Friday, May 25, 2012

Guy Davenport (Stray Notes)

Guy Davenport, “Self-Portrait,” 1983

A dalliance, marauding, in the archive. Subsequent to an insomniac toss in the humidity, tempered, toward morning, by the sweet yank-yank of a nuthatch probing the oak crevices of the tree out my window. Attending (waiting for) the eventual gathering of Guy Davenport’s letters, some pulled out of The National Review. Out of the October 26, 1973 issue:
Correction . . .
In my obituary of J. R. R. Tolkien [Sept. 28] the sentence “It was the rule of Tolkien's art that he invented nothing cynical” should have read “. . . he invented nothing; he transmuted into the loveliest vision the world as he knew it.” The obituary was phoned in and recorded on a Dictaphone. What a New Yorker’s ear heard a South Carolina voice say was not “cynical” but “semicolon.”
                                                                                                                        Guy Davenport
                                                                                                                        Lexington, Ken.
Out of the March 26, 1968 issue:
Wonderfully accomplished as your compositor is, he has not improved my remarks on Wittgenstein [Mar. 12] by committing the great philosopher to absolute analysis, or by having Niels Bohr crack the atom bomb. My manuscript said that Wittgenstein was committed to absolute honesty, and that Bohr cracked the atom.
                                                                                                                        Guy Davenport
                                                                                                                        Lexington, Ky.
An exchange with one Anton S. Beliajeff, out of the February 25, 1969 issue:
Valentinov on Lenin
It was quite surprising to find very obvious mistakes of fact in Guy Davenport’s review of Nikolay Valentinov’s Encounters With Lenin [Jan. 28]. First of all, Valentinov did not write this memoir in the Sixties, but before the death of Stalin. The Russian edition came out in 1953. Second, the paper, which caused the conflict with Plekhanov, was not about Mach and Avenarius, but about revolutionary work among sectarians, an interesting thing in itself. Third, Valentinov mentions that Gusev, in order to play the fool, once sang for Lenin a romance of Tchaikovsky on his knees, not “always” on his knees. In addition, the reviewer got the titles of Tchaikovsky’s songs mixed up. Even though many years passed before Valentinov set down his memoirs, even though conflict with Plekhanov involved Mach and Avenarius, even though Gusev got on his knees, one should not change the facts through carelessness or by intention.
                                                                                                                        Anton S. Beliajeff
                                                                                                                        Hanover, N. H.

A Reply
Valentinov’s Vstrechi s Leninym was published in New York in 1953, so my “36 years later” should have read “26 years later.” Frank Meyer, best of editors, called me about the chronology of Valentinov’s political allegiance and exiles before going to press, and as I was in the hospital flat on my back, I achieved the splendid muddle as it appears, deferring wildly to Frank’s extensive knowledge of things and all the while winking at a nun who was pursing her mouth and shaking her head at all the Russian names flying through the air. As for the encounter with Plekhanov, I can only ask Mr. Beliajeff to read pages 178-179 of the book again. And as for Lenin and the songs, it seems to me that Valentinov was immensely amused by the rather silly sentimentality of these lugubrious occasions; and so was I. I had space only to catch the essential muflisme of the comedy. If a more meticulous cultural historian can inform us how many times Comrade Gusev (alias Drapkin) sang Tchaikovsky to Lenin on his knees, the pages of National Review are open to him.
                                                                                                                        Guy Davenport
                                                                                                                        Lexington, Ky.
(Muflisme: Gustave Flaubert’s term for the nineteenth century onslaught of pettiness, impertinence, love of mediocrity, banality, lack of ambition. “La muflisme, évidemment, continue dans notre siècle.” Mufle is French for “snout.”) Out of the June 9, 1972 issue:
Nobel Prize for Idealism
Mr. Max Geltman’s lively essay on the inscrutable taste of the Swedish Academy [“Some Reflections on the Geopolitical Nature of Nobel Prizes,” May 12] makes the common mistake of assuming that the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded for excellence. Nobel’s will specifies that the prize is to go “to the person who shall have produced in the field of Literature the most distinguished work of an idealist tendency.” Karl Gjellerup, the Danish theologian and novelist who embraced Darwin and Spencer (and who wrote a book called En Idealist), and Henrik Pontoppidan, who also fled bis pulpil to participate in tbe post-Ibsen Scandinavian rage for the élan vital, were more obvious candidates for Nobel’s Prize for Idealism than Conrad or Proust.
      What idealism is and how the Swedish Academy detects it in one writer more than another are matters to be revealed when Gabriel sounds the great ear-filling flourish in C-sharp and the scrolls are unfurled, but the terms of Nobel’s will make it plausible that next year’s prize will go to Rod McKuen.
                                                                                                                        Guy Davenport
                                                                                                                        Lexington, Ky.
(Out of Max Geltman’s reply: “Wouldn’t you know it! If there was one man on earth who was sure to have read both Gjellerup and Pontoppidan (in the original Danish, no doubt) it would be Guy Davenport of Lexington. Ky.”) Out of the July 7, 1972 issue, an lengthy exchange regarding a Davenport review* of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s North and Jean Giraudoux’s Lying Woman:
For almost a decade I have been one of your assiduous readers, one for whom National Review has been, on the whole, a delightful source of information and perspective. Never has National Review offended my taste or irked me in my principles. Never . . . until I read Guy Davenport’s review-article entitled “The Ways of the French” [“Books,” March 31].
      Ninety per cent of this piece is so banal as to lead one to believe that it was culled from ordinary textbooks or, worse, biographical dictionaries. As for Mr. Davenport’s opinions (the remaining 10 per cent), one can only say that they are grossly wrong because they are based on mere “assiduous skimming” of the works he attempted to review, and on evident prejudice, in this case Francophobia or perhaps simply know-nothing isolationist nationalism (ça existe). True, Céline is a most unusual writer, even in the context of French literature. He was not destined to appeal to many readers. Having lived in the United States for many years and knowing my fellow Americans fairly well, I can easily understand that Céline is doomed, perhaps forever, not to be understood or appreciated here. Incidentally, Mr. Davenport fails to comment on the quality of this translation. Such information is expected in a reliable review of a book in translation.
      But, if Mr. Davenport cannot be objective in his comments on Céline, he did not have to hypocritically cast aspersion on Molière, Diderot, Montaigne, Voltaire (Genet deserves it ). Nor did he have to make a gross statement such as “Céline’s refusal . . . to write a readable prose is very French.” Such comments betray a bias that, I like to hope, is unworthy of National Review, for it is based on excessive carelessness, pettiness and ignorance, as exemplified by a statement such as “naturalism is a mode of fiction.” How about naturalist drama? Obviously, Mr. Davenport could not care less. In fact, to him, “there are few things more pointless and silly than the modern attempts at drama.” (One would hope Mr. Davenport used the word “modern” carelessly. Even if he did use it to mean twentieth-century drama, what know-nothingism!)
      Céline was too queer, or vulgar, or French, as a result, to please Mr. Davenport. (Incidentally, he who repeats vulgarities is himself vulgar.) Toward Giraudoux, who was a distinguished gentleman, he is merely condescending. “Giraudoux is, to be sure, a charming writer. He shines. He spins. . . .” He is perfectly free to dislike Giraudoux as anyone is, of course. But why again generalize on the French people and the whole of French literature? Why say that adultery spoiled French literature? This, as almost all of Mr. Davenport’s extrapolations, is an insult to any cultured or merely rational reader, as is his conclusion: “How strange are the customs of France!” How strange are Mr. Davenport’s reviews! How surprising to find them in National Review! Mr. Davenport’s conservatism is probably orthodox enough, but it does not qualify him to comment on French literature, especially when, as he says, he has neither the time nor the inclination to do so. You know what happens to enterprises when compliance to an ideology is preferred to competence.
                                                                                                                        Easton, Pa.

My review of Céline’s North is not based on skimming. I said that Céline’s style tempts readers to skim, as indeed it does. It is an eccentric style, extremely difficult to follow, and wearying to the eye. I made my remarks about it immediately after quoting Céline, who says that he ought to be ashamed to write in the way he did.
      My source for the biographical details (which I assume readers are interested to have) is the Dizionario universale della letteratura contemporanea, Vol. 1, Verona 1959.
      If my opinions of Céline (and what else did Monsieur C. expect to find in a review?) are wrong, they are not wrong because they are derived from skimming the book. They are wrong because after reading Céline I think as I have stated clearly in my review and not otherwise. I do not suffer from Francophobia, never having feared anything French in my life, with the possible exception of the notorious stinginess of that people. I have traveled in France many times and have an ardent love of French painting, literature, cooking, cities, clothes and culture in general. I’d always thought I was a rather sentimental Francophile. Nor am I a know-nothing isolationist. I even know that Céline’s prose style is as abominable in French as in English translation.
      Nor have I in my review cast a single aspersion on Molière, Diderot, or Genet. I said that they are frank in a particularly Gallic way. They are. And I’d always thought that to praise a man for his candor was praise of a high order. It is amazing to learn that my admiration of Montaigne and Voltaire is an insult to the French.
      My remark that Céline’s refusal to write a readable prose is very French is derived from Céline himself. Céline hated his times and his fellow countrymen: that’s what he’s writing about. He was a man sick to the teeth of the moral degeneracy of the twentieth century, and his disgust is reflected in his annoying prose.
      I deny categorically that I have in this review been careless (wherein is the carelessness?), petty (how so?), or ignorant. And I stick by my guns that modern French drama is weak and an awful falling away from its own superb standards. I except Beckett and Ionesco, as they are Irish and Rumanian respectively. If it will make Monsieur C. any happier, I think even less of modern American and English drama. These opinions are based on the sad experience of knowing what I’m talking about.
      I cannot find anywhere in my review a reflection of what JPC thinks is my antagonism toward Céline. I think he is a powerful, rich, highly imaginative writer.
      And incidentally, he who repeats vulgarities is not himself vulgar.
      “How strange are the customs of France!” is a quotation from The Bab Ballads, a satiric attack earlier than mine on the bedroom in French literature.
      My conservatism, such as it is, is not orthodox in any sense, and I have plenty of time and inclination to comment on French literature, which I do without any ideology whatsoever, three times a week to helpless sophomores.
      And by the way, to notice that adultery as an overworked theme has spoiled French literature is not an extrapolation. The word extrapolation does not mean that.
      Nor can I figure out how I dislike Giraudoux when I say that he is charming and fascinating. But the trouble seems to be that JPC doesn’t read English very well. When he objects to my saying that “naturalism is a mode of fiction,” he does not see that I am contrasting naturalism and Céline’s biographical frankness. My point was that naturalism, for all its claim to be utterly objective, remains a way of telling a story and therefore adheres to all the rules of fiction. This is a paradox. Nobody has said, or can say, anything about naturalist drama in this context: not, anyway, if he is paying attention to the discourse.
      So it looks terribly as if Monsieur C., irked and offended, has irked and offended himself.
                                                                                                                        Guy Davenport
                                                                                                                        Lexington, Ky.
A mystery. Listed in Joan Crane’s Guy Davenport: A Descriptive Bibliography, 1947-1995 (Green Shade, 1996), an essay called “Obscurum per Obscurius,” purportedly in “National Review 20:52 (31 Dec. 1968), pp. 1368-9.” Ain’t there. I looked.
* The review:

      “What a way to write!” Céline says of his flocculent prose. “I ought to be a shamed!” He ought, indeed. It is wearying to read phrases linked by dots (“I open one eye . . . I see her . . . it’s almost dark . . . she’s looking out through the slit . . . I go over . . . movements”), yet Céline wrote all his books this way. The result is a dyslectic hiccough, inspiring the reader with better to do to skim assiduously. Obviously Céline never read his own books, and as for the reader, he held him in contempt as une espèce de merde.
      Reading Céline is the same as falling in with a mad old man of glittering and feverish eye whom, he will shout in your face, the world has treated unfairly. He rambles, borders on an inspired inarticulateness, repeats himself, spits, insults, rolls shoelace-loosening obscenities on his tongue, and damns everything in sight except his wife, his cat Brébert, and himself. He is a thoroughly unsavory old cooter, and he meant to be.
      Moreover, his novels are not novels at all. They are raging accounts of Céline knocking his frail shins against the world. They are maddeningly detailed indictments of a humanity rotten with viciousness, drunk with stupidity, blinded by ignorance and cruelty. Fall in with this wild old Timon, and you will end up convinced that man is the opposite of humanity.
      Céline complains ungraciously in this account of his miseries during the war that we have mythologized the Nazi years, making a saint of Anne Frank (of whose fame he is openly jealous) and devils of the SS. He existed in the moral shambles which he can discern between the innocent and the guilty, and he insists that practically everyone else did, too. In three novels which form a trilogy—From One Castle to Another, North and Rigadoon—he attempted in his old age to record with naked honesty and tragic bitterness what it felt like to be an antisemite skeptical of the Nazis, disgusted by the French, and wholly cynical about the human race’s being able to succeed at anything more complex than wiping its nose.
      Céline was not primarily a writer. He was a doctor specializing in children’s diseases, an authority on typhus. He was also an idealist whose idealism was buried under heavier and heavier disappointments. He was born in 1894 as Louis-Ferdinand Destouches. His father was a clerk in an insurance office; his mother made lace. He began life as a messenger boy. In 1914 he was wounded hideously.
      He took his college degree by reading on his own. He went to Africa and almost died of dysentery and malaria. In 1924 he became a physician, writing his thesis on Semmelweis, the doctor who had died insane because he could never convince midwives that they must wash their hands before delivering a baby. Like Semmelweis, Céline became a crusader. The Rockefeller Foundation sent him to Geneva, to Liverpool. He went back to Africa, visited the United States, Canada, Cuba. Then he decided to become a humble general practitioner in Clichy. He took the name Céline and began to write his digression-ridden, sputtering, angry books.
      Voyage to the End of the Night (1932) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936) made him famous. He went to Russia, and denounced Communism on his return. He also abandoned the official humanism of Europe in favor of a muddled racism. The war made a refugee of him. The French assumed he was a collaborator. The Nazis jailed him when he went to Berlin, He wandered across Europe, he and his wife and cat.
      After the war the French first condemned him and then exonerated him. He withdrew to a Parisian slum, continued to practice medicine among the poor, and wrote more books. His death went unnoticed in 1961; he was secretly buried. He was one of the most anguished souls ever to set pen to paper.
      Reading him, one soon gets over the impression that he is a moral monster. The French are particularly good at dispensing with hypocrisy in a thoroughly nasty way. Look at Molière’s misanthrope, at Diderot, at Genet. The relentless candor of Montaigne and Voltaire can still bite. Céline’s refusal to play to our decency, to allow us any sympathy with his misery, or to write a readable prose, is very French. Critics used to praise Céline for his naturalism, meaning, I suppose, his brutal frankness. Naturalism, however, is a mode of fiction. Céline transcribed reality, and may therefore be the last exhausted voice of the Naturalists.
      His significance remains to be seen. He was an angry old man talking, talking. It will take a critic more patient than most of us to sift through his ravings and decide if there is anything in it.

      Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944), “an ideal middlebrow’s highbrow” as an English critic called him, was one of those French elegantii who must have made Céline barf all over his shoes. There are few things more pointless and silly than the modern attempts at drama, and it was here that Giraudoux committed half his sins. The other half he saved for the novel, where he spread the same wit and sentimentality with which he so liberally caramelled his plays.
      Lying Woman, written in 1936 and found among Giraudoux’s papers only recently, is a fluffy enough tale. It is about a woman of some social standing who tries to please a distinguished lover by lying about her past. He has slept with so many high-class ladies, she argues, that he will find a nobody refreshing. (Giraudoux’s idea of a nobody is somebody whose town car is a Daimler rather than a Rolls.) Naturally, the dear thing lies badly to her fawn-skin-gloved gentleman, and then she has to lie to her regular lover (in Giraudoux’s world every lady has at least two lovers), until both lovers suspect her of trifling with their affections. Both get on their high horses and ride away. Our heroine then marries a nice old baron who breeds racehorses. Avez vous vu le chausse-pied?
      Giraudoux is, to be sure, a charming writer. He shines. He spins. He fascinates. But he does it all with cotton candy and tinsel. His characters bear the same resemblance to people as the shills in perfume and cigar advertisements. They are musical-comedy princes, princesses, and beaming peasants. Whoever invented the bedroom—the French, I imagine—spoiled French literature. Adultery is a French game; better still, it is their folk art. It is their madness. Perhaps it is a triumph for Giraudoux to transmute a hackneyed theme into one more piece of fluff. He misses idiocy by the thickness of a coat of paint. Perhaps that’s the point, the mastery, the swirl of the cape. How strange are the customs of France.