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.
The author is also his own renowned illustrator and
boundaries are freely crossed. As in an illustration,
nouns - the things themselves (in a way that Stevens
and Williams could hardly have imagined) - are their
own adjectives. The perfect details referred to
correspond to the figures in a drawing for this most
visual of authors.
There is an underlying grammar of objects. Here the
most expressive adjectives are names.
The artist's studio, declared van Hovendaal, nearly
thirty years ago, "is the philosopher's room with
images." As for the philosopher's room, "It is the
Pythagorean room, a box containing a man who is a
mind." In it inevitably exist a table and chair; and
these describe that mind, are reverberating
adjectives. Table modifies the noun "mind". Chair
In "The Dawn in Erewhon," (Tatlin. Scribners, 1974.)
he built his work-table himself: an adjective
describing attention to his materials. He built all
of his furniture himself in De Stijl. Later, in the
same story, he recalls the summer he used an old
kitchen table for his work-table: resourcefulness and
succeeding with whatever materials are at hand, youth,
In the volume presently before us, "his nifty swivel
Danish reading chair with matching footstool," is, in
its entirety, a single adjective modifying the noun
"Marc". This single adjective is not to be mistaken
for the additive sum of the adjectives nifty, Danish,
reading, matching: none of which is particularly
descriptive. Its whole is vastly greater than its
Throughout the stories, the setting will be France,
at times, rather than Holland, with a strange and
perfect reasoning. Either is just foreign enough to
have a smidgin of Erewhon tucked away in some corner.
The children will inhabit phalansteries from out of
the child-like genius of Charles Fourier. Perched
atop quaggas they will gyre and gimbel through meadow
In the title story of The Cardiff Team again it is
France. Fourier's landscape is no longer to be seen
although he and Kropotkin make a cameo appearance.
There has been an evolution, these thirty years, and
every meadow now - the common as well as the imagined
- is magical.
Common is a frame of mind. Erewhon is a frame of
The two grand idealists are rubbing "their hands with
approval" to have heard a deceptively simple
observation: "Knowing how to live involves finding
out." The children are on their way, by train, to a
country house of which they have been given free use.
Of course, it is all quite impossible: let's be clear
about that. Like Escher's Waterfall every detail is
perfect. Davenport, too, is a consummate realist.
There is nothing out of place yet the final picture
clearly begs experience.
The analogy with Escher is not the author's own but
is appropriate nevertheless. In his introduction to
The Infinite World of M. C. Escher (Abrams, 1984), J.
L. Locher (then curator of the Modern Art Department
at the Gemeentemuseum), writes:
This new concept of reality is not present in
traditional representation of landscapes, still lifes,
or portraits. And although it occurs in movements
such as Cubism, De Stijl, Dadaism, Surrealism, and the
recent continuations of these currents, their visual
language is readable only for a small number of
Escher's work lends itself to narrative. Davenport's
grammar of objects is narrative. It is striking how
apt is Locher's observation applied to the latter as
well as the former.
It is the touch that generally is missed in exegeses
of the Waterfall that may be missed in these proses.
In Escher's print a woman peacefully hangs out
clothes. A man stares wistfully into the terraced
hills. In the land of perpetual watermills there is
no petulance, no angst.
The point is almost certainly still missed. There is
no imaginable causal relationship by which endless
water-power effects peace. There is rather an
analogy: the peace we see is as impossible as the
watermill and for much the same reason.
Monsieur Marc Bordeaux and Penny, Walt's mother,
"read books together and make notes and discuss
Mark types things up for her, and fetches books, and
looks things up in libraries. Toward the end of the
afternoon they fuck.
We are informed of this by Walt's friend, Sam. The
two attend Marc's seminar for twelve year old
Marc, of course, is a latter-day Adriaan van
Hovendaal. In place of van Hovendaal's old orange and
brown Rietveld chair we find the "nifty swivel Danish
reading chair". Both characters inhabit a world of
long, rectangular worktables, piled with books and
bric-a-brac freighted with private symbolism: a world
of touring bikes, denim shorts and bunched white
woolen socks. Both run barefoot through the mist of
the early mornings.
Adriaan's very sixties-ish Kaatje has become Penny:
ten or so years older, single mother, professional,
more an equal intellectual partner. Whereas Kaatje
was once "for fun," now Marc is.
