Thursday, January 02, 2014

`A Morality of the Eye, a Justice of the Tongue'

 “(with Davenport there’s always a further connection to make)” 

Like his subject, Guy Davenport, Eric Ormsby makes an art of the elegantly deployed parenthesis. For pedestrian writers, the enclosure is an afterthought or surgical suturing in wounded prose, not part of the body in question. In his intellectual-autobiography-in-brief, “Finding,” Davenport writes: 

“If I am grateful for the unintentional education of having been taught how to find things (all that I have ever done, I think, with texts and pictures), I am even more grateful, in an inconsequential way, for my father’s most astounding gift of all: being put at the throttle of a locomotive one night and allowed to drive it down the track for a whole five minutes.” 

In twelve artfully bracketed words, Davenport defines his art and his critical eye. Ormsby’s review of The Guy Davenport Reader (Counterpoint, 2013), edited by Erik Reece, is a family reunion of sorts (kinship means more than biology). Nine years ago, Ormsby wrote a moving tribute to Davenport after his death. With Davenport he shares writerly dexterity (prose, poetry), devotion to form, imagistic concision, formidable multilingualism, a scientist’s precision and a scholar’s abundant learning. Both by nature are celebrators and reliable pleasure-givers. Neither is careless with words. Both possess the virtue identified by Ormsby in Davenport’s prose: “virtually every paragraph—indeed, virtually every sentence—comes as a surprise.” That’s a rare gift, not to be confused with lazy surrealist novelty. Ormsby’s reading of the early masterful story “The Aeroplanes at Brescia” is itself masterful. 

Ormsby shares three of my four quibbles with Reece’s selection (the fourth, less serious, being his choice of stories, though Davenport never wrote a bad or mediocre one, so it amounts to a difference in taste): the absence of his writings on art (on Balthus, Burchfield and Tchelitchew he was formative to my hobbled artistic education) and his own graphic work, and of any evidence that Counterpoint employs sighted proofreaders. Ormsby writes:   

“In fact, churlish as it may be to say, the book could easily have been twice its size, and all the better for it, though that is surely not the editor’s fault. (Where is The Library of America when you need it?) Second, the book, though handsomely produced, is riddled with typos and misprints from beginning to end. I spotted at least a dozen on first reading. Are there no copy-editors left?” 

An inspired thought – Davenport anointed by the Library of America (they found room for Lovecraft, Sontag and Dick). And let’s have more of his letters and uncollected reviews. Ormsby’s reading of Davenport, however, is less than worshipful. He makes a salient point about the fiction: 

“His characters are all vivid wraiths. The sheer beauty of his prose obscures this; as a result, his stories often read like essays, his essays like stories. This may not seem a major shortcoming—after all, the blurring of genres is intrinsic to his approach—but it is, and it weakens Davenport’s fiction. He was not a writer suited `to suffer dully all the wrongs of man,’ as Auden wrote of the typical novelist.” 

True enough, but fiction is sufficiently generous and forgiving to make room for both Pérez Galdós and Borges. (Davenport calls Eudora Welty “one of the greatest American writers in all our history,” and likens her to Samuel Beckett.) No one reads Davenport’s stories looking for social realism. Ormsby rightly singles out for praise the great story narrated by Robert Walser – more kinfolk (Davenport collected them) -- “A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg.” He wisely notes Davenport’s indelible Americaness. For all his cosmopolitan tastes and devotion to International Modernism, Davenport was as all-American as Marianne Moore and Sitting Bull. Ormsby writes near the end of his review: 

“His is a morality of the eye, a justice of the tongue. As such, he stands in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, of Melville and Whitman and Dickinson.”

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