Exemplars, anthropology, writing selves

To-West-Bay-Wall

Sitting at the kitchen table with the recent Library of America collection of Joan Didion’s early books, I can hear the Librarian upstairs in vigorous dialogue with the radio. Is it politicians or another helping of vox populi snippets? It’s not easy to say which is more thoroughly depressing these days.

It’s not been a cheering week generally: adding to the university staff strike and the gloom of a general election campaign that’s demeaning to us all came the deaths of Clive James and Jonathan Miller – as one of the contributors to the ‘Letters’ page remarked, ‘just when we’re most in need of an increase in the gross national IQ, we get a drastic reduction.’
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/nov/28/sad-loss-of-clive-james-and-jonathan-miller-modest-witty-intellectual-giants

(Jonathan Miller via The Independent; Clive James via The Financial Times)

On the plus side, not unusually, Guy Davenport – it was his birthday on 23 November (1927-2005); sitting in a rented house on the South coast, I’d just finished re-reading his second collection of essays, Every Force Evolves a Form; and, to complete the trinity, I also read Greg Gerke’s splendid short essay, ‘Davenport as Exemplar’.

Quoting Davenport’s foreword to The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art—‘I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things’—Gerke writes: ‘I’d always wanted to come at art in a vital Davenportian way, which is to say not with pompous stridency—declaiming for my own notoriety, using Hegel and Derrida as petards to enjoyment—but in a cogent, stylistic manner for the aforementioned “people who like to read.”’ He mentions other critics from whom he has learned—William Gass, Hugh Kenner, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick—and notes that, ‘Though Davenport’s style is not the closest to mine, he is probably the most inimitable, and maybe the most angry’, the three notable forerunners of such literate anger being Blake, Ruskin and Ezra Pound, all of them of central concern to Davenport. Gerke goes on to explore the relationship between the writing self and the ‘superficial’ self, Proust’s ‘self that frequents the world’, a relationship that inhabits, implicitly or explicitly, many of the essays collected in his recent See What I See.*

(* ‘Davenport as Exemplar’ is available here: https://www.essaydaily.org/2019/11/greg-gerke-davenport-as-exemplar.html
See What I See collects thirty-one essays on literature, cinema and the writing life); also recommended is Especially the Bad Things (Gerke’s short fiction). Both have just been published by Birmingham-based Splice: https://www.thisissplice.co.uk/?s=gerke )

A few days ago, it was the birthday of Claude Levi-Strauss—he died in 2009, aged one hundred—whose work I know rather patchily and, frankly, can’t be sure of how much I absorbed from ‘The Champollion of Table Manners’, an essay by Davenport which is by way of being a review of The Origin of Table Manners: Introduction to a Science of Mythology: 3.

Davenport wrote another essay called ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners from Geophagy Onward’, a far more personal take on the subject – within the very definite autobiographical limits that Davenport allows, agreeing with Menander that ‘Talking about oneself [ . . . ] is a feast that starves the guest’ (a reference that Gerke instances in the essay mentioned above). Briefly citing both Davenport essays, Adam Mars-Jones remarked (‘Introversion Has Its Limits’, London Review of Books, 8 March 2018), ‘Shockingly, there is no overlap between them, though cannibalising your own material is generally regarded as anthropophagy at its most respectable.’

GD_Every_Force

‘The Anthropology of Table Manners’ seems saturated with Lévi-Strauss, though it never mentions his name, and The Geography of the Imagination, in which it is collected, preceded Every Force Evolves a Form by several years. The original journal publication of the two essays, though, reverses the volume order, so the reading for the review did indeed underlie ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners’, one of Davenport’s funniest essays (and he can be extremely funny). ‘He is not an easy writer’, he concludes his review. ‘The Elementary Structure of Kinship is one of the most difficult books ever. The Savage Mind is, in its charming way, almost as difficult. The four volumes of the Mythologies require dedication and stamina to read all 2,500 pages. Yet he has never written an uninteresting sentence.’ And when he asserts that Lévi-Strauss ‘is, to my knowledge, the best and most diligent interpreter of our time’, that knowledge very probably incorporated a great deal, if not all, of Lévi-Strauss’s oeuvre. In 1978, he referred, in a letter to Hugh Kenner, to Lévi-Strauss’s Totemism, translated by Davenport’s friend from Merton College, Oxford days, Rodney Needham, and with an introduction by Roger Poole, the Virginia Woolf and Kierkegaard scholar who later wrote on Ford Madox Ford and became a hugely valued member of the Ford community.

Didion-60s-70s

The day moves on from radio to housework, yoga, cooking. Over coffee, I turn to another page of the Joan Didion volume, the opening of her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer: ‘I am an anthropologist who lost faith in her own method, who stopped believing that observable activity defined anthropos. I studied under Kroeber at California and worked with Lévi-Strauss at São Paulo’.

As for what Gerke accurately characterises as Davenport’s ‘very poetic, crisp style—the long pungent sentences are masked by short pugilistic ones’, so many of those sentences stick in the mind, my mind, some consoling, some vertiginously relevant to the present, even if shaped thirty or more years ago.

