the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. V No. 4
30 November 2000
ISSN 1089-764X

Published bimonthly by whim and fancy for the Avram Davidson
Society.  Contents copyright 2000 The Nutmeg Point District Mail
and assigned to individual contributors.  All rights reserved.

Henry Wessells, Editor.
Cooper Wessells, Honorary Secretary.

All correspondence to:
Post Office Box 43072, Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-0072


Use this electronym for requests to be added to or dropped
from the mailing list.  Back issues are archived at the
Avram Davidson Website, URL :

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The newest collection of writings by Avram Davidson, Everybody
Has Somebody in Heaven : Essential Jewish Tales of the Spirit,
edited by Jack Dann and Grania Davidson Davis, is now available
from Devora Publishing, an imprint of Pitspopany Press of Jerusalem
and New York. The 285-page hardcover book includes most of Davidson's
early writings in Orthodox Jewish Life and Commentary as
well as several of his best-known stories with Jewish themes and several
previously unpublished pieces. There are forewords by the co-editors and
memoirs by Peter S. Beagle, Richard A. Lupoff, Lisa Goldstein, Carol
Carr, and Barry Malzberg. Ethan Davidson recalls some of his early
memories of his father in his introduction to a recently discovered
story, "One the Right is Michael." Eileen Gunn's detailed and
elegantly written biographical essay rounds out the volume. The
dustjacket features an original painting by Avi Katz.

The autumn luncheon of the Avram Davidson Society, held in New
York City on Thursday 26 October 2000, celebrated the book's
publication. The U.S. representative of the publisher, Dorothy
Tanenbaum, joined Davidsonians from near and far in a convivial
gathering. Tanenbaum spoke of Pitspopany's ability to ensure wide
distribution of the book and said that the firm's customary market
includes Jewish libraries and bookstores in the U.S. and internationally.
It seems more than likely that this book will attract new readers to
Davidson's work.

The book is available from :
Devora Publishing/Pitspopany Press
40 East 78th Street, Suite 16D
New York, NY 10021
Telephone :1.800.232.2931
Electronym : and

Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven will be reviewed in a future
issue of the District Mail.

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Physics or Biology? : Two Science-Fiction Approaches to Bicycles

Separated by the Atlantic Ocean, vast cultural differences, and nearly twenty years' time, Flann O'Brien (1911-1966) and Avram Davidson (1923-1993) wrote works dealing with the place of the bicycle in human society that are at once profoundly unsettling and uproariously funny. Violent death, the physical sciences, and the fact that there are men's and women's bicycles are all central to each writer's story ; yet there are also signal differences in their tales ; I am uncertain which vision is the more disturbing.
In Irish author Flann O'Brien's novel The Third Policeman (written in 1940 but not published until posthumously, in 1967), Sergeant Pluck invokes the Atomic Theory to explain that "people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycles as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles" (O'Brien p. 85). The seeds of this revelation were planted in the earliest portions of the book and continue to bear fruit throughout the novel ; running parallel to this unusual incident of applied physics are the obsessions of the unnamed narrator with the bizarre philosophies of the mythic de Selby.
In 1958, Galaxy magazine published a short story by Avram Davidson entitled "Or All the Seas with Oysters," in which Davidson deals succinctly and evocatively with mimicry and regeneration in nature, human sexuality, and the reproductive biology of the bicycle considered as an alien species whose earlier phases are the safety pin and the coat hanger. Within the compass of a few pages, Davidson treats the reader to the markedly different personalities of Ferd and Oscar, partners in a bicycle shop, and conjure up the sinister notion of bicycles as "a different kind of life-form. Maybe they get their nourishment out of the elements of the air. [. . .] they feel like them, even, but they're not. Oscar, they're not, not really, not really, not . . ." (Davidson, p.87).
Davidson's story won the Hugo Award for best science-fiction story and is an acknowledged classic. To the best of my knowledge, though O'Brien makes some similar mention of bicycles in The Dalkey Archive (1964), it was materially impossible for Davidson to know of The Third Policeman at the time he composed his story, for the book remained unpublished; no proof positive, of course, but considerations that seem to give weight to the idea of independent origination. The astonishing novelty of both these visions of the bicycle cannot be emphasized enough.
As I write this, it is night, and the insistent, constantly modulating summer collage of insect noise has been punctuated by sirens (just as I am unable to see either the insects, the visual component that marks this form of police activity remains invisible). At such times, it is plain that Avram Davidson's biological vision of bicycles as alien organisms has a certain measure of truth. And this was before I pulled a book from the shelf to re-read the story; whereupon I found this passage :

"But with . . . these it doesn't happen in the open daytime where you can see it. But at night, Oscar -- at night you can hear it happening. All the little noises in the night-time, Oscar --" (p.87)

