E.M. Forster, The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories

Guy Davenport, A Table of Green Fields and Da Vinci's Bicycle

    Reviews by Cooper Renner

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Reading E.M. Forster's "The Curate's Friend" for the first time just a few days ago, I was almost immediately reminded of Guy Davenport's much more recent story, "Mr. Churchyard and the Troll." To be sure, the two really do not share a great deal more than high quality and the theme of an encounter of a churchman with a nature spirit, but such characteristics are rare enough.

In Forster's tale, published first in The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (1911) and later in The Collected Short Stories (1947), the unnamed curate narrates the inception of what has become the central facet of his life: his friendship with a faun. Silly though the idea may sound, Forster's treatment forbids such a reaction. Comic but not facetious, the story reveals the Romanticism inherent in late Victorian (or maybe not quite Modern) literature as well as Forster's sure-handed touch, even in a story he wrote at a relatively young age. Readers more biographically inclined than this one may also choose to see here a nod at Forster's homosexuality in the curate's bachelor status (although the story includes his loss of a sweetheart) and in the sexual nature associated with fauns.

Reading Forster's story produces a sensation not unlike the hope-filled warmth at the center of first-rate children's literature.

What impels the forward movement of the story and anchors its comic tone is the curate's big-hearted self-knowledge and lack of pretension. Both qualities result, to some extent, from the faun's presence in his life, though the faun makes it plain that he could never have "appeared" to the curate at all-- even as he cannot be seen by the curate's companions at an outdoor tea-- if the curate had not already had within himself a childlike openness to existences beyond the ordinary. The concept is parallel to that posited by Wordsworth in the "Intimations" ode. In Wordsworth's poem, children carry memories of their pre-existence, which are lost as they grow up and become more firmly rooted in (or tied to) mundane life. According to the faun, likewise, children can see such spirits as himself, though that "natural vision" is later lost. Interestingly enough, Forster delivers this message with a straight, if comic, face: there is nothing in the story to suggest that Forster is merely toying with an idea, even if in the story's finale he has the curate explicitly state the manner in which he balances his "mature" life as a conventional, if uncommonly generous, priest with the hidden, and pagan, source of that very generosity. The effect is urbane, imperial in the appropriately Roman sense, and "worldly wise" without any corresponding feelings of ennui or despair. The curate has, in fact, stumbled into a nirvana on earth, and reading Forster's story produces a sensation not unlike the hope-filled warmth at the center of first-rate children's literature.

Davenport's story, collected in A Table of Green Fields (1993), is both more "serious" and equally warm, both far more Modern and equally classical. Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard goes out to the woods-- not for an outdoor tea with friends, but alone-- deliberately to encounter a troll which he has seen twice before. By translating Kierkegaard's name into English, Davenport disarms many readers (such as myself) who have never thought about what Kierkegaard's name might mean and thus gives us a protagonist initially as anonymous as Forster's. It is only as Davenport includes details of Kierkegaard's life and thought that we realize whom we are following. The translation also serves to defang the theologian-- who might otherwise seem too frightening a subject for a short fiction-- and to draw him out of theology, as it were: after all, he is not only leaving the city for the woods in the story itself, but his name also identifies him not with the church's interior, but rather with the yard, a location suggestive of either-- as in Forster-- a paganism outside of the Church or the ground (or grounds) by which one approaches the Church.

That Davenport's Mr. Churchyard has previously encountered the troll-- unlike the curate and the faun-- echoes Churchyard's approach to "the god." Churchyard has seen the troll, he seeks him out, he converses with him, but he is still certain the troll does not exist. Davenport's stance, then, is easily as conceptually comic as Forster's, but his tone is much slyer-- Modernist, somewhat detached, terribly self-aware and self-questioning. The airy elegance of Forster's classical hilltop is counterbalanced with a Teutonic mystery: woods rather than a mere copse, leaf-mold, mushrooms, clouds, and a chill in the air. Furthermore, the nudity of Forster's faun is shocking to the curate both because nudity is always shocking to a Victorian (which the curate clearly is) and because the faun's anatomy is manlike and therefore more provocative, especially as the curate initially believes the faun to be a man and so to be visible to the women present. Churchyard's troll, on the other hand, is described first in terms more inhuman than not, relieving his nudity of its shock value, and then-- when the troll (un)equivocally appears-- he looks like a boy, desexualized without being neutered. The troll's nudity surprises Churchyard not for itself, but because the day is so cold.

Davenport's theologian finds god, as it were, in a sort of sensual naturalism more like childhood "freedom" than any adult pleasure.

These contrasting approaches to nakedness certainly signal the cultural shift in English language writing from 1911 to 1993, but also indicate the distinction between English and Scandinavian stereotypes and possibly even the contrasting visions of Forster and Davenport: the curate is allied to an adult and paradisiacal sensuality at home in the classical world, even though his life is circumspect, while Davenport's theologian finds god, as it were, in a sort of sensual naturalism more like childhood "freedom" than any adult pleasure. Thus Forster's faun, ordered by the curate to bring happiness to his presumed sweetheart Emily, has her within moments falling into a passionate embrace with another man-- a sharp suggestion of the sexuality rumbling under Victorian mores. Churchyard, instead, imagines joining his brother (a bishop) and Danish reformer Grundtvig for a folk dance with the troll. In this case it is, against type, the proscribed English who are linked to primal sexuality and the allegedly promiscuous Danes who are virtual innocents.

And perhaps this disjunct between appearance and reality is always the case, at least in fiction. The curate, who expects to find nothing in his afternoon outing except perhaps a closer relationship with Emily, is immersed in a new, life-changing certainty: the faun is real, the faun can bless him and even his friends, who cannot see the faun, with every happiness. Churchyard, on the other hand, assiduously seeks the god and (less assiduously) the troll, but can never be convinced that the results of his search are real, even when he converses with the troll. Likewise notable is that the conversation the two share "means" almost nothing to either of them-- they speak the same language (more or less), but cannot understand what the other is trying to signify. Churchyard's more earnest question comes across as a riddle to the troll. One could argue that Forster's story reflects the optimism of a new century and Davenport's the weary skepticism of a dying one, or that each story delineates the characteristics of a specific personality (or personality type) or philosophical inclination-- the Epicurean as opposed to the Socratean. But to handle either story in such an emblematic fashion perhaps demeans both writers.

Better, I think, to leave off broad applications and turn instead to what is directly before us: two marvelous stories delivered to us by masters at their craft. Forster's star has shone long and clear and evidences little sign of fading. Davenport, though, is far too little known and appreciated. He is probably the greatest American short story writer of the past three or four decades-- precise, vividly intelligent, provocative, and full of heart. Read "Mr. Churchyard and the Troll" and then turn to Da Vinci's Bicycle, also published by New Directions, for "A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg." You will be astounded that you have lived so long without these stories in your mind.

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About Cooper

Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for the online magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner. He is a published poet and a very eclectic fellow.