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Avram Davidson was a complicated and, by most standards, strange person. He has left us an oeuvre that is correspondingly complicated and strange—and, again like its maker—wonderful and delightful.
Sadly, from the viewpoint of us readers, Davidson was, as one friendly critic put it, a butterfly, forever flitting from project to project as new ideas came to him. In consequence, he left unfinished—in some cases hardly started—series whose missing members we can only lament. We must simply treasure what we have, for treasure it is.
Davidson wrote both science fiction and fantasy, but his distinctive voice is best heard in his better fantasy work, none of which can readily be mistaken for that of any other author. There are several elements to that Davidson voice, but perhaps the foremost is a sense of lethargy, deliberation, of time as molasses. In his lighter books, it is just a sort of drawing out, a sense that we are all hearing the tale while lounging in the shade of an old tree on a warm day; in his most somber work, it lends the tales the quality of feverdreams, deliriums in which disparate events flow together and single events fragment strangely.
Here is a sample of the lighter style:
It was not any common thing for any petty king to avoid the annual Visitation of and set meeting with his overlord and high king; it was not common, no. It was, however, not unknown. It was, however, unknown for such a reason, videlicet, that the petty king’s carelessness had allowed a dragon to steal the treasury. But, although no dragon had ever before stolen a treasury, still, a treasury had been stolen before. The High King of East Brythonia could not, certainly, excuse such conduct: on the part of the dragon, it constituted malfeasance, and on the part of the petty king of the Alves, it constituted misfeasance.
For his more oblique prose, Davidson had mastered a curious manner, his measured, sleepy pace drawn out with serpentine sentences sustained by three-dot ellipses, semi-colons where others would use commas, and periods where others would use semi-colons. A sample:
There were a few grunts of Uh! of surprise, not…it seemed…of surprise that the maps were there as that he should ask how they came to be there. One who spoke better Latin than the others took it upon himself to answer. “You made them, Master Wizard, for us. Not so? It will be that we have bought, and so…and so we have brought.” The still-silent Greek or Syrian, or be he whatever he was (he was or had been, surely, a slave: that was the substance…and the essence…of his condition), carefully removed the maps from the cylindrical case of cow’s leather; set them on a table. The man was as one who makes motions behind a sheet at a shadow-play, whilst the dialogue is pronounced by others. On the side.
(As is so often the case with idiosyncratic styles, a short sample fails to do justice to the cumulative effect page after page of such stuff will have.)
That hypnotic style fit well with the detached, almost dreamlike manner of his tales, in which events and significances seem to blur and run together, in which it is difficult to know when some bizarre sequence of events is crucial and when trivial. A reader new to Davidson must learn to slow himself down to that measured pace, to accept the story as Davidson chooses to measure it out: it is not beer, nor yet even wine, but cognac that we drink with Davidson, in measured sips that we roll over our palates. (Mind, Davidson could write crisp enough prose when it suited his purpose: the languors are all deliberate, nicely crafted for effect.)
Let me, as usual, fall back to dissecting Davidson’s work in my four familiar ways: language use, plot, setting, and characterization. His language you have already seen some samples of. Let us look at others. When he wants to be simple and direct, he can:
“We cannot continue as we are doing,” Vergil said, “hugging a shore like a bait fisherman. At such a rate we might be months reaching Cyprus. I had not informed you, but inform you now, that my purpose is to demand of the Delegate of the Sea-Huns—who has his office in Corpho—a safe-conduct to his Kings, and to obtain from them a safe-conduct to Cyprus. That way we can travel on the open seas. The time required for these two side voyages will thus be more than made up.”
Crisp, clear, plain, yet elegant. But Davidson can, at will, be just the opposite: lush—spinning prose so lush you almost know he had a twinkle in his eye when he wrote it, though it is by no means exaggerated or satirical:
Cyprus was another world.
The city of Paphos might have been designed and built by a Grecian architect dreamy with the drugs called talaquin or mandragora: in marble yellow as unmixed cream, marble pink as sweetmeats, marble the green of pistuquim nuts, veined marble and grained marble, honey-colored and rose-red, the buildings climbed along the hills and frothed among the hollows. Tier after tier of overtall pillars, capitals of a profusion of carvings to make Corinthian seem ascetic, pediments lush with bas-reliefs, four-fold arches at every corner and crossing, statues so huge that they loomed over the housetops, statues so small that whole troops of them flocked and frolicked under every building’s eaves, groves and gardens everywhere, fountains playing, water spouting…
Davidson also had a powerful sense of humor, especially of the absurd. Here are a couple of samples of that (and these, like the others here, and nearly all my extractions, were selected nearly at random, by flipping a likely book open and scanning a page or two.)
