THE JULES VERNE STEAM BALLOON by Guy Davenport

THE JULES VERNE STEAM BALLOON

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Davenport (Tatlin!, Eclogues, etc.) again brings together his talents as poet, critic, philosopher, classical scholar, and naturalist in nine dazzling fictions that answer, in a marvelously learned voice, Pound's dictum to ""make it new."" Innovation here derives from the artful recombination of received forms--an awe-inspiring collage of classical learning, botanical fact, linguistic insight, and historical vision. ""We Often Think of Lenin at the Clothespin Factory,"" for example, is a verse dialogue between Mandelstam's widow and a young soldier that juxtaposes her memories of revolutionary artists (Stravinsky, Tatlin, Walser et al.) with his belief in the art of revolutionaries (i.e., dull social realism). The politics of art also determine the bland surfaces of ""Bronze Leaves and Red,"" a deliberately simple profile of a man not worth naming, ""the Leader"" whose tastes and habits attest to the banality of evil. Two other caprices play with notions of reality, the first (""Pyrrhon of Elis"") being a portrait of the skeptical Greek philosopher, a believer in ""disciplined apathy,"" who takes his radical relativism to its comic extreme. The second, and most whimsical piece (""Les Exploits de Nat Pinkerton de Jour en Jour""), recounts, with surreal touches, a day in the life of the famous detective: and another (""Jonah""), the most sobering, retells the biblical episode of Jonah's voyage and prophecy. The remaining four stories--densely allusive and intellectually playful--take up much of the collection, and are linked by characters, styles, and subjects. ""The Meadow,"" ""The Bicycle Rider,"" ""The Ringdove Sign,"" and the title tale defy summary. Peopled by a classics teacher at a progressive Danish boys' school, his voluptuous bedmate and her insouciant brother, numerous hedonistic students who frolic in an idyllic landscape, and who masturbate furiously--these same stories explore the meaning of homoerotic love, functionalist notions of language, the aesthetics and erotics of flora, the relation of structures to systems, physics, Wittgenstein, Joyce, Gnosticism. . . All in all, these generically impure artifacts demand and reward careful reading.

Pub Date: Nov. 11th, 1987
Publisher: North Point