A 40-percent-off coupon lured me to a second-hand bookstore where the kids burrowed in the comic books and I wandered the desert without expectations. Instead I found a cheap, mint-condition copy of Guy Davenport’s Twelve Stories, the sampler selected from three of his eight books of fiction and published in 1997. I never bothered to buy it because I already own most of his books, but the coupon and markdown made it irresistible.
Only at home did I discover the bonus: Tucked inside the back cover was Davenport’s New York Times obituary, published Jan. 7, 2005, three days after his death. It’s a cut-and-paste assemblage of banalities by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and includes an intriguing bit of creative writing: “the novel `Bicycle Rider’ (1985).” No such book exists and Davenport never published a novel under any title. However, his second collection of stories, published in 1979, was titled Da Vinci’s Bicycle, which Lehmann-Haupt refers to elsewhere in the obit. Bicycle is a fiction in the other sense, ontologically speaking.
Why does a reader care enough to tear a writer’s obit from a newspaper and fold it into one of the writer’s books but not enough to keep the book on the shelf and refrain from selling it? Did the obit spark his interest in Davenport but the book, once open in his hands, disappointed or baffled him? The vagaries of readers are unfathomable. In his “Postscript” (ever the Latinist) to Twelve Stories, Davenport writes:
“The imagination sees with the eyes of the spirit; the maker, finished with his making, must then see what he has done, like the reader, with corporeal eyes. Thoreau on an afternoon in 1852 when he had been looking at birds, trees, cows, squirrels, and flowers for hours raged that he had no words for the music he felt in every muscle of his body.
“To see that Thoreau could achieve a spiritual music in words you have only to look at any page he wrote. His frustration is the habitual anguish of all writers. A congeries of essences must find a form, and the form must be coherent and harmonious.”
Perhaps Davenport alludes to the entry from Thoreau’s journal dated Sept. 28, 1852:
“I find the hood-leaved violet quite abundant in a meadow, and the pedata in the Boulder Field. Those now seen, all but the blanda, palmata, and pubescens, blooming again. Bluebirds, robins, etc., are heard again in the air. This is the commencement, then, of the second spring. Violets, Potentilla, Canadensis, lambkill, wild rose, yellow lily, etc., begin again.
“A windy day. What have these high and roaring winds to do with the fall? No doubt they speak plainly enough to the sap that is in these trees, and perchance check its upward flow.
“Ah, if I could put into words that music which I hear; that music which can bring tears to the eyes of marble statues, to which the very muscles of men are obedient.”