“Oh, it’s all interesting, my boy, but on the whole it’s all inconclusive, too. The pages appear to have formed part of a sort of commonplace book, or codex of random notes, as kept by someone called either Epiglottis of Epizoötic, or Epizoötic of Epiglottis—interpreted one way. Interpreted another way, both words could form part of a treatise on veterinary medicine. And then there’s this phrase, which puzzled me for two whole days, Hunc nunc tibi bibi bubu pupu pipi tipi—but then I figured out that he was just testing his pen.”
[H]e was about to go over the article, column by column, when Herrekk silently set upon the table a dish of cheese dumplings. Although the master of the premises at Number 33, Turkling Street, could have endured it very well if cheese dumplings were to be abolished by joint resolution of both Houses of the Imperial Diet, he knew that his housekeeper, Frow Widow Orgats, prided herself on her cheese dumplings—indeed, she regarded it as though an article of faith established by the Council of Trent that her master was deliriously fond of her cheese dumplings—speaking of them in high praise to the Faculties of Law and Medicine—and praising their remarkable lightness and sweetness to the Gentry and Nobility; in fact (Eszterhazy knew damned well from experience) she was certainly even now behind the drawing-room door, waiting expectantly.
So he performed.
“Ah, Herrekk, Herrekk!”
“Lord,” said Herrekk, a Tsigane of few words.
“Ah, these cheese dumplings of Frow Widow Orgats!”
“How delightfully sweet, how incredibly light!”
“Herrekk, be sure and see she gives you some. Let me know, should she overlook doing so.”
Next Eszterhazy made a series of sounds indicating his being reduced to wordless ecstasy by the mere mastication of the cheese dumplings. And then he felt free to continue the rest of his dinner.
When once one has adjusted to Davidson’s pace, his prose is delicious—by turns charming, terrifying, perplexing, amusing. Oh, and erudite: Davidson was a voracious reader with wide tastes, a keen mind, and a retentive memory, and his work shows it, though casually, quietly, not paraded brazenly for our admiration.
That erudition enabled Davidson to create marvelous settings for his tales. Davidson’s settings are worlds that are oddly skewed versions of real times and places. His “Vergil Magus” series, for example, portrays a Rome that never was, a Rome—in Davidson’s own words—that is “a backward projection of medievalism”, with Vergil not the poet of history but, as he was mainly conceived in medieval times, a magician, alchemist, and adventurer. Davidson took things seriously, and he didn’t sit down one day and say “Hmmm, classical Rome imagined as a medieval world….” As he once wrote, “During this decade I had long been engaged on research for the background to my Vergil Magus books,” which gives us an idea of the effort involved, for Davidson goes on to imply that he had had little or nothing published for a long time in that period.
(The usual spelling of the Roman poet’s name is “Virgil” but Davidson prefers “Vergil”.)
But Davidson’s “Dr. Eszterhazy” tales—set in the dawn of a twentieth century that finds a fascinating analogue of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in “the Triune Monarchy of Scythia-Pannonnia-Transbalkania”, ruled over by a perhaps-doddering old emperor, Louis Ignats, in a Europe in which, it appears, some magics do work (it appears…)—curiously enough were the result of sitting down at a typewriter and saying, “Hmmm….” But the vividness of that world, the depth of small, telling detail, suggests that long before that “Hmmm” Davidson had browsed appropriate meadows of knowledge, for the "feel" of a real place is there, even in his most outrageously comic descriptions of it:
The marketplace in Poposhki-Georgiu smelled like a barn—that is, assuming a barn to have borne, in addition to the usual odors of hay and dung and animals, a strong scent of ripe fruit, cheap perfume, kerosene, hot grease, fried meat, and fresh-baked pastry.
