THE DEADPAN SUBLIME: KATHRYN DAVIS AND AURELIA, AURÉLIA
Kathryn Davis, Aurelia, Aurélia: A Memoir, Graywolf Press, 2022
Reviewed by James Butler-Gruett
Often when we were children, and then often when we were not children, my sister and I would scare ourselves beyond the grip of sanity by listening to a bleach-white cassette tape of the London Symphony Orchestra's 1960 recording of Peter and the Wolf, narrated by a woman Google tells me is Beatrice Lillie, but whom I knew then as a demon. As we cleaned our rooms or sat in the backseat on a road trip or built a Lego ghost town, we would listen to Prokofiev's narrative and accompanying orchestration about an evil wolf who eats a duck and menaces other animals before brave Peter ignores his sensible grandfather's instructions, catches the wolf, and parades it through town (presumably in order to rub it in his grandfather's face).
The piece introduces young listeners to the orchestra's instruments, timbres, moods, juxtapositions, and capacity for humor. (It's also Soviet propaganda, I later discovered, but my sister and I turned out all right.) More than those, what my sister and I learned was its capacity for striking terror into the hearts of young Lego architects. The wolf's leitmotif, a swirling minor French horn dirge, and the image of a beast hoisted snarling by its tail, and even the sinewy theme of the hunters—who come out of the woods just in time to be of no help at all—frightened us, sure. But it was the tape's ending—where the narrator reveals that "if you listen very very carefully, you will hear the duck quacking away inside the wolf, because in his hurry, the wolf had swallowed her… ALIVE," as the orchestra unites for creeping ascending triplets and Lillie simpers, with what I can only term a satanic delivery, "Good night, children," and the click of a cassette's halt—the ending struck us cold. I wish I could chuckle wanly and say that now that I've faced three decades of life's terrors and caprices, I can't quite see what made this tape so frightening. This is not so. Pull up the recording and listen to it. Tell me you wouldn't go scrambling under your dinosaur sheets.
Yet we wore that tape out. The fear only drew us continually back, alloyed as it was with enchantment at the music, imaginative delight, the text's absurd declarations ("Then we have a duck—oh he's dumb"), the relishing of details, and the wry and commanding narrative voice that knew what we wanted and might not give it to us. The piece created a separate precinct in which to live and safely fear. A few days and then ten years passed, our cassette player broke, and we cleaned up our Legos for good. My sister grew up and moved out, and I couldn't find this feeling again. Then I found the work of Kathryn Davis.
Who is Kathryn Davis? I still know very little after years of reading her work. Fiction shaman, cryptic mystic, master of the Delphic droll. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000 and a Lannan Literary award in 2006 and teaches at Washington University. She doesn't have a website. She does have a delightful Philadelphia accent (awften for often, wooder for water) and wide, watching eyes. She's a writer of surreal fiction, mystical novels that seem not to be plotted so much as scried, nothing that could without trolling be called autobiographical. Aurelia, Aurélia, released last month, is Davis's first book of nonfiction, and it comes as something of a surprise. The memoir responds to the death of her husband, Eric Zencey, an academic and novelist who died in 2019 of prostate cancer. With it, Davis has begun to reveal herself using the artful, enchanting, and terrifying style to be found in her fiction.
I first read her on the recommendation of a teacher of mine. "I almost hesitate to recommend her to writers," he said, "because her style trips up even editors." Forever wanting to be tripped up by style, I picked up 2013's Duplex. That did the trick. The book combines fairytales and science fiction with OuLiPo-like experimentation and surrealism. A wizard arrives in the suburbs and seduces an elementary school teacher, who happens to live next door to a family of robots. Overhead, mentioned only on occasion, are "the scows," ghostly ships that fly through the night sky. But what really blew my top back on first reading it wasn't the story but the sheer impenetrability of its language. Each sentence is loud and heavy, and every few pages or so the narrator pauses to declare something like, "The edge of the world is a real place; when you have no soul there are no limits." Yet the writing always seems about to crack a smile, too. Even the title Duplex is at once spiritual (presumably referencing duality, a Gnostic combination of some sort, if I'm being a generous and imaginative reader) and hopelessly banal. A duplex, as someone who spent a few years in one, isn't what one thinks of as a place for spiritual reckoning, yet she somehow makes it so. Davis proved to me that you can write anything you want if you have the right jokes and language.
