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Clap hands: here's one of the most elegant, brilliant (yet unobnoxious), far-ranging (yet firmly anchored), and just plain interesting collections of literary essays in at least a few moons. Davenport--classicist (translator of Sappho, Archilochus), fiction writer (Tatlin!, Da Vinci's Bicycle), painter, synchronic cultural historian--manages to convey a sense that his heterogeneous subjects are all sitting down at some Elysian table and speaking the same tongue: Agassiz, Pound, Walt Disney, Tarzan, Joyce Kilmer, Fourier, Shelley, O. Henry, Proust, John Butler Yeats. Even in each single piece, the company is exhilaratingly mixed: Ovid, Darwin, and Picasso are aligned with Louis Agassiz. But--as isn't true of the ""influence-ers"" at Yale--Davenport's heavenly sphere of artistic correspondence is never anxious, never tense. He understands modernism as a ""renaissance of the archaic""; our age is ""unlike any other in that its greatest works of art were constructed in one spirit and received in another."" To watch how his many-mansions modality really works, how usable is his belief in correspondence-become-metamorphosis, see his startling, revelatory essay on Eudora Welty. Davenport bluntly calls her one of the two greatest living writers (Beckett is the other)--because he has found Ovid in her. In story after story, novel after novel, Welty has used ""her unique style of inarticulateness"" to make as many mythical transformations as the Greeks; Davenport provides meticulous, convincing citations. Other projections to sample: the essays on Pound and Whitman--moving precisely because Davenport's respect for both is so critical, yet so humanely generous; the piece on ""Narrative Tone and Form""--with a comparison of the styles of Wittgenstein and Gertrude Stein; a personal testament, ""Ernst Machs Max Ernst"": ""If I have a sensibility distinct from that of my neighbors, it is simply a taste, wholly artificial and imaginary, for distant plangencies and different harmonies in which I can recognize as a stranger a sympathy I could not appreciate at my elbow. . . ."" One's eyes are opened thereby--which is what a critic of high quality ought to achieve. A spirited, bracing book.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1981
Publisher: North Point Press (850 Talbot Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706)