A rather unlikely combination for a barn, it must be admitted. But there you are. And here we are. In the marketplace of Poposhki-Georgiu. Tuesday, since time immemorial (that is, for the past seventeen or eighteen years), has been Little Market Day. Great Market Day is Friday. Little Market Day is largely reserved for trading in mules, oxen, and he-goats; only the men come to Little Market Day. Little Market Day really smells like a barn—that is, a barn in which someone has been spilling a great deal of beer and a great deal of the cheapest variety of distilled spirit (known in the local dialect as Maiden’s Breath). Few cooked or baked goods are offered on Tuesday, the men bringing their own lunch, and “lunch” to the peasantry of Poposhki-Georgiu traditionally means a hunk of goat sausage, a hunk of goat cheese, a hunk of bread (not exactly black, more like gray), and a bunch of dried sour cherries. Sour cherries are believed to be good for the lower intestine. In Poposhki-Georgiu the lower intestine is regarded as the seat of the deeper emotions. “When my best mule broke his left foreleg,” one might hear it said, “it felt like a Turkish knife in my lower intestine.”
Also, they tell this story:
First Peasant: Yesterday I came home and found my wife in bed with the goatherd-boy.
Second Peasant: What did you do?
First Peasant: I ate some sour cherries.
The Triune Monarchy of Scythia-Pannonnia-Transbalkania is a world that is at once charming, amusing, and, considered prospectively, terribly sad (as were so many of the doomed real-world Ruritanias of that era, only a decade or so away from being scrubbed off the map of Europe).
Davidson’s insufficiently known (possibly owing to the original paperback edition’s having a cover suggesting thud-and-blunder barbarians) Ursus of Ultima Thule is set in an “Arctic Atlantis” (again Davidson’s own term), a now-lost empire of the north, like yet unlike the real Scandinavia. His “Peregrine” tales are set in the time of “the last pagan king in lower Europe”; Peregrine wanders a post-fall-of-Rome “lower Europe” with resemblances to and differences from the real thing that are by turns comic and horrific. Even the “Island Under the Earth” series, though set in a land that cannot be, a place of dubious connection perhaps literally inside the Earth, perhaps connected to our world through some dimensional gateway (points discussed by Davidson in a deliciously mock-scholarly Foreword to the first—and, sad to say, only—book of the series), is nonetheless a distorting-mirror image of the classical era of antiquity, in which, for example, centaurs share the world with men.
When we look at plots, we find that Davidson’s short stories have, as such should, neat twists, but that his novels, by and large, are episodic in character, almost like successional series of short stories. Things happen, and there are resolutions (not always clearly comprehensible in the more somber tales), but the plots of Davidson’s novels seem to me to be chiefly ways in which to parade his characters in their characteristic modes—the amusing Peregrin, the cosmopolitan Eszterhazy, the brooding Arnten, and the others—against the fascinating, alien, strangely and brightly colored backgrounds Davidson has conjured for them. But, be they episodic or not, you do need to pay close attention to the sometimes-cryptic background themes or the plot resolutions will mystify.
Of characterization in Davidson’s work: I find that his characters are complex—though not realistic (nor, I think, ever intended to be)—and accordingly interesting; but they are not truly “dynamic” characters, in that there is no evolution of their natures in the course of the tales in which they appear, so the essence of such crises as they face may test them, but in the sense of a puzzle or problem to be solved, rather than as something needing internal readjustment of the character’s nature or outlook.
The real richness of Davidson’s work (but especially of his novels) is their otherwordliness, their moods and their humor, the manner of their telling and the curiousness of their worlds. Ray Bradbury, who has—like many eminent writers—produced an appreciation of Davidson far superior to what I can say (but, even at two printed pages’ length, too long to quote here), throws out Kipling, Saki, Collier, and Chesterton as peers of Davidson; that’s good company.
(The cream of Davidson’s short-story output is largely collected in two volumes, The Avram Davidson Treasury and The Other Nineteenth Century, noted in the book lists below as “preferred editions”.)
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On the web, the chief site is The Avram Davidson Website. Cosma Shalizi’s Bactra Review has a short but pleasant appreciation of Davidson. And, as usual, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction can be counted on for a utile Avram Davidson page. And Rick Horton has up a charming appreciation, “the Novels of Avram Davidson” at the Strange at Ecbatan site. There are various other pages to be found, but those seem to me the ones of most value.
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Regrettably, I could find none.
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