subtitle of Mauberley, NOT Life and Contacts but the actual order of the subject matter.’[11] ‘Tatlin!’ moves freely back and forth in time but it is the ‘contacts’ that inform the intellectual and artistic development and these in turn sketch the outline of the life. And the dozens of names, many but not all of them ones that a reader would recognise, so skilfully and confidently deployed, generate and populate and substantiate that life and the world that contained it.

Davenport was an extremely private man and this extended to his fiction. He wrote to James Laughlin in 1992, ‘I don’t think I have an ego. That is, I have nothing to say for myself, or as from myself. It annoys the hell out of me when reviewers say I like or dislike whatever: they’re always looking at what a character likes or dislikes. In a confessional age I keep my mouth shut (in fiction; not as a critic, natch). . . . ’[12] So friends and relations might be used in his stories but would be moved through vast distances in time and space. ‘Members of my family wearing long Russian beards, walk around in “Tatlin!” and moments of my childhood figure there on Russian porches and against a background of sunflowers and the Black Sea.’[13]

ML-VT

(Mikhail Larionov, portrait of Vladimir Tatlin)

That refers to the time spent by Tatlin with the young Mikhail Larionov in Teraspol. ‘Vladimir and Mikhail edged through the thicket of sunflowers on rainy days to find things, old bits, bottomless wooden pails, snakes, baling wire lizards’ (Tatlin! 10).

It’s a forerunner of what will be fully fleshed out in the short novel which ends this book, The Dawn in Erewhon and in many of Davenport’s fictions thereafter: the utopian vision, drawing on Charles Fourier, of a paradisal world in which people, especially children, explore and learn the physical world’s sensuous beauty and sensual pleasures, focusing not least upon their own—and others’—bodies.

This persistent theme in Davenport’s fictions has provoked hostility, suspicion, even dismissal, some commentators becoming fixated upon it to the virtual exclusion of everything else, responses tending to confirm Davenport’s diagnosis of continuing Comstockery and Puritan frigidity. Erik Reese, though, writes that Davenport ‘believed that attraction is fundamentally amoral. We love what, and who, we love. Period.’ And he points to the review by Wyatt Mason, which suggested that Davenport’s fictions are really asking ‘one persistent question: “What if we were free?”’[14]

The story ends with Tatlin and Viktor Shklovsky talking together, Tatlin explaining that all politicians are mad. ‘A genius has no interest in controlling people with anything so crude as power. The artist has true power. The intellectual may hunger for power as his ideas prove to be weak, but he is for the most part content to live in his mind’ (Tatlin! 48). Stalin is dead – but Tatlin will outlive him by less than three months. ‘They sat in a kind of grief, a kind of joy, stunned.’ Tatlin asks: ‘Will they publish your books, build my tower, open the jails?’ Shklovsky replies: ‘It is only Stalin who is dead.’ To which Tatlin responds: ‘Aren’t we all?’

Viktor leaves. Tatlin sits among his hens and his books, of which he reads the same pages over and over. He and the others are ghosts of themselves, living in their minds, in memory and imagination. The story ends, as it began, with the flying machine. ‘He could ponder the glider strut by strut, and with a soft chirr and dance of hands, imagine it agile as a bat over rivers, lakes, fields’ (Tatlin! 51).

 

 

References

[1] Guy Davenport to Nicholas Kilmer, letter of 3 April 1979: ‘Fragments from a Correspondence’, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, 13, 3 (Winter, 2006), 89-130 (97).

[2] Davenport to Kenner [10 June 1969], in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1228.

[3] Questioning Minds II, 1298; see also Guy Davenport, ‘Ernst Machs, Max Ernst’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 380.

[4] Letter of 24 October 1992, in W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 92.

[5] Guy Davenport, ‘Postscript’ to Twelve Stories (Washington D. C.: Counterpoint, 1997), 235.

[6] Peter Quartermain, ‘Writing as Assemblage: Guy Davenport’, in Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis to Zukofsky to Susan Howe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 176.

[7] Bamberger, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, 138.

[8] Camilla Gray’s The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863-1922 (1962) was revised and enlarged after Gray’s early death by Marian Burleigh-Motley. See her The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), 203, for Board No. 1: Old Bosmannaya (1916-1917) and Relief (1917).

[9] Guy Davenport, Tatlin! Six Stories (New York: Scribner’s, 1974), 1.

