Tuesday, February 12, 2013

`No Matter What the Professors Say'

Let’s hope some enterprising editor braves the dust to sift through back issues of National Review and salvages the dozens of book reviews Guy Davenport published in that magazine, at a rate of almost one per month, between 1962 and 1973, and collects them between respectable hard covers. Davenport recycled some of these early pieces – on Welty and the American Heritage Dictionary, for instance – in his first collection of essays, The Geography of Imagination (1981). But most, as with the movie columns Thomas Berger wrote for Esquire in 1972-73, remain accessible only to cranks with library cards. 

Vol. 22 of the National Review collects the issues from 1970. I chose it because of my fondness for two of the three books reviewed in the April 21 edition: A Sentimental Journey by Viktor Shklovsky and Vital Parts by Thomas Berger. The third title, This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven by Harry Crews, I haven’t read. Davenport begins: 

“The great ideological sin to which Russian writers are prone is Formalism. Before it became a sin, it was a literary movement emphasizing irony, objective distance from one’s subject, precision of imagery, wit and, most of all, economy and severity of form. The master of the Formalists was, naturally enough for the looking-glass imagination of the Russians, the begetter of Tristram Shandy, the great English novelist Lavrenty Styern. The founder of Formalism is Viktor Shklovsky who at 77 is still hale, still writing, and, as Russian freedom goes, still free.” 

Davenport’s anatomy of Russian Formalism reads like autobiography. Elsewhere, he acknowledges his literary debt to Shklovsky and to his less fortunate contemporary, Osip Mandelstam. What a reviewer can learn from Davenport is artful concision. He has less than four columns in which to discuss three books, and he rightly dispenses with slavish regurgitation. On Shklovsky he continues: 

“Shklovsky is a disciple worthy of Sterne [note the reversion to conventional spelling – the point has been made and Davenport won't hammer away at it]. He has appropriated the device of infinitely delayed events, of the digression helplessly promising to return to the point, and of disguising his superbly controlled art with a breezy nonchalance. But it is not really Sterne that Shklovsky sounds like: it is an intellectual and witty Hemingway.” 

Elegiacally, after outlining the fate of Shklovsky and various early Soviet filmmakers, Davenport concludes: “For half a century Russia has been like Byzantium under the Turks, both a prison and a treasure-house of inaccessible wonders.” 

Vital Parts was the third of Berger’s four novels devoted to Carlo Rinehart. The others are Crazy in Berlin (1958), Reinhart in Love (1962) and Reinhart's Women (1981), and they remain among my favorite postwar novels. Few books are funnier. Davenport, who had already enthusiastically reviewed Berger’s best-known novel, Little Big Man (1964), for National Review, writes of Vital Parts: 

“Because Mr. Berger is a comic novelist of frightening talent and chooses to display humanity in all of its gaudy foolishness, he can wring more juicy morality out of his characters than any five ordinary novelists working together day and night.” 

The next paragraph is audacious. It’s a Shklovskian digression of sorts. Berger and his novel are never mentioned. Instead, within tight magazine constraints, Davenport, ever thoughtful, contrary and independent-minded, defends the precious moral worth of comedy: 

“Comedy is probably the grandfather of the arts, no matter what the professors say. Mimesis begins in impudence, and develops its powers by achieving a deadlier and more faithful imitation of its original. Tragedy begins with the witch doctor sacrificing his goat, but the scamp who gives his side splitting imitation of the witch doctor for the sheer hilarity of it is the first comedian. This does not mean that the comedian doesn’t stand in utter awe of the witch doctor at proper and auspicious times; it means merely that man is a laughing animal, and that laughter has always been rich in understanding and even sympathy.” 

Berger in the nineteen-sixties was dragooned into the Black Humor School, a lazily conceived journalistic category. Like the comparably mis-categorized Stanley Elkin, Berger has little in common with Heller, Pynchon & Co. He writes too well and loves his fools too much.  Davenport goes on to describe Berger as “a comedian whose understanding of humanity is devilishly well informed and splendidly impartial.” It will surprise readers unacquainted with Berger’s novels to read Davenport’s conclusion: 

“Surely Mr. Berger’s Reinhart Trilogy stands well against all contenders as the definitive comic portrait of our time.” 

Another sort of reader will be surprised to learn that Davenport, officially sanctioned as an avant-gardist in some quarters -- and thus, by definition, a “progressive” -- spent more than a decade writing for William F. Buckley’s magazine. In a 1976 interview with the literary magazine Vort, he says of his long freelance tenure, “I didn’t like their politics,” and adds, “But Bill Buckley is a gentleman and my immediate editor, Frank Meyer, was a splendid intellectual, a gentleman, and eventually a stimulating friend.” 

Asked by the interviewer how he chose which books to review, Davenport said: 

“The editor would call up and read the titles of all the books that had come into him. I would choose from those a group of books which would be sent me and from those I normally would choose three or two or one.  We like to work in groups of three. Book reviewing is a wonderful encounter. It involves the accidental. . . It also involves far more work than the reader outside can see. . . That is, I don’t believe that you can review a book in isolation. It belongs in a context and it has a history behind it.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Writing for The National Review helped him sell at least one copy of The Geography of Imagination, too. I bought one when it came out because I had enjoyed his essays in the the National Review. Aside from those, I knew nothing about his work. JVS