My days, on the other hand, are frequently spent inside a vast warehouse with high ceilings, sodium floodlights, and books, books, books : on shelves, in boxes, on the rugs and chairs, everywhere. The natural organic world seems at a slight remove ; and is chiefly to be felt as the breeze blowing through an upper doorway. When I sit on an old chair to catalogue a mid-nineteenth-century Michigan-German anthology of verse, or climb an old wooden ladder to retrieve a sixteenth-century Italian book bound in aged vellum and thick with the dust of decayed ideas, the notions of Atomic Theory and personality transference seem quite plausible in a chilling, wide-awake sort of way.
In Davidson's story, the matter of sex is omnipresent : in the maleness and femaleness of the bicycle, in Ferd's biological theories, in Oscar's response to the taunts of the muscular young woman -- and in his advice to the troubled Ferd, whose unexplained death by violence signifies one thing to Oscar while permitting the reader to deduce an altogether different meaning.
The Third Policeman is somewhat oblique about the question of sex and bicycles, and yet perhaps not, for the novel is quite direct on another, not unrelated point, when Pluck tells the narrator a secret :

"My great-grandfather was eighty-three when he died. For a year before his death he was a horse!"
[. . .] "I suppose your great-grandfather got himself into this condition by too much horse riding?"
"That was the size of it. His old horse Dan was in the contrary way and gave so much trouble, coming into the house at night and interfering with young girls during the day and committing indictable offences, that they had to shoot him. The police were unsympathetic, not comprehending things rightly in these days. They said they would have to arrest the horse and have him up at the next Petty Sessions unless he was done away with. So my family shot him but if you ask me it was my great-grandfather they shot and it is the horse that is buried up in Cloncoonla Churchyard" (p.91).

What would O'Brien's theorizing policeman make of the trade in used bicycles and the possibility of transmigration of the former owner through repeated contact? For even walking is a suspect activity :

"the continual cracking of your feet on the road makes a certain quantity of the road come up into you. [. . .] It is not easy to know what is the best way to move yourself from one place to another" (p.90).

And here we get to one of the key issues in The Third Policeman, the impossibility of motion, for the novel is in fact an extended description of hell as an endless feedback loop. By the end of the novel, the narrator, who confessed himself a murderer in the opening sentence, has seen one insane policeman, MacCruiskeen, fashioning an infinite regression of invisible nesting chests ; taken a journey to eternity in a lift with Sergeant Pluck ; and, in a private police station that exists inside the walls of another house, come face to face with Fox, the eponymous third policeman, who seems to resemble the murdered man (and also Sunday in G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday). O'Brien's narrator devoted all his earlier intellectual energies to preparing an index to the works of his idol de Selby, one of whose prime assertions is that "a journey is an hallucination." At the novel's end, he is returning to the initial moment of his first encounter with Sergeant Pluck, who asks, as he did the first time, "Is it about a bicycle?"
Davidson's sinister vision of the bicycle pulses with the suggestion of alien life ; O'Brien's "Atomic Theory" offers the prospect of an ever-diminishing humanity in the machine age and beyond. I am still uncertain which is the more disturbing.

Works cited:
Davidson, Avram. "Or All the Seas with Oysters." Galaxy,May 1958. Citations are to The Avram Davidson Treasury : A Tribute Collection (Tor, 1998), pp. 82-89.
O'Brien, Flann (pseudonym of Brian O'Nolan). The Third Policeman, 1967. Citations are to the 1976 Plume Books/New American Library edition.
Thanks to Guy Davenport, who first drew my attention to The Third Policeman; and to Tom La Farge.

Henry Wessells

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The next Avram Davidson Society Meeting in New York City will be held
in late April 2001 Further details will be announced in upcoming

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Recently Noted

Readings : Essays and Literary Entertainments by Michael Dirda,
newly published by the Indiana University Press, collects several
dozen of the author's columns in The Washington Post Book World.
Dirda is an open and eclectic reader whose essays convey an almost
infectious delight in the printed word. A number of these witty and highly
civilized pieces mention Davidson's work in differing contexts ; the essay
on Romantic Scholarship concludes with a postscript on Davidson's
"marvelous, meandering, funny" Adventures in Unhistory.

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The Last Wizard with A Letter of Explanation.
Publications of the Avram Davidson Society, number one.
Size: 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, xii pages. Second printing, May 1999.
Single copies, $10.00 (postpaid).

El Vilvoy de las Islas.
Publications of the Avram Davidson Society, number two.
Size: 6 x 9 inches, viii + 32 pages. June 2000.
Trade issue of twenty-five copies hand bound in quarter green linen
with paper-covered boards, numbered 1-25. SOLD OUT
Issue of 100 copies in paper wrappers: single copies $13.00 (postpaid).

To order, send a cheque in U.S. funds, payable to Henry Wessells, to :
P.O. Box 43072, Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-0072, USA
Orders by e-mail to will be held until payment is
received. Trade discount available.

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Books Wanted

Robert Lichtman writes in search of any available copy of Adventures
in Unhistory (Owlswick, 1993). Reply to:
Robert Lichtman, P. O. Box 30, Glen Ellen, CA 95442-0030

(An occasional department created in response to reader requests, to
be inserted at the editor's discretion ; requests by private individuals
must include a postal address to which replies may be sent. Only
inquiries for genuinely scarce items shall be posted : readers should
check or first.)

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Next Issue Date : January 2001

The editor of The Nutmeg Point District Mail invites contributions
on any topic pertaining to the life and work of Avram Davidson.

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