‘If the past is prologue, it is also a record of grievances to call up and enlist as excuses. All you need is rhetorical talent and a gift for rationalizing.’ Or try: ‘Words are tyrants more powerful than any Caesar. When they are lies, they are devils.’ In one of his most memorable pieces, ‘On Reading’, he writes: ‘We can evince any number of undeniable beliefs—an informed society cannot be enslaved by ideologies and fanaticism, a cooperative pluralistic society must necessarily be conversant with the human record in books of all kinds, and so on—but we will always return to the private and inviolable act of reading as our culture’s way of developing an individual.’ I also pause over ‘Every epoch chooses its own past and cannot know how it will be remembered’; on ‘The uncritical mind is a prey to credulity, and without skepticism there can be no democracy’; and close with ‘Where language has torn the world to pieces, the writer can put it back together.’

More than ever, clearly, the writers have a great deal of work to do.

Endings also

Minnedosa

(The Minnedosa via www.greatships.net )

On the night of 22 September 1927, off Labrador, aboard Canadian Pacific S. S. Minnedosa, Ford Madox Ford wrote to Stella Bowen in Paris: ‘Darling: I finished Last Post ten minutes ago: I am tired out but quite well and awfully happy!’

The fourth and last part of his masterpiece Parade’s End, Last Post, while concerned with new beginnings—for Christopher Tietjens, for Valentine Wannop and the child she is carrying, and for England—is deeply engaged with endings also, both within and without the book itself, not least, the closing of his ten-year life with Stella. She would write to him in New York a few months later, ‘But your letter, & the “Last Post” together, seem to mark the end of our long intimacy, which did have a great deal of happiness in it for me’[1]

stella-bowen

(Stella Bowen: https://www.nationaltrust.org.au )

Exactly thirty-seven years later, 22 September 1964, Hugh Kenner wrote to Guy Davenport that he was reading Evelyn Waugh’s authorized biography of the Catholic theologian and author Ronald Knox. Knox was ‘the darling child of the gone world’ and ‘like so many Englishmen of that generation was the end of something. Literally every single Oxford crony of his fell in W.W.I, having enjoyed only a few months of free manhood and commenced, with Ronnie, to found the future.’ He went on: ‘We are apt to forget how devastated was the landscape over which the Pound Era seized hegemony.’ While Pound and Eliot, as Americans, were noncombatants, the Irish Joyce had sat out the war in Europe and Wyndham Lewis (British mother, American father) had served in the war but survived, ‘the English generation corresponding to theirs was annihilated: how thoroughly, till I read Knox’s life, I had never before realized.’

Kenner and his first wife, Mary-Jo, were received into the Catholic Church that month: Mary-Jo was in her final illness, suffering from spinal cancer, and though she was at home when Kenner wrote again on 28 September, he feared it would be temporary. ‘The statistical likelihood is of course that it has metastasized already. We are all dying, but at different rates.’[2] She died six weeks later.

wheeler-cartland

(Sir Mortimer Wheeler with Barbara Cartland)

Then too, ‘every single Oxford crony’ reminded me of Charlotte Higgins writing about Mortimer Wheeler, who became the archaeologist best-known to the British public, not least because of his appearances on the 1950s television show, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: in 1954, he was the BBC’s first television personality of the year.

Wheeler, Higgins observed, ‘had a good war and emerged a major. But by 1918 his generation, he recalled in his memoir, “had been blotted out”. He wrote: “Of the five university students who worked together in the Wroxeter excavations, only one survived the war. It so happened that the survivor was myself.” The “Oxford Blues” were dead.’ Wheeler himself was not an Oxford man but had studied at University College London, taught Latin by the poet and classicist A. E. Housman.[3]

One visitor to the Wroxeter excavations—the village occupies a portion of what was once Uriconium, the fourth largest Roman town in Britain—in the summer of 1913 was Wilfred Owen. He met several of those working there, probably including Wheeler, though he felt ‘miserably jealous of two of them, who were from Oxford.’[4]

Wroxeter-English-Heritage

(Wroxeter via English Heritage)

It lieth low near merry England’s heart
Like a long-buried sin; and Englishmen
Forget that in its death their sires had part.
And, like a sin, Time lays it bare again
To tell of races wronged,
And ancient glories suddenly overcast,
And treasures flung to fire and rabble wrath.[5]

Owen’s end came just five years later on 4 November 1918 as he crossed the Oise-Sambre canal in northern France—the telegram announcing his death arrived at the family home on Armistice Day, one week later.

Before all else, though, the date on the calendar prompts thoughts of my sister. Had she lived, she would have been seventy-four today, so, though there is hardly a need for more reasons to raise a glass in these benighted times – santé, Penny.

 

 

Notes

[1] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 320, 373.

[2] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 618, 620. Kenner’s phrase, ‘the gone world’, occurs, of course, in the opening line of The Pound Era (1971), which he first mentioned to Davenport in October 1961. The famous closing line, ‘Thought is a labyrinth’, came from Davenport.

[3] Charlotte Higgins, Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013), 80.

[4] Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002), 106.

[5] Wilfred Owen, opening of ‘Uriconium – An Ode’ (1913): The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Jon Stallworthy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990), 42; and see Stallworthy’s note (45).

 

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?’