FEW CRITICS writing today can approach Guy Davenport's ability to communicate difficult insights gracefully. It would be hard to read even a page of The Geography of the Imagination, the superb collection of his critical pieces published two years ago, without being doubly beguiled by its stylistic wit and by the acumen demonstrated in its arguments. Davenport is at his best when discussing highly allusive art like the poetry of Pound and Zukofsky, and it is of these writers that one is reminded when turning from his criticism to his fiction.
The art of illusion, of adding layers of meaning and context to a fictional world through a system of references and quotations, has been near the center of all of Davenport's fiction to date, and Apples and Pears, his fourth and most recent story collection, is no exception. Once again, unusual demands are made on the reader's knowledge of literary history, philosophy, art and language, especially as they realte to the modernist eruptions which took place during the early part of this century.
Davenport makes a gesture of acknowledgement to Pound with the first story, ''The Bowmen of Shu,'' which takes its title from one of the translations in Pound's Cathay collection. In it, using the detached, impressionistic paragraphs which have become a feature of his fictional style, Davenport projects a collage of irreconciable experiences which gave rise to stylistic radicalism among the artists of the World War I period. While focusing on the Vorticist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed in the trenches in June 1915, the story evokes the discovery of a primitivist esthetic powerful enought to wrench beauty from the seemingly inexpressible ugliness European civilization had brough upon itself. Through this new art, atrocities arising from social conventions can be ripped aside to reveal the spontaneous beauty of natural energies underneath. ''It will not look like you,'' Gaudier-Brzeska tells the subject of his Hieratic Bust of Ezra Pound. ''It will look like your energy'' The story is illustrated with 13 drawings, two by Gaudier-Brzeska, the rest by Davenport himself.
Nature is more directly the subject of ''Fifty-Seven Views of Fugiyama,'' the second and most purely lyrical of the stories. Alternate paragraphs follow the 17th-century haiku poet Basho as he sells his house and sets out with his neighbor Kawai Sogoro on his famous journey on the narrow road to the north. Davenport clearly feels affection for this poet who ''would have [traveled] light enought except for gifts my friends loaded me with at parting, and my own unessential one thing and another which I cannot throw away because my heart is silly,'' and suffuses his descriptions of landscapes in pre-Westernized Japan with a sense of wonder.
Counterpointed against the account of Basho's journey are narratives of similar expeditions into the countryside taken by travelrers into the countryside taken by travelers in later centuries. A contemporary young American couple sets off on the Vermont Trail, which passes trhough a long-abandoned orchard. Davenport's narrator reflects this wilderness in musical prose:
''In generous morning light busy with cabbage butterflies and the green blink of grasshoppers an old pear tree still as frisky and crisp as a girl stood with authority among dark, unpruned winesaps gone wild, and prodigal sprawling zinnias, sweetpeas, and hollyhocks that had once been some honest farmwife's flowers and garden grown from seeds that came in Shaker packets from upstate New York or even Ohio, now blooming tall and profuse in sedge and thistle all the way to the tamaracks of the forest edge, all in that elective concert by which the lion's fellowship makes the mimosa spread.''
Wonder at the landscape has a place in this narrative, too, but in a more ambiguous and troubling way. The couple gets lost, the narrator seems to hallucinate an old mill while seeking shelter from a rainstorm, and his girlfriend sprains an ankle as they make their way through an uncharted swamp.
Other travelers make brief appearances, including a naturalist who provides paleontological data on plant distribution and an anonymous visitor trying to recall a forgotten Spanish word for the aged Ezra Pound. All of these strands are woven together by repeated reminders that all travel is really through time: ''Our great journey is through the years, even when we doze by the brazier.'' The individual narratives fuse into a single situation: that of the artistically sensitive personality in an encounter with nature.
''The Chair,'' briefer and more conventional than the other stories in the collection, follows Franz Kafka as he watches the Rebbe of Belz taking his evening walk at marienbad. As the Rebbe makes his pronouncement, kafka experiences a personal revelation''O the goodness of the Master of the Universe,'' says the Rebbe, ''to have created apples and pears . . . (The Rebbe's) chair held aloft by it bearer, Dr. Kafka notices, has now defined what art is as distinct from nature, for its pattern of flowers and leaves looks tawdry and artificial and seriously out of place against the green and rustling leaves of the apple and pear trees.''