[10] Davenport, Twelve Stories, 13. Is a ‘mistake’ possible in fiction? Davport addresses the question himself in ‘Ernst Machs, Max Ernst’: The Geography of the Imagination, 376.

[11] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 1308 n.549.2.

[12] Bamberger, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, 97.

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

[14] ‘Afterword: Remembering Guy Davenport’, in The Guy Davenport Reader, edited by Erik Reese (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 414, 415. See Wyatt Mason, ‘There Must I Begin to Be: Guy Davenport’s heretical fictions’, Harper’s Magazine (April 2004): ‘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?’

 

 

Bearded men in overcoats: Edward Gorey

Gorey-Avedon

(Photograph by Richard Avedon, via The New Yorker
© The Richard Avedon Foundation)

‘Gorey’, Hugh Kenner wrote to Guy Davenport in 1962. ‘I have tracked down THE CURIOUS SOFA, THE FATAL LOZENGE, THE WILLOWDALE EXPRESS [i.e., The Willowdale Handcar], and THE HAPLESS CHILD. No others seem to be available. One is especially curious about THE DOUBTFUL GUEST and ($1,000,000 prize title) THE LISTING ATTIC. Are any sources of supply known to you?’

The following Spring, breathing down the neck of Pound-Joyce-Ruskin references that will emerge in different form a dozen years later in ‘The House That Jack Built’, is this Davenport remark: ‘All the bearded men in overcoats in Gorey are Gorey.’[1]

Doubtful-Guest

‘At times it would tear out whole chapters from books,
Or put roomfuls of pictures askew on their hooks.’[2]

Some of the attractions for Davenport are fairly obvious: a wide and varied taste in books (Gorey owned upwards of 25000), cats—and the hospitality offered to other living creatures—virtuosic graphic work, an extraordinary range of interests and knowledge, a productive eccentricity and a distinctly individual stance towards the world.

Edward St John Gorey was born 22 February 1925 (and died in 2000). He published more than a hundred of his own works, beginning with The Unstrung Harp in 1953, and illustrated the works of scores of other writers, poets and critics, from Dickens, Edward Lear, H. G. Wells and Samuel Beckett to Saki, Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf and the wonderful Treehorn books by Florence Parry Heide.

Treehorn

‘The next morning Treehorn was so small he had to jump out of bed. On the floor under the bed was a game he’d pushed under there and forgotten about. He walked under the bed to look at it.’[3]

Moving around our house, I find Gorey items in a surprising number of places: small hardbacks and larger paperbacks, postcards, a jigsaw, even a toy theatre, Edward Gorey’s Dracula, a Christmas present to the Librarian some years back.

Gorey-Dracula

There are some irresistible moments in the interview of Gorey by Clifford Ross:

CR: What about your working day?
EG: I usually wake up and think, “Oh, I really must do something today.” But then quite often many things come up before I can start doing them.
CR: Do you work each day?
EG: I try and do something each day. Work might not be exactly the word for it.

Elsewhere, ‘But I do collect postcards of dead babies.’ And, in response to the question about what sort of art he collects—Balthus, Burchfield, Albert York, Vuillard, Bonnard—‘And I have one Munch lithograph, I think.’ Ross asks which one and Gorey tells him: ‘Omega and the Bear. I couldn’t resist it. It’s this back of a naked lady and she’s got her arms around a big bear. I think it has some significance. I’m not sure what.’

Karen Wilkin, in her absorbing essay, lists some of the inhabitants—‘Mustachioed men in ankle-length overcoats; elegant matrons with high-piled hair; athletic hearties in thick turtlenecks; imposing patriarchs in sumptuous dressing-gowns; kohl-eyed wantons with alarming décolletages and nodding plumes’—of what she terms ‘an utterly unreal but wholly believable universe instantly recognizable, at least to initiates, as the world of Edward Gorey.’ It is, it is. She details the influence of theatre and, particularly, dance on Gorey’s art. He rarely missed a performance of the New York Ballet for thirty years and his ‘knowledge and understanding’ of the choreography of George Balanchine was ‘profound’.[4]

McDermott-Elephant-House

(© Kevin McDermott, photograph facing chapter heading ‘The Living Room’)

Kevin McDermot, in his book about Gorey’s Cape Cod house, illustrated with his own superb photographs, quotes a Vanity Fair interview with Gorey from October 1997:

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
“Cats.”
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
“A stone.”
What is your favourite journey?
“Looking out the window.”[5]

Accept no substitutes.

