The Other Nineteenth Century, by Avram Davidson
(Tor, December 2001)
Reviewed by Nick Gevers
With The Other Nineteenth Century, Grania Davis and Henry Wessells (one the former wife and collaborator, and the other the prime aficionado, of the late Avram Davidson, and therefore both well equipped to edit and introduce samplings of the great writer’s work) have accomplished a literary miracle, of sorts (and an exceptional sort at that.) Davidson was never more brilliant than when he sortied into realms archaic, old-world, subtly or definitely outmoded, rendering them in reminiscent or period prose of a cantankerous, pedantic, and discursive kind, full of flourishes, asides, parentheses; let him loose in the Nineteenth Century and he was effusively at home. His most memorable book is probably The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy (1990), a wonderful mannered story cycle concerning the intrigues and outré events besetting an imaginary neo-Hapsburgian empire in the decades preceding World War One; a more accurate and affectionate summary of the lovable inutile fusty ceremoniousness of a vanished Europe would be hard to find. Now, at last, Doctor Eszterhazy has a thematic companion volume; The Other Nineteenth Century assembles Davidson’s many miscellaneous takes on the Victorian era and times chronologically adjacent (there is even one miscellaneous Eszterhazy episode), a host of atmospheric and argumentative tales, all oblique, surprising, mesmerizing in their unique curiosity. And (the miracle aforementioned), these superb stories seem even stronger in company, magnifying each other’s arcane splendor, echoing and ricocheting into a great and glorious book. And, indirectly, into a portrait of the author, a very remarkable man…
The title The Other Nineteenth Century may seem to imply a consistent alternate history, and there are a few counterfactuals scattered about. But it is secret history that predominates, forgotten fragments of reality: peculiar sidelights on the known, deft insinuations into the established historical record, glimpses of cultural eddies that drifted nowhere. Even the alternate timelines seem dependent on ancestral absent-mindedness more than on bold causal divergences. “O Brave Old World!” is extravagant enough, portraying British patriots under Jefferson preparing to sign a Declaration of Independence from America; but this all hinges on the casual filial disloyalty of a Crown Prince who was merely another Hanoverian blockhead. “Pebble in Time” redirects the destiny of the Mormons on thoroughly flippant grounds; and “Mickelrede”, a novel outline by Davidson posthumously worked into story form by Michael Swanwick, is simply an hilarious farrago of Neanderthals and gladiatorial sports, a door slammed on plausibility-even alternate plausibility. History in Davidson’s hands is indeed a deviously organized Old Curiosity Shop, the stuff of daft speculation and the morbid footnote, of weird inopportune props here and suppressed one-of-a-kind incunabula there; and in this spirit the other twenty stories proceed.
Thus, “Buchanan’s Head” concerns an artist who may have been goaded beyond his tether by the spirit of a gossip columnist who may have been sculpted with supernatural malice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: shrewd, subtle horror. And conditional, notional. “The Deed of the Deft-Footed Dragon” inserts an assassin of the Chinese Tongs where such a person surely could not be found; and yet, persuasively, why not? “The Engine of Samoset Erastus Hale, and One Other, Unknown”, which moots the discovery of radio around the time of the U.S. Civil War, begins to question its own dubious historicity in its title, and the details unravel absurdly from there. “What Strange Stars and Skies” is similarly fogged with scholarly doubt and forensic subjectivity, yet its very caution lends its tale of exotic visitation an extra, dangerous edge: what if the respectable and criminal elements of bygone English society encountered a challenge they, as a cultural consensus and the essence of the narrative, simply couldn’t consciously confront? “The Lineaments of Gratified Desire” proposes an impossible, magical yet mundane, thesis as to what occasioned World War One; yet its protagonist is dead, as his victims are dead, and who can know? “The Montavarde Camera” is a voracious photographic instrument, a chimera as much as a camera, devastating in its actions and implications; but it will leave no historical traces (or no traces of the historical objects it records), and so it is the essence and executor of secret history. As was Davidson: few authors of historical fictions have been quite as acute in conveying the sheer tantalizing dubiety-the inherent fictiveness-of history, of the past we cannot truly know.
History is a tissue of unrecorded details that mattered and recorded details that did not: this is the burden of The Other Nineteenth Century. Or is it that some of the recorded details mattered, but that unrecorded details (those that led somewhere, however fugitively) mattered more? Davidson is rarely definite about anything. Possibly it is best simply to sit back and admire his virtuosity, the captivating mercurial flow of his ineffable thoughts. Best to wonder at how flurries of popular rumor and reportorial misrepresentation can disguise an exemplary truth, as in “El Vilvoy de las Islas”. Or at how cultural prejudice underlies even the most earnest dialogue, as in “Dragon Skin Drum”. Or at the many angles from which fame (in this instance that of Sherlock Holmes) can be viewed, as in “The Singular Incident of the Dog on the Beach”. But such wonder (absolutely justified), relying as it does on awareness of the huge subversive range of Davidson’s skill, inevitably gives way to renewed reflection on history’s ineluctable subjectivity, as: the monstrous preserves an ecology, as who would have believed? (“The Peninsula”). As: Big Business reveals, darkly, its least savory alliance (“The Account of Mr. Ira Davidson”). As: “The Man Who Saw the Elephant” sees no such thing. As: all history melts into irrelevance in the eyes of two old New York ladies (“Summon the Watch!”). As: sorcerous evil odors corrupt sanity itself (in “Dr. Bhumbo Singh”, deliriously well written, possibly the best story in the book). And so on, brilliantly on.
The Other Nineteenth Century is a marvelous reminder of Avram Davidson’s status as one of the greatest authors of short speculative fiction. A century, and a book, not quite like any other.