Where the Boys Are

Wo Es War, Soll Ich Werden, the Restored Original Text by Guy Davenport. The Finial Press in Champaign, Illinois.  $525.00

Once before on this website I reviewed a book that I was sure none of my readers would ever see, an obscure Buddhist text that had been out of print forever and that I was quite surprised to find.  I said at the time that if somebody wanted to come by the house I might lend it to them.  In the case of this volume, I won’t make that promise (and probably won’t have the book by the time you get here).  Check out the price.  That’s not a misprint.

One of the first pieces I ever posted here was a long essay about four Guy Davenport stories that all focused on the same characters and had the same general theme, though they seemed to have been written at different times and from different impulses.  The longest of these stories—and the most troubling for me—was published originally in The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers and reprinted in The Death of Picasso, New and Selected Writing, where it took up 81 pages of small print.  I was aware that there was another version of the story, some 60 pages longer, that had been printed as a single volume by a special press.  I wasn’t aware that there was a “traveling copy” of that book, available to avid Davenport fans.  One of the publishers, David Eisenman, got in touch and let me know about that.  I finally got to see that beautiful volume this month, and have just finished reading it.  It’s nerve-wracking holding a $500 book in your hands.

The story is controversial because it concerns intergenerational sex.

Davenport claims that he cut those 60 pages himself, for aesthetic reasons, and that may be true.  One could argue that the shorter version makes the whole point of the story, as I think it does.  But it’s also true that the story was first published in 1990, around the time of a huge scandal at a Florida day care center, and I understand how an author can get a case of nerves about publishing controversial writing right before it comes out.  Davenport apparently made the cuts while the book was in proof, and paid the publisher dearly.  So if the decision was aesthetic, it came rather late in the process, and rather suddenly.

My admiration for Guy Davenport as a writer of sentences is unbounded.  The only reason I didn’t want to read this book when it became available was that his writing often hooks me, and I wind up reading no one else for three or four months.  His intelligence and learning were staggering, quite intimidating for us lesser mortals.  But he was also a kind man; when I first reviewed him in the early nineties, sending him my piece on A Table of Green Fields from the Raleigh News & Observer, we began a correspondence that he would probably have continued as long as I wanted, and he was most encouraging about literary projects I mentioned.  He answered all of my letters by return post.  I couldn’t keep up the pace.

But I’ve done a fair amount of squirming while reading some of his work, and Wo Es War, Soll Ich Werden is an all-time squirmer.  The restored version was squirmier than the original.

The problem isn’t just that a boarding school teacher is having sex with one of his students, a boy of 12.  It’s that he’s being pushed into doing so by another teacher at the school, Hugo Tvemunding, who in this whole quartet of stories seems to be the moral center, a bisexual man who is the son of a minister and a bit of a theologian himself, is living with a woman and her younger brother, and seems to include the younger brother in the sex as well.  The woman herself at one point apparently jerks off her brother.  We’re talking about behavior that at least in this country (the story takes place in Denmark) is considered illegal, immoral, and damaging.  I know people whose lives were ruined when they were sexually abused by an adult.

The broad proclamation of this story is that sex between men is not a crime, a theme with which I absolutely agree.  He contrasts the free and loving behavior we’re seeing with an actual historical incident where two men, aged 16 and 25, were put to death because they had sex.  The brief mention of that incident is startling and heartbreaking when it intrudes in the middle of the story.  But 16 is a long way from 12 when we’re talking about sexual activity, and there are scenes in this story where boys are even kissing and touching the “dink” of an infant.

That word brings up my other reservation.  The prose of Guy Davenport, which is clear and magisterial on many subjects, a classic prose style, seems to go all mushy when his characters start talking about this subject.  I feel as if I could quote from almost any page in a certain part of the story; in this passage the teacher Holger and the student Pascal are off on a camping trip.  Holger speaks first.

“—Your dink, as you call it, is up.

–And rowdy and pushy and horny.

–Why, then, mite, don’t we face up to our duty, and jack you into a fit?

By the pale gold light of late afternoon, the world beyond their tent dismissed and forgotten, they had nuzzled and cockered their bodies through a rotation of fresh arousal and throbbing pitch of desire tamped down rather than quenched by rivaling generosities.

–You’re ready to come again as soon as you have, Holger said.  Something to know.

–Isn’t everybody?

–I’ll have to read up on it.  It’s an innocent and ignorant lover you’re on a binge with, O best of friends. . . .

–You know what I am, Holger?

–A sweet handsome affable utterly lovable sexy-eyed ruckle-haired toothy snippitynosed randypetered nasty twelve-year-old.”

Do other Davenport fans find this annoying?  This is fingernails across a blackboard for me.  I sit there reading and cringing.  To say nothing of the fact that nobody, anywhere, ever spoke in this way.

The message seems to be, it’s healthy!  It’s healthy!  All this sex is really healthy!  If people would drop their puritanical attitudes and just let it be, let people just do what they want, everything would be fine.  Davenport was a classics professor, and studied the ancient Greeks, and I’m sure he could point to many examples of such behavior in that culture.  I don’t think he was studying that ancient culture by accident.  The man had a thing for men and boys having sex, or boys standing around semi-naked.  They’re everywhere in his work.

The other odd fact is that he portrays a group of people who live much differently than he did.  All of these people are great outdoorsmen if not athletes, running and swimming great distances every day; the sex was just one more part of their healthy culture.  Davenport in the meantime lived on Campbell’s soup, fried baloney and Snicker’s bars, smoked Marlboro’s, seemed to drink a fair amount (if his stories about hanging out with Thomas Merton are to be believed) and did not seem to be into physical culture.  At least I’ve never heard that he was.

If I phrased my doubts in the strongest way, I would say: are these just the semi-pornographic fantasies of an aging man who knew he couldn’t live them out, or do they have some relationship to how he lived, or what he believed, or what he was advocating?  To know that, I’d have to know something about his life, and I haven’t come across anyone who does (though I have met people who knew him.  He was proudly claimed as a Duke University writer, a group of which I am a far less illustrious member).

I still have the feeling that the group of stories about these characters was in some way his final testament.  They come at the end of the last volume published in his lifetime.  I believe the man was serious.

I also think he was misguided.