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The other day I realized that the contemporary American writer whose personal journals I most wished I could read before I die was Guy Davenport. In my scan, I included masters in every specialty—poetry, the essay, plays, short and long fictions. It still came out Davenport.
And it was Davenport because of his achievements in fiction. I mean his latter-day fictions. He tried, and then abandoned, the conventional narrative-driven change-of-consciousness short story early in his career while distinguishing himself in poetry, translation, and criticism. Twenty years elapsed, and then he emerged, utterly remade, as a creator of experimental prose works. his stories are unique constructs. They are put together with elegant skill and power and tend toward the unclassifiable. In fact, scrutinous readers may change their minds more than once in the matter of what exactly it is that they are reading: Are these essentially armatures for Davenport’s aphorisms and philosophical asides? Are they primarily demonstrations of the possibilities in the interpenetration of poetic and prose forms (and visual—he sometimes illustrated his pieces). Are they freestanding baubles? In his “inhabiting,” in his writing, of the minds of iconic figures in the history of Western art and thought, is he being obscurely didactic? Is he subtly deconstructing the inner lives of culture heroes like Picasso and Diogenes?—What?
Whether there is a larger subliminal architecture connecting Davenport’s diverse works—something like the scaffolding of myth in Joyce’s Ulysses, but subtler—is a question on which professional critics will disagree. (Interestingly, the first doctorate on James Joyce produced at Oxford University was by Guy Davenport.) Certainly there is a sexual subtheme that surfaces often enough in the stories (although not in “Dinner at the Bank of England”) and most explicitly in his one novel, or suite of linked stories, Apples and Pears. His lyrical homoerotic and androgynic scenes have led to unease in some readers and doubtless played some role in the consistency with which mainstream literary honors eluded him.
I shouldn’t emphasize the figuring-out or puzzle-solving processes in reading Davenport’s works. That element is reflexive, and it takes place against the foremost and overwhelming pleasures of craft, surprise, indelible smiles, and on …
So yes, Davenport is elusive, but the expedition to find him is its own reward.
This essay appeared in Object Lessons: ‘The Paris Review’ Presents the Art of the Short Story.