In 2006's The Thin Place, the story of three girls in the small New England town of Varennes breaks intermittently into wildly different narrative strands: an elementary school putting on a production of The Pirates of Penzance, or the story of 14th-century anchorite Julian of Norwich, or a police log, or a widescreen account of the planet in the Pleistocene age. Reading a Kathryn Davis novel can feel something like watching a Terrence Malick film made only of language. The choice of when to break and when to return is everything, and it's entirely intuitive. That's to say, not only can she stop and start on a dime, she also knows when to.
This fondness for, and dexterity with, transitions and juxtapositions is present in Davis's novels, and even more so in Aurelia, Aurélia. And like many original styles, it comes from a desire to represent reality. She referred in an interview to her stark juxtapositions as "about as accurate an approximation of the world we live in as I was able to create." When applied to Davis's own, nonfictional life, this style helps to prevent the memoir's becoming a collection of dry facts and exposition, and instead producing in its pages the texture and timbre of personal loss.
The book takes the form of a series of wandering meditations on departed experiences and art important to Davis—among others, Virginia Woolf, Robert Walser, The Seventh Seal, Beethoven, and the most interesting literary response to the show Lost ever published—and which shed light on how she thinks about Zencey's death. It uses humor and jarring assertions to make us see the events of her life at a strange, fresh angle. More generally the book concerns itself with transitions and thresholds, "points in your life when you think you're about to become whatever's next," a woman or a corpse or an artist. Davis looks at them side by side in discrete, essayistic chapters. These transitions—between life and death, between youth and adulthood, between the imagined and the actual, between sea and land, and between humor and seriousness—have long formed the basis of Davis's style and aesthetic, one of the most original in contemporary American fiction.
Interestingly, the themes and essayistic portions of the book may have preceded its personal dimension. Sections on her admiration of To the Lighthouse and Virginia Woolf ("I even wanted the eyelids"), her disappointment rereading a childhood favorite Hans Christian Andersen story ("it was as if the story had turned to a block of ice my eyes were forced to slide across"), and the meditation on Lost (she admires "the delectable inexplicability of everything about the island") all appeared in publication before Zencey's death in 2019. Davis also mentioned in a 2013 interview that she was "writing a short essay on the subject of transitions." This essay seems to have found its way into one of the book's later chapters, where she riffs on the musical transitions in Beethoven's late bagatelles, "the moment-between, the ghost-moment, inhabited by both parts." (Such a backwards approach—to begin with the abstract and follow with the concrete—is actually typical of Davis. In an interview about Versailles, her 2002 novel loosely following Marie Antoinette's life in the palace, she revealed, "I don't precede the writing by doing the research.") In Aurelia, Aurélia, Zencey's death forges grim links between these essays and turns the book from collection to memoir, acts as a kind of binding agent for her philosophical and aesthetic concerns.
Likewise, in contrast to more conventional memoirists, Davis isn't so much interested in life after or before her husband's death as she is in life in such impossible ghost-moments, and the art she values and creates privileges these moments above all else. Davis wants, as we all want, to hold onto these as a way not only to prevent change but to wring the most from her own experiences.
Often juxtapositions take the form of echoes, in literature, in life. In Aurelia, Aurélia's opening chapter, Davis mentions, almost as a decoy, "My husband—the first one—was very sick." This man Davis had married in her twenties, "because he was German and ten years older than me." Similarly, the title of the book, itself an echo (but with an added accent) refers first to a ship she traveled to Europe on in the 1960s for a student trip. There she studied and watched The Seventh Seal and read Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet, on the verge of womanhood. When it appears next in Davis's life, Aurélia comes in the form of a novella by Gérard de Nerval about love begetting madness, which for Davis takes on resonance. Yet the word, Davis reveals, derivative of the Greek for chrysalis, is itself an echo of such transition, "designed to transport you and your memory elsewhere, as if across the ocean on a boat."
Furthermore, what arises from the language itself, and from surprises within the sentence, is Davis's underrated humor. She isn't often billed as a comedic novelist, perhaps because her delivery is deadpan enough that I'm never quite sure when being serious, and maybe neither is she. She's genuinely funny because she's genuinely surprising, in a way that many comic novels are not. The humor takes various forms, all of them surreal and arresting. She can be farcical, physical, or even epigrammatic when she wants to be (as in "Temper is the banner the righteous carry into battle" or "They approached all change as an opportunity to exercise their talent for denial"), all delivered with her straightest face.
