Book Reviews: Vergil in Averno

Vergil and His Magical Mystery Tour

Vergil in Averno
By Avram Davidson
Doubleday. 184 pp. $12.95.

Review by Gregory Feeley.

The case of Avram Davidson offers a poignant example of what it is to be caught in the ebb tide of literary fashion. Davidson's remarkable short stories — whimsical, erudite and often highly mannered — belong to a tradition that encompasses Saki, John Collier and Roald Dahl, one that embraces the fantastic and cultivates verbal and narrative extravagance. That the American short story has taken a different path is obvious to anyone who traces its course over the past 40 years, from the age of John O'Hara to that of Raymond Carver. Since the advent of high modernism 60 years ago, this other strain has been tolerated only from British writers — or, more recently and in a different way, in the phatmasmagoria of "magic realism." For a writer of genuine talent to work with such unpopular forms has been to invite neglect.

The fantasy novel has attracted more attention in recent years, and despite the proliferation of shapeless sagas involving dragons and quests, a few novels have ventured to explore the grounds beyond realism with a measure of invention and artistry (John Crowley's Little, Big is an outstanding example, as are the novels of Peter Beagle). In 1969 Avram Davidson published The Phoenix and the Mirror, a rich and ornate novel that has become a small classic, and which inaugurated a sequence that Vergil in Averno continues. Like its predecessor, Vergil in Averno focuses on a half-legendary figure and period: the life and era of Vergil Magus.

Vergil was revered throughout the Dark Ages as the greatest poet of the ancient world, a pious allegorist and foreteller of the birth of Christ. In the beginning of the 12th century, however, a series of legends arose portraying him as a magician or necromancer, and until the Renaissance the poet was as widely known for his fabulous feats — he is said to have built Naples upon three eggs, lived in a spinning castle, and erected in Rome a statue of a bronze horseman that would point its spear toward any province planning rebellion — as for the Aeneid and the Eclogues. These legends — both Petrarch and Boccaccio mention them — project the medieval universe back upon the ancient world, strangely conceiving 1st-century Rome by the lights of the Holy Roman Empire. It is this never-existent world that Avram Davidson has taken as the setting for his series of novels, a world whose anachronisms, like the knights and tourneys of Chaucer's Trojan War, create a peculiar and complex beauty of their own.

In The Phoenix in the Mirror the mage Vergil was compelled to create a speculum majorum, a "virgin mirror" in which its first beholder may glimpse that which he desires most in the world to see. The search for the pure ore from which to fashion this device led Vergil across the face of the Mediterranean world, affording Davidson the opportunity to display the full range of his erudition and stylistic virtuosity. Vergil in Averno is set many years earlier, when Vergil is yet a young man without reputation or means. He is given a commission by the city of Averno to investigate the recent faltering of its source