THE DRUMMER OF THE
By Guy Davenport
North Point Press. 144 pp. $19.95
IN The Geography of the Imagination, the collection of essays he published in the early '80s, Guy Davenport wrote: "The imagination is like the drunk man who lost his watch, and must get drunk again to find it." Davenport's fiction, freely borrowing from the techniques and themes of his essays until it is not always readily distinguishable from them, is consonant with this intuition: a highly deliberated attempt to locate in euphoria what soberly one thought beyond reach.
Davenport is a gifted reader: his fiction and his essays emerge from his reading in a way that is at once insouciant and hyper-concentrated, a learned, high-octane mix of invention and description. What connects the two forms is a brilliant capacity to recombine detail -- often oblique, recondite detail picked out by a connoisseur's eye. All his work is in this sense collage, and this is why he cares so much about the formal finish of his writing, each sentence polished until it glitters like cut glass in sunlight. He has the aesthete's conviction that in the perfection of the style lies the truth of the insight.
The "stories" in Davenport's new collection, The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers, are, like some of those in his previous collections Apples and Pears and the The Jules Verne Steam Balloon, sustained images of desire. They conjure into being an ideal imaginary world, richly colored and wilfully exact, depicted with a hallucinatory vividness of detail inseparable from the construction of a narrative that obeys many of the conventions of realist fiction while in fact resembling no world but the one constructed on the page. "You have to know what you want to look like," one of the characters muses in "Wo es war, soll ich werden" the novella-length story in this collection. "Nature complies." In Davenport's fiction nature hankers for the condition of art, even the condition of desire itself.
Several of the stories in The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers are set in Scandinavia, "seamed with frost and blue with hindered green." This is the geography of Davenport's imagination. His location of his characters in these remote, and relentlessly beautiful boreal landscapes is an attempt to make actual a landscape empty of shame, from which guilt has been banished. His northern arcadia is peopled by boys aware for the first time of sex in an environment that allows them to exist to their fullest potential, intellectually and physically. Davenport explicitly celebrates the sexuality of adolescent boys: its urgency, its manifestation in groups, its tendency for experiment that is definitionally innocent. In the first story a gang plays a game of "Colin Maillard" or Blind Man's Buff, where the object of the game is for those blindfolded to catch a boy dressed as a girl. In "Wo es war, soll ich werden" Pascal, a 12-year-old, produces a learned paper "comparing the geology of the Galapagos and Iceland," which is accepted for publication by a scholarly journal. "At twelve," says a boy called Allen in another story, "you understand everything. Afterward you have to give it up and specialize." IF THIS is a sensuous world, where hands are always diving into briefs, where bodies share sleeping bags while the rain drums on the tent roof, and where boys kiss and hug as they discuss Klee's Notebooks or D'Arcy Thompson's Growth and Form, it is also one wrought by an art of maximum refinement like that evoked in Yeats
"Sailing to Byzantium," "a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/Of hammered gold and gold enamelling." Davenport's dialogue, for instance, crucial to the development of the stories, is very sharp, pared to the bone, but sometimes not true to actual speech with its false starts and spare fat.
Davenport began publishing stories comparatively late. His modern masters are Pound and Joyce: from Pound he learned the principle of eclectic reading and maximal formal restraint; from Joyce how to manage an over-ripe language that subverts the naturalism it seems to aspire to. But one also intuits behind his work the example of the ancient Greeks, the amatory and intellectual passion evident in the poems of Sappho (which Davenport has translated) or Plato's dialogues. And with its unapolegetic commitment to high artifice, extolling the charms of boyish love, his work brings to mind Virgil's Eclogues -- a title Davenport himself stole for a previous collection of stories. There is also a whiff of Shapespeake's love comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It, in his delineation of a zest for life that is at once silly and wise, irresistibly attractive, though the reader need not share the vision informing it.
The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers is finally a lament for the world it celebrates, that art cannot in the end make real what it so vividly imagines, that in our own history the kind of love for which Davenport's fictions are an apologia has been stifled and punished. Two boys, we learn in "Wo es war, soll ich werden," Ensign James Hepburn, and Tom White, the drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers, were hanged on March 7, 1811 for the crime of fondling each other "in a room above a public house on Vere Street." Ultimately, though, what Davenport is intent on defending is the imagination itself, its capacity to make something from nothing. His writing is a search, as one of his characters says, for "new kinfolks . . . people who can make their inside outside." Thus his manufacture of a world without guile or self-consciousness, so good-natured and unbuttoned, where "The great thing is affability, not the kinship but the kindness of one thing to another."
Michael Heyward is an editor of Scripsi, an Australian literary magazine.