Much of Davis's humor comes from pronouncing with gnomic and preposterous certainty about the spiritual world. The reader's is a nervous laughter, because like her hero Robert Walser, Davis never breaks, so no one knows whether she's joking. Her narrators are quick to dispatch life's mysteries as if their solutions were common knowledge, albeit poetically phrased. "Everyone knows what gets loose when you open a window," she writes in The Silk Road. My favorite Davis sentence, from the first page of Duplex, resolves identity: "She was a real woman; you could tell by the way she didn't have to move her head from side to side to take in sound." These surreal declarations are just as present in her memoir, present in fact in the fresh wake of her husband's death. "If emancipation has occurred, the body will not smell," she writes of him, a dare of black humor, the deadpan sublime.
If there is an area of weakness in Davis's novels, it's a marked absence of narrative tension. Her fictional worlds are so surreal and slippery that they produce constant, bubbling surprise. Because one can't trust anything in her novels to be solid and predictable, it can be hard to find traction. Few things produce the kind of tension found in traditional narratives. How can one worry about a character's wellbeing when in the next chapter, as in Duplex, they turn out to be an android? This is particularly present in The Silk Road, her most abstracted novel, in which a yoga class seems go to back to the beginning of the universe and meet gods named Mother and Father (I think). Despite its reliably gorgeous sentences, the book's world simply don't stay still long enough to produce conflict, creating a reading experience that becomes like, to borrow Clinton's phrase, "nailing Jell-O to a wall."
In Aurelia, Aurélia, however, because we all know that Davis and her husband aren't gods or androids, and because we know at least intellectually the real pain and anguish involved in losing a spouse, the tension is built-in. In the memoir form, Davis's weakness becomes a strength. Whereas in a fictional world, little of hers is predictable enough for the surrealism to adhere to, in a nonfictional world, Davis's continual departures from a worn emotional trail serve to keep her subject matter fresh and free of the cliches of the form. Davis avoids bathos, that is, smothering us with evocations of sorrow, and instead keeps its note always in the background of her ideas and tableaux, so that when we do arrive at lines of emotional candor, they hit us with the force of a falling piano. "What was wrong with me," she asks herself, "that I couldn't make the people in bed stay with me there."
Perhaps the most surreal transition occurs when Zencey's death begins to take on these qualities of Davis's writing. "It began as a joke," she writes, his diagnosis a straight man who never breaks. In a dreamlike scene, the two read aloud to one another as he lies ill, Zencey reading Davis's horoscope and Davis from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In Davis's narration, the pain from Zencey's condition becomes another inscrutable cosmic routine, a "story unfolding inside my husband's organs," the seriousness of which is always impossible to judge until it's over. Her own friends even begin to think she's exaggerating Zencey's sickness, "because fiction writers are known to make things up." But like any good comedic writer, and like any good surrealist, Davis is always both fully joking and fully serious. She uses fiction and myth not to escape but to explain reality. Reality's just imagination's jetsam, after all. As her husband moves into the afterlife, he leaves a messy bed, the bedding "white like the sheets ghosts wear." Where she's focused is the ghost beneath.
The beauty of Aurelia, Aurélia, the beauty of all good literature, is how it allows us to be present in the past. Davis's childhood is with her still, and it's with her readers, and enchanting in a more immediate sense than the loss pressing in on her from all sides. When Davis writes, in a description of reading at home on a sick day, that she can "smell Vicks and Lipton noodle soup, hear my father tiptoeing closer," the sense of loss in this memory compels her more than her present. Her writing works against loss and draws us back toward the past, proffers it to us as attainable and tangible with an expression we don't want to see as wry.
As I read the book, I felt myself layering upon it an additional nonfiction, another archetype, reading into it my own departed childhood. "Back then I was enamored of Peter and the Wolf," Davis writes. But she had a different recording, with a male narrator with a "vaguely British accent," seemingly less frightening to her than my recording with Beatrice Lillie was. And Eric, boyish and benevolent, has a ringtone in Davis's phone of Peter's theme, whereas I never thought to identify with Peter. I was more of a hunter guy myself, useless and tramping through the woods with my tympani. Peter wasn't afraid of the wolf, as Eric seems not to have been afraid. Davis conducts us through a large flock of departed—Virginia Woolf, Beethoven, Davis's first husband, her father, and Eric—all gone. Where is my sister now? My own past is fled, swallowed whole. Yet in reading, in writing, you get the feeling that if you listen very closely, you can still hear them.
Good night, children.