There is not a Puritan molecule in this perpetual
universe that isn't instantly and gloriously made at
least curious. The entire extent of materialism is
limited to worktables, swivel-chairs, bicycles and
books, as perfectly proportional and uncluttered as
the geometric shapes which they describe in their
As Escher's aqueduct rises its sides are stepped
down. Without this unobtrusive touch the direction of
water-flow he needs would be patently impossible: the
illusion would be broken. It seeks to appear just
another detail among details by being in-and-of-itself
quite in line with reality.
This, of course, can only be accomplished on paper.
Otherwise there would be no illusion and reality would
be quite a different thing.
At the beginning of The Cardiff Team we find a quote
which could easily be from the journals of Thoreau:
If it happens that nature, when we get up one morning
and start our day, hands us exactly what we were in a
mind to do, our praise comes readily, and the world
looks like a meadow in the first week of creation,
green, fresh, and rich in flowers.
From the first, then, we are at the border between the
quotidian and the magical: standing, as it were,
before the looking-glass.
Next, an apparently adult narrator sets the scene:
"Walt and Sam both twelve...". Sam speaks. The tones
are surprisingly adult, only slowly modulating until
key words (parents, papa, Maman) and phrases make
clear that this is an unusually developed child.
In section 3, Les Galles, enter Penny and Marc.
Minus their own key words and phrases, the
conversation would be identical in tone and style to
that of Walt and Sam who will soon be explained to be
geniuses thus putting the whole matter right. All
they lack is a regular reference to Maman in order
themselves to be unusually developed children. Or
rather, all Walt and Sam need lose is the reference in
order themselves to be unusually liberated adults.
Our narrator most often reads like stage direction: a
few brief lines of description. From time to time he
will fill in missing information in lieu of tiresome
footnotes. He is a dedicated minimalist and will only
rarely consent to perform more than these functions.
The result is a remarkable lightness.
As in Escher, then, each detail is perfectly
realistic looked at from its immediate perspective.
Sam will say "tomcatting" while a precocious genius
struggling to understand a swatch of Horace, liber
quartus, carmen primum, and "Do you even like us?"
when he is a refreshingly direct and very twelve year
old boy. Should the innocent reader turn directly to
the country excursion, which closes the story, Marc
and Penny, liberated from the least need to mold and
direct (that is to say, from their own key words and
phrases), are no longer distinguishable as adults.
Like an early Cubist painting (or Delaunay's
painting, The Cardiff Team), each individual detail is
realistically portrayed from its intentionally cropped
perspective while the canvas as a whole is shot
through with cleverly manipulated discontinuities. As
with an Escher support column, an upper capital will
prove to support a lower level of the aqueduct, while
its associated base stands upon a relative upper
Walt and Sam are geniuses, after all, by Sam's own
description. Once the two are over suspicions about
their new comrade, Cyril, he, too, is a genius. Given
the opportunity, all children are geniuses.
If we are not to read this twelve year old
perspective as the source, also, of Marc and Penny's
perpetual equanimity, then we must assume that the
evolution of the stories, early to late, is partial,
flawed. Even the rare academic - progeny of Da Vinci,
Socrates, Archytas, Pausanias, Tatlin, Stein, et alii
(all the heroes, that is, of Davenport's pantheon) -
for who finding out about things has become life's
breath, and who has been fortunate enough to get a
living by it, has his or her petulant moments and
days. Even the personal development, and life-long
sense of wonder, which these stories suggest goes
hand-in-hand, fall short of being an explanation.
Returning, then, to Sam's description of how the
bills are paid, we find a twelve year old's
perspective all but stripped of key words and phrases
which were supposed to let the reader know that he may
not be entirely precocious on the topic in question.
No omniscient narrator chooses to put the reader right
in the matter however much convention may seem to
require it. In fact, our taciturn narrator seems only
(and only seems) too pleased to turn over his
traditional duties willy-nilly to whomever will have
To fail to address the matter at all could only have
drawn attention to a glaring lacuna. Therefore the
capital (as it were), which holds the description up,
is placed just enough in shadow to avoid close
Sam's mother is a painter of huge canvasses. Penny
"writes about painting and philosophy and whichwhat."
Marc is Penny's assistant, sort of.
The description has all the nonchalance and the vague
exactitude of a conversation between brilliant twelve
year olds. In this unobtrusive, and,
in-and-of-itself, perfectly realistic way, Davenport's
water flows uphill. Twelve year olds - apparently
even brilliant ones - are blissfully unaware that
writers about painting and philosophy can not pay the
bills much less take on research assistants, chance
adding another mouth to feed, buy spiffy
swivel-chairs, etc. Thus for a magical time, in an
angular and well-lit little corner of Vicennes, all of
this is possible.
