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The Life of the Mind

In response to:

Enigma Variations from the December 12, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

I have endured twenty-six reviews of my book Tatlin! in stoic silence, and would keep quiet about Prof. Ehrenpreis’s notice in your paper [NYR, December 12] except that its stupidity is more an affront to the life of the mind in the Republic than to my book.

I could not possibly have used “several of Mrs. Mortimer’s devices,” as her book was not published when I was writing mine. Nor do I recommend anything at all in any of my stories, least of all the combining of orgies with physical-fitness programs. I regret that the remoteness of my style from speech saddens Prof. Ehrenpreis, but I accepted no more in writing these stories than to imagine the tragic endurance of a Russian genius within Soviet tyranny, the psychological temper of a few days in Kafka’s life, the discovery of the prehistoric paintings at Lascaux, Herakleitos talking with a disciple, an entertaining lie of Poe’s taken at face value, and the life of a modern Dutch philosopher whose studies of Samuel Butler and Charles Fourier constitute a critique of European history.

Any reviewer’s first duty is to describe the book he is in effect recommending (or not) to the readers of your paper. Except that he says so, I would not otherwise have known from Prof. Ehrenpreis’s review that he was airing his inept, feeble, and illiterate response to my stories.

There is, I suppose, something to be said about a man who has before him a book that contains the life of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, l’Abbé Henri Breuil, Vladimir Tatlin, the polychrome caves at Lascaux, Blériot’s Antoinette of 1909, the perceptions of Herakleitos, and what he calls “an easy method of learning the anatomy of the genitalia,” and mentions nothing but the latter, but I have better manners than to say it. What a dullard!

The truth, of course, is that Prof. Ehrenpreis had never before in his life heard of Fourier or Tatlin; and has apparently forgotten what symbol, parody, and form might be, and thought that if he dashed off a few lines of twaddle professors are so good at (and probably practice before the mirror), he could scare readers away from a book which he found to be over his head.

What’s more, an editorial policy that can devote four pages to repressiveness in Russia and still send a book with the title Tatlin! to a nitwit who can’t read and gets all flustered at a description of the human body is an editorial policy that can go flush its head.

Guy Davenport

Lexington, Kentucky

Irvin Ehrenpreis replies:

I deeply regret that Mrs. Mortimer might seem, from my language, to have exerted any influence on Mr. Davenport. I never meant to convey the suggestion. All I intended to say was that certain devices were employed by both writers.

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