Gorey’s home is now a museum, dedicated to his life and work, open from April to December each year. The Edward Gorey House: http://www.edwardgoreyhouse.org/

 
References

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 167, 286.

[2] Edward Gorey, The Doubtful Guest (1957), in Amphigorey: Fifteen Books by Edward Gorey (New York: Perigee Books, 1981), unpaginated.

[3] Florence Parry Heide, The Shrinking of Treehorn, in The Treehorn Trilogy, drawings by Edward Gorey (New York: Abrams, 2006), unpaginated.

[4] Clifford Ross, ‘Interview with Edward Gorey’, in Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin, The World of Edward Gorey (New York: Abrams, 1996), 19; Karen Wilkins, ‘Mr. Earbrass Jots Down a Few Visual Notes: The World of Edward Gorey’, 45, 86.

[5] Kevin McDermot, Elephant House, or, The Home of Edward Gorey (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2003), unpaginated.

 

Following up

Where-Shall-we-run-to . Boneland

I’ve recently bought—but am not yet reading—the new book by Alan Garner, called Where Shall We Run To? – A Memoir. I’m not reading it yet because my epic revisiting of the Patrick White canon is only now nearing its close; then, too, some major deadlines are approaching for the first issue of the new Ford Madox Ford Journal; and in any case, I was just in time to glimpse the Librarian carrying the book away to some other part of the house. First dibs, as they say.

The publication of this new Garner recalled for me the previous one, Boneland, a novel which appeared in 2012. It’s short, powerful and cryptic, as much of Garner’s work tends to be, not through obfuscation but compression. Some of his readers are extraordinarily knowledgeable not only about Garner’s entire oeuvre but also the mythologies and belief systems that underlie so much of his writing; and I remember that the medieval text, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was mentioned and cited several times in online comments about the book. So I followed up.

 sir-gawain-green-knight-decapitated-head-f94v

(Via The British Library)

I’d certainly read Gawain at some stage over the years. I’d never taken the kind of course of study that included it, though the University of Bristol had the supreme good fortune to have on its staff John Burrow, a brilliant critic and editor of medieval literature (and one of the most delightful people I’ve ever come across). He published a classic study of the poem in 1965, and an edition of it for Penguin in 1982. Following up, though, the edition I read was the one at hand in the office, a modern English version with a critical introduction by John Gardner from the University of Chicago Press, reissued in 2011. Ninety pages of introduction and commentary allow for a fair bit of jousting with other critics and commentators, while demonstrating an impressive familiarity with the relevant secondary literature as well as the poem itself. The alliterative verse rollicks along at a pleasing lick:

Now comes the season of summer; soft are the winds;
The spirit of Zephyrus whispers to seeds and green shoots.
Joyful enough is that herb rising up out of earth,
When the dampening dew has dropped from all her leaves,
To bask in the blissful gaze of the bright sun.

John-Gardner-Paris-Review

(John Gardner, via The Paris Review)

John Champlin Gardner Jr. died nearly forty years ago in a motorcycle accident at the early age of 49. He’d published more than a dozen works of fiction, half a dozen critical works, children’s books, and translations of the Alliterative Morte d’Arthur and Other Middle English Poems as well as the complete works of the Gawain poet. He’s probably still best-known for his novel Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view.

That phrase, ‘following up’, I always associate with an essay by Guy Davenport on the extraordinary photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (in The Geography of the Imagination):

He was an unfailing follower-up, which is why I think of him as the best educated man I have ever known. As a professor I must work with people for whom indifference is both a creed and a defense of their fantastic narrowness of mind, but Gene knew nothing of this. When he met Louis and Celia Zukofsky at my house, he went away and read Zukofsky. Not that he was an enthusiast. He simply had a curiosity that went all the way, and a deep sense of courtesy whereby if a man were a writer he would read what he had written, if a man were a painter he would look at his paintings.

Davenport was himself a follower-up of impressive proportions. He remembered a walking trip in Italy and France with Christopher Middleton, the two of them armed only with a collected John Donne and Pound’s Cantos, ‘a rich, barely comprehensible poem’, Davenport commented. He continues: ‘My first response was to learn Italian and Provençal, and to paint in the quattrocento manner. All real education’, he adds, ‘is such unconscious seduction.’

That’s quite a response; quite a follow-up.