Every bit as much as in a lithograph there are
commonly agreed upon literary conventions which
transform perspective onto paper. Both Escher and
Davenport delight in appearing to have obeyed those
conventions while subtly manipulating them to arrive
at unconventional outcomes. They delight in a range
of eminently realistic illusion.
And, as in Escher, we also find, intermingled among
these illusions, a series of portraits (of Kafka,
Santayana, of L?vy-Bruhl and Leenhardt as they wander
through story after story), which, however much they
too are magical, perfectly obey the conventions. The
columns of Escher's Chiostro di Monreale are, upon the
closest inspection, in all ways sound - and,
in-and-of-themselves, in no way more so than the
columns of the Waterfall. In "Dinner at the Bank of
England", Santayana is a professor at Harvard without
a hint of petulance or of work. No business is
transacted at the bank (or thought of). Nonetheless,
there is not a loose thread to be found.
Mondriaan, who frequently is mentioned in this
Erewhon, declared, while writing in the midst of a
rhombiod apartment (the details of which we are
reminded in every philosopher's room here), that De
Stijl sought a new spiritual nature for modern man.
Het nieuve wereldbeeld: the new world image.
All was square and rectangular and primary colors
(until revisionists added diagonals): geometric and
proportional. The reader may go to a decent library
to see photographs of the furniture Rietveld designed
from out of all of that.
De Stijl, of course, is now a
thing of the past. In the story, "The Table," from
the present work, in which Adriaan van Hovendaal
himself briefly appears, to remind us that what we
have before us is still the result of his Het
Erewhonish Schetsboek, the table is mentioned once, in
passing. It is round.
Fourier's citizen (child and adult) is as unabashed
about the senses as were the ancient Greeks:
Walt and Sam turned to each other, embraced and
- It's a game, Marc said to Cyril. To make Americans
In this Erewhon it is generally far less
self-conscious than this swatch from the perspective
of Guy-Davenport-as-Marc with a grin and a wink.
Boys inevitably being boys are allowed their own head
in these matters - even encouraged. Upon reaching
puberty, Sam will turn into a girl and we will be left
to wonder just what all the fuss was about.
In Samuel Butler's original Erewhon, written now over
one hundred years ago, a private automobile
(Davenport, by-the-by, does not drive) would have been
a breach worthy of the death penalty. "Man's very
soul is due to the machines," wrote one of its eminent
....it is a machine made thing: he thinks as he thinks,
and feels as he feels, through the work that machines
have wrought upon him...
Machine modifies "mind". We hardly notice anymore.
After thirty years, Davenport's Erewhon has become
more and more closely pressed upon by automobiles.
Trains and more had been quite welcome in their proper
place there from the first. Marc's chair undoubtedly
was made at a factory. The Eiffel Tower and a giant
Ferris-wheel loom triumphant in the background.
"In their proper place," is the operative phrase.
One could make a list, on a Post-It note, of the
machines which are recognized there: stove,
refrigerator, train, phonograph - only a few others.
Television-sets still do not exist there. But they
are everywhere else, like the world closing in around
the last of Erewhon in a tiny corner of Vincennes.
The meadows of reality and imagination (the author's
previous book of proses is entitled, A Table of Green
Fields) are ghostly now: abandoned to phalanxes of
fairy children, and a few more corporeal, but no less
"Walt and Sam,"says someone who sounds suspiciously
like the author having stepped into his own story, to
have the final word,
....have not yet found the country they want to be
citizens of. You and I, Cyril, are immigrants in the
imaginary country Penny and Daisy founded, with a
population of four.
- Bee's getting pubic hair, which she is proud of, and
breasts, which are beautiful. She's out of Maillol's
Georgics. I think I am walking around in a dream.
- No, only a poem. Or a Balthus painting. There are
forty-two wars raging right now, never mind the
private unhappiness everywhere, pain, disease, and
hatred. We are here in this meadow. Even it has no
reality we can know other than how our imagination
In the worlds of Escher and Davenport there seems
every reason to believe and so little reason not to.
Illusion is tantalizingly close to reality in both.
In The Cardiff Team, as in the entire story sequence
which it culminates, the possibility is everything.