Books by Guy Davenport

Released: Oct. 30, 1998

Urbane meditations on the history and meaning of the still life in art and literature. Essayist, poet, translator, and fiction writer Davenport (The Cardiff Team, 1996, etc.) takes as his subject the idea of the still life in art. However, he doesn—t offer any sort of academically systematic treatise of the topic. Instead, it's more accurate to say that he takes the idea of harmonious disarray in art as a way of focusing and stimulating his own wide-ranging and historically literate imagination. Here is a conservative sample of the Davenport mode of verbal meditation: "The pipe begins to appear in Renaissance still lifes as a memento mori: life passes away like smoke. An extinguished candle usually accompanied a pipe, and books and food and musical instruments added up to the vanity of our brief life. The nineteenth century would transmute these symbols into ones of peace, cosiness, and domesticity, until in Picasso and Braque they are emblems of shrinking privacy, the precious vestiges of harmony in a distracting and insane world." Sometimes his leaps of imagination and lists of connections strain credulity. This kind of thing can be dazzling or irritating, depending on how you feel about argument and documentation. Davenport knows this, of course, and aims by virtue of his book's "disarray of perceptions and conjunctions" to charm his consenting partner into a like state of meditation on van Gogh, on Nietzsche, on Edgar Allen Poe, on the persistence of apples and pears in the Western imagination, on the assemblage of objects on Sherlock Holmes's desk at 221B Baker Street. Davenport has the wonderful ability to "read" inanimate objects in their historical setting, and he seems to remember everything he ever read. The range of allusion is immense and challenging and rewarding. Davenport is a virtuoso of the literary essay, and here the magic mostly works. (8 pages b&w illustrations, not seen) Read full book review >
Released: Dec. 15, 1996

In his 28th book, Davenport the humanist (he is also a novelist, poet, translator, and critic) draws on his knowledge of antiquity and modernism, and many points in between, to travel crablike among the various arts in a consciously miscellaneous essay collection, his third (after Geography of the Imagination, 1981, and Every Force Evolves a Form, 1987). Sent this way and that, seemingly by curiosity or instinct, the writer avoids making academic pronouncements. Unlike so many contemporary literary historians and critics, Davenport writes in order to be understood; his prose is playful, never cryptic. As a consequence, he can lead us into challenging territory—the work of Charles Darwin, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, Jean Cocteau—without a fuss, and without losing us. The piece on Darwin, for example, ``Life, Chance, and Charles Darwin,'' seems to be the product of ``untaught'' enthusiasm, in the very best sense. His memoir ``On Reading,'' originally published in Antaeus, and mixing recollections of his studies at Duke, Oxford, and Harvard with a southern autodidact's now affectionate, now scouring independent-mindedness, is a classic. ``The mind is a self- consuming organ and preys on itself,'' Davenport writes. ``It is an organ for taking the outside in.'' The comments in this autobiographical excursion are central to his overall approach as a critic; throughout the book, Davenport sets out to do just as he likes, serving as a masterly sort of common reader, and declining the burden of political correctness. The essay on Stein in particular, ``Late Gertrude,'' returns us to that influential yet neglected literary beacon. Davenport's wry ``occasional'' observations line up jauntily in the fragmentary ``Micrographs'' and in two journal series (e.g., ``Hemingway's prose is like an animal talking. But what animal?''). Only rarely is a note of preciousness sounded. These are the recent explorations of an omnivorous, ideal reader, road maps for the rest of us. Read full book review >
THE CARDIFF TEAM by Guy Davenport
Released: Oct. 30, 1996

Readers familiar with Davenport's cerebral fictions (A Table of Green Fields, 1993, etc.) will find more of the same in his latest collection: a handful of Poundian collages that burst with intellect, and then some tiresome studies in higher pederasty. The former group includes another story based on incidents in the life of Kafka. In ``The Messengers,'' he roams a nudist health spa and contemplates God and redemption. A similar extrapolation from intellectual history drives ``Dinner at the Bank of England,'' in which Davenport imagines the conversation between George Santayana, the aphoristic philosopher from Harvard, and his host, a captain in the Royal Guard, a figure out of Kipling. ``Veranda Hung with Wisteria'' captures in a single paragraph the moment when Poe discovers the essence of Chinese poetry. In ``Home,'' Davenport channels Defoe, in the voice of Crusoe returning to his island after a short voyage in his self-made boat. The crosscut dialogue of ``Boys Smell Like Oranges'' juxtaposes soccer players in a Parisian park with the conversation of LÇvy-Bruhl and the ethnographer Leenhardt, whose trip to New Caledonia undermined his missionary zeal with anthropological relativism. The remaining stories all draw on Davenport's tiresome obsession with uncircumcised boys, all sexually liberated, and frolicsome in a healthy, clean, Scandinavian sort of way. In ``The Meadow Lark,'' boyish innocence leads to exploring the taste of one's sperm. In ``Concert Champetre in D Minor,'' forward-thinking parents approve of their boys' horseplay, the naked posters of adolescent boys on their walls, and their incessant masturbation. The longest narrative, the title story, set in the Parisian demimonde of two sexually liberated women with two young children, is a study in ``urban anthropology, anarchy, and sex.'' Inspired by a painting of Delaunay's, the world of football, engineering, and flight serves as a backdrop to more groping, licking, sniffing, etc. Davenport's sophisticated narratives, clever, bristling with esoteric allusions, obscure the leerings of a dirty old man and the cant of polymorphous perversity. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 27, 1993

Davenport's literary intelligence can be stratospheric, and when he aims it high, he's able to make an inimitable sort of constructivist sculpture from it (Tatlin!, recall, was the title of his first collection in 1974): part quotation, part commentary, part reimagination. The feat can be electrifying—as is very much here: in ``The Concord Sonata''—considering a phrase of Thoreau's- -and ``The Kitchen Chair''—off a sentence in Dorothy Wordsworth's Journal. From both he takes a bit of wordwork that we believe we merely can decode and elevates it into mystery and subtlety and diamond-like style. But, unfortunately, in order to be astonished by Davenport of late means having to endure what once again here is a surfeit of the soft-core gay kiddie-porn (masquerading as Arcadian idylls) that he puts so much of his effort to. Danish teenagers cavort and jut and spurt in tiresome displays of riggish (and etymological) energy: ``I rode the foreskin full stretch with a swirl of tongue deep on the downstroke. Shallow with a flicker on the up. I put a thraw into the treadle. For style. A thropple dive plumb to the bush. A slow ripping passage''). A frustratingly mixed bag. Read full book review >