One day, during Upstate New York's delightful Indian summer, in 1992, while I was looking through the stacks at Dan Wedge's Dove and Hudson Books, in Albany, Dan called me over in order to point out a row of books on a shelf near the cash register. They had been written by someone named Guy Davenport.
The books, Dan informed me, were totally impenetrable, not at all popular prose, for which reason he
I went away with Eclogues and Every Force Evolves a Form that day and periodicaly returned to buy one or two more Davenport titles. My time in the Capitol District was clearly coming to its end in yet another of a seemingly endless concatenation of meltdowns from out of Colin Wilson's The Outsiders or a literature of Asperger's Syndrome that was then still some years away from being written. It was only a matter of time. I spent the autumn reading and rereading Eclogues, in particular, and reams of Guy Davenport pages in general, and bathing in the glorious late-empire golden light that infused the Dutch-English architecture surrounding the Capitol Plaza.
Some two years later, a Paracelcean journey brought me to Lake Worth, Florida. Once I was settled enough to do so, I wrote Guy Davenport a garbled letter of appreciation, liberally daubed with white-out, on a Smith-Corona word-processor. (Those who've owned that demonic collection of misconceived transistors and programs know my pain.) A reply arrived within a few days. His reply to a second letter directed me henceforth to call him "Fessor". Almost everyone did, he said. The friendship which ensued, maintained largely through letters, lasted nine years until his death this past January.
The Fessor, for his part, seemed to be fascinated by my marginal, clapped-together existence and entertained by my etymologies and observations on colorful locals. Every few weeks I posted letters headed with derivations of "Ods Bodkins" and "Gadzooks," selections from the manuscripts of John Aubrey, and the like. In return, I received back warm and crotchety letters (somehow they were both at the same time) filled with stories of Beeminster the Opossum, various favorite cats each of which, in their turn, "went to Pasht," invasive plumbers, Kentucky snowfalls and plenty of shop-talk
When I wrote Het nieuve wereldbeeld, shortly after escaping yet another near-meltdown, by judiciously moving to St. Augustine, Florida, where I spent a particularly delightful summer watching Shakespeare in the Park and pouring over the Flagler College library stacks, the Fesser was more than usually pleased. Upon returning to Lake Worth, where matters had resolved themselves somewhat, I'd sent him a copy of the Elimae text. He very generously replied that there weren't a half-dozen people who knew his work well enough to have written the piece.
Castor and Pollux walking naked, side by side, past Kafka; Emerson, gone blind and lame, seeking health hoeing vegetables at a Protestant yeshiva; Levy-Bruhl and Pastor Leenhardt out for a daily walk while nearby it is decided that boys smell like oranges, girls like lemons. This is the stuff of which proses are made: the proses of Guy Davenport, anyway. Nearly thirty years (and nine volumes) ago, a new idea in prose arrived and a new character who lives in a way which thrills the reader:The Dutch philosopher Adriaan Floris van Hovendaal was arranging the objects on his table, a pinecone to remind him of Fibonacci, a snail's shell to remind him of Ruskin, a drachma to remind him of Crete.
He inhabits a new Erewhon at once both real and imagined. It is a Holland through which he and myriads of perfect children go discovering themselves and the strange and wonderful world into which they have been thrust.
For thirty years they will weave in and out of a dozen stories. They will have various names and always be wrestling or tenting or biking or reading Lucretius or peeling off their clothing to admire themselves and each other.
In between, various adults, themselves as remarkable as Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Maman, and Uncle Jaques, live with us for a few precious pages. The details are unfailingly perfect. [Read entire essay]
Over the last several years, I have managed, once again, to stay settled and out of the way of this troubled world for long enough to place my own work in a scattering of journals. My letters to the Fessor had grown sporadic, as a result. In the summer of last year, I began especially to feel the lack and sent several at the old pace. There was the possibility that I might be presented an opportunity to return to Lexington for another visit. I looked forward to picking up where we had more-or-less left off.
I had been describing the Internet, and his popularity on it, to him when the correspondence had grown sparse. In the first letter, I returned to the subject in the wake of his obituary for Hugh Kenner. A reply came promptly back:
I don't know what the phrase "search-engine listing" means (that my HK obit went to the top of). I've been busy writing introductions, blurbs, and reviews. A review of a new bio of Borges (12 pages) went off to Harper's this afternoon, via FedEx. I doubt they will print it.I received no reply to the others. Of course, I learned, in January, the reason I had not heard back. It not being possible to attend the memorial service, I offer these few words and a deep respect and affection.
- More from the Mailbag: David Eisenman and Terry Walton. "Kenneth Haynes, presently of Brown University, also attended the service and read ..."
- Het Nieuve Wereldbeeld: the Magical World of Guy Davenport. "There is not a Puritan molecule in this perpetual universe that isn't instantly and gloriously made at least curious."