This equation of apples and pears with the superiority of nature over artifice is the bridge to ''Apples and Pears'' itself, the longest and for this reader the weakest piece of fiction that Davenport has produced so far. Like much of his earlier writing, this novel is written directly under the influence of Charles Fourier's utopian social theories, which center on the concept that suppression of human desire is the great source of evil in human social systems.
''Apples and Pears'' takes the form of a series of notebooks written by the Dutch philosopher Adriaan Floris van Hovendaal, who is involved in a group attempt to put Fourier's theories into practice. The notebook entries are interspersed with letters, reminiscences and other forms of narrative by the various characters participating in or observing the experiement. Readers of the earlier Jong Davenport story, ''The Dawn in Erewhon,'' will recognize some of them a decade or so further into their lives and will also meet some new ones.
Among the old acquaintances are the couple Kaatje and Bruno with who Adriaan use frequently to bed down a trois. They now have two children, Hans and saartje, who may or may not be Adriaan's. Also new on the scene are Alexander (Sander) Floris, a youngpainter taken in by Adriaan during the former's troubled adolescence and raised according to the principle of Fourier as Davenport reads him, Sander's sister/lover Grietje, a squadronof other adolescent and pre-pubescent children, and male proponents of various sexually-based theories.
It would take more space than is available here to begin to catalogue the varieties of nonsense Davenport contrives for these characters in the name of Fourierian utopianism, but what we have here is certainly not Brook Farm. The problem seems to be thathe views human desire to be primarily sexual desire, and tailors his characters accordingly.
Since the viewpoint is obsessively male homosexual, all of the men are handsome, muscular and admirably endowed by nature to inhabit the cheerful porno scenario Davenport devises for them. The females are beautiful enough to be functional. Those who are creative, like Adriaan and Sanders, are understood to be highly gifted. The chief activity of this little community, aside from the production of masterpieces, is masturbation, male primarily, which is practiced in full view of the reader so relentlessly that even those who share Davenport's apparent delectation in all of this will be stupefied.
The style Davenport chooses for transmitting this vision is often distressingly cute, full of blushes, wrinkled noses and kisses on the corner of the mouth, repetitive to the point of fetishism on the subject of male parts and undergarments. These faults are shared by Davenport's illustrations for the story, which are sentimental and shallowly pretty despite references to de Stijl and other artistic styles. The narrative is heavily peppered with Dutch, most of which will be intelligible to readers with a knowledge of German, and overlaid with allusions to such other visions of a better future as Samuel Butler's machineless Erewhon and the noble society which was expected to follow the French Revolution, represented here by references to the months of the Napolenic calendar.
The untenability of this sexual never-never land is obvious in the fact that no even remotely credible character ever turns up to shatter all the onanistic fantasy. No truly adult sexual emotion is ever recorded. No policeman ever turns up to check into all the kiddie sex.
The overall effect is of The 100 Daysof sodom gone sappy. While Sade's monsters are always ready to incinerate a spouse or throw a coprophagous banquet in demonstratio of some wildly overextended philosophilical point, Davenport's beautiful and sexually inexhaustible creatures miss no opportunity to shed their jeans and onderbroeken and have another go at it in the name of poor, dead Fourier. As with Sade, one would like to dismiss the whole thing as satire, but it possesses too much of the sincerity of cherished personal fantasy to permit such an interpretation.
''Apples and Pears'' is disappointing not because of its sexual views, which are infantile and harmless, but because it represents a failure of imagination. Despite its erudite and multicultural armor of allusions to imagined earthlyparadises where innocence and sin regain their true meanings, the work fails to reveal the least trace of real humanity or substantial emotion amid all the coupling and creating it chronicles. The eccentric Fourier, to whom Davenport dedicates the entire volume, surely had other things in mind.