September 2013

Patrick James Dunagan

nonfiction

The Guy Davenport Reader edited by Eric Reece

Guy Davenport's writing gives you the feeling there's absolutely nothing else he could have done with his life. His work is a perfect fit to the man. A lasting achievement that is deliberately as terrific as it challenging. Yet as a reader you are left not only gratified but also envious that he was able to find his way to live a life so committed to reading and writing, where the imagination reigns supreme. One of the less heard-from but nonetheless great American scholars of modernism (his PhD was on Ezra Pound), Davenport taught for decades at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and lived within walking distance of campus -- most convenient, as he never learned to drive a car. Eric Reece's The Guy Davenport Reader offers up a generous sampling of his varied work: essays, stories, translations, two original poems, and a selection of journal entries. What isn't here -- mainly more poetry, both original and in translation -- isn't overly missed.

Davenport's writing habitually strays outside traditional genre definitions. His stories are experimental constructions developed -- or rather reinvented -- from Modernist techniques, generally those used in disciplines other than writing, such as Cubist painting. The characters are often historical figures. Whether it's the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein or the writer Franz Kafka, Davenport enfolds them into his own creative history. As he writes in a letter to scholar Marjorie Perloff, "I am utterly unqualified to write anything about LW [Wittgenstein]. I do like to tuck into my fiction things by and about him (as I work in [Gertrude] Stein). They are both totemic household figures." Davenport's fiction mirrors the historical world, balancing fantasy against actual fact, enlarging upon any and all preconceived notions of common understanding. He meets mundane expectations with uncommon, extraordinary vision.

His essays, in turn, often appear as if written off the cuff. Dense yet deftly full of intellect, with cuttingly swift shifts of perspective, they still have the feel of whimsies he nonchalantly tosses off. Davenport is so immersed in the work of writers he admires that his commentary seamlessly bleeds into the texts as if the commentary were always one with the work itself. This doesn't make understanding or following his argument any less difficult. In his editor's note, Reece laments how "Davenport's writing was often thought to be so densely experimental and allusive, so disarmingly erudite that many readers never gave it, or themselves, a chance." Whether fictional or not, Davenport's prose is given to mazelike turns of perspective. Numerous references arise, make an appearance, and then depart without further explication let alone introduction. Yet Davenport's writing contains within itself the seeds of instruction for successful reading. A great advantage to approaching Davenport's work through this Reader is the unfamiliar reader's ability to dip in and out at will from the variety of stances and styles offered from out a lifetime of writing. Going first to what's immediately appealing and allowing that to lead the way into more challenging terrain.

One important point to understand is that Davenport's writing is a complete reflection of his personal character. It is as pure as it gets. There is never a put-on or any outright boasting. Always demure, he's only sharing what's relevant and to the point. When he withholds anything there is a clear enough reason: he's already explained enough. To continue would only harm the nature of the work at hand. Nothing troubles him more than needless, uninteresting communication regarding known or unknown facts. The informed share what's pertinent while those seeking only attention share anything and everything. Davenport's writing attends to what it knows best: itself. His commitment to beauty in efficient, skilled use of language never wavers.

Reece, a former student of Davenport's, supplies in his afterword biographical facts about Davenport's life, which he supplements with personal reflections. He gives an intimate description of how the writer appeared within the outward presentation of the man. He attests that the causal erudite nature of the writing is found in the person himself. He also identifies the difficulties of circumstance given Davenport's background:

Guy thought there were two kinds of genius: one that is cultivated by an enlightened society (think Mozart), and another that God simply drops in the middle of nowhere as a kind of cosmic joke (think Joseph Cornell). Guy's genius was of the latter sort. He grew up in Anderson, South Carolina, surrounded by a family that loved him. But could make little of his talent or his very un-Southern, solitary nature.

With the more personal essays included here, "Finding" and "On Reading," Davenport himself delves into his autobiography and the social challenges he was born into. These are raw reports of a most unusual-minded youth. "Finding" relates the rather magical family pastime of looking for old arrowheads in which his father directed and everybody took part, romping through farmers' fields and roadside meadows in which his dad sensed they might find some bounty. "On Reading" relates how he came to discover the joy of books thanks to an aunt and a friendly neighbor.

Reece doesn't quite manage to dispense with concerns over the predilection toward a nascent pedophilia it is difficult not to see in much of Davenport's fiction. He does however present a strong case that labeling Davenport a sexual deviant is just as utterly ridiculous as casting him as anti-Semitic via his Pound scholarship. The man Reece knew merely wrote about what interested him, at times this happens to be the pursuit of a pleasurable happiness quite foreign to our often misapprehending morally-minded society. Davenport's imagination has space for an innocence that is long lost for many readers. His eroticism, hardly ever graphic in any pornographic sense, occurs within that innocent space. It is not of this world but another. There's a delight in it likely recognizable to readers of all ages, genders, and sexual orientations.

Davenport's memorial piece "Ralph Eugene Meatyard," recalls a dinner occasion when he and the photography artist Meatyard dined with the Montaigne scholar Marcel Gutwirth. After the dinner, Davenport was walking Gutwirth home and the two shared the following exchange:

"Oh, Gene's wonderful," I said. "He knows more about modern literature than anyone at the university, but he's never read the Odyssey."

"But, ah!" Marcel Gutwirth said. "What a reading the Odyssey will have when he gets around to it!"

Davenport, like Meatyard, is an exceptional reader. His writing, in turn, is exceptional reading. To read his work is to experience him reading. Texts come alive. New dimensionality is added. It is pure writing reading into being. It is an eye-opening thing, well worth every bit of effort required.

The Guy Davenport Reader edited by Eric Reece
Counterpoint
ISBN: 978-1619021037
400 pages