Saturday, November 23, 2013

`I Have No Life'

His friend and posthumous editor Erik Reece writes of Guy Davenport: 

“Guy was never about status or career or fame or reputation. He never went on a book tour nor exhibited any of his paintings. He hated everything related to the notion of self. I don’t mean that he hated himself, but rather that he hated the American cult of self and he especially hated the role of the writer as prophet. He found it all unseemly and would quote Menander as saying, `Talking about oneself is a feast that starves the guest.’ The natural world, the world of art and literature, the human mind and body—these things were so fascinating, why waste time talking about oneself?” 

The one time I shared Davenport’s company, at his home in Lexington, Ky., in 1990, I gave him a copy of Steven Millhauser’s just-published The Barnum Museum. Four years earlier, Guy had written a blurb for the back cover of In the Penny Arcade: “Steven Millhauser is a worthy descendent of Hawthorne. There are only a few stylists left in American writing, but he’s one of them.” Respectful, careful, hardly gushing, but precise in identifying literary pedigree and gift. He was gracious even in saying thank you – respectful, careful, hardly gushing. I sensed a temperamental kinship between Davenport and Millhauser, and Guy seemed to confirm it when he said something like, “Millhauser lives only in his writing.” I remembered the remark twelve years later when first reading Guy’s Paris Review interview. Asked if anyone was writing his biography, he replied, “I have no life.” In 1993, I accompanied Millhauser to his first and only book signing, at a chain bookstore in a mall in Glens Falls, N.Y. Seated at card table in front of the store, behind stacks of his new book, Little Kingdoms, Steven enacted a parody of marketing. In two hours, one man stopped to look at the book. “You write this?” he asked. Steven denied it. Guy would have approved. 

The quoted passage at the top is from Reece’s afterword to the selection he edited, The Guy Davenport Reader (Counterpoint, 2013). It confirms my impression of Guy as a writer and man thoroughly misplaced in time (assuming there’s an appropriate time for any of us). He never, to my knowledge, played the game. He was the anti-Mailer (think of the appalling vulgarity of titling a book Advertisements for Myself), the non-careerist, a writer most alive on the page. His work is never autobiographical in the banal sense. Even when he tells a story from life (and, in the Southern way, as much as Faulkner and Welty, he was, among other things, an inveterate storyteller), it’s pertinent not self-promoting, and illustrates a bigger point. Think of his great essay “Finding,” which starts with an anecdote from childhood – a prescription for suicidal tedium in the hands of most writers. Hunting arrowheads with his family as a boy, he tells us, gave him “a connoisseur’s sense of things for their own sake.” What a wonderful gift to receive from life, one that helps explain my sense of Guy as probably the most socially gracious and solitary person I have ever known. 

Guy Davenport was born on this date, Nov. 23, in 1927, in Anderson, S.C. He died on Jan. 4, 2005, at age seventy-seven in Lexington, Ky. In the words of a line from his book-length poem Flowers and Leaves (1966): “Prothalamium at death; at birth, an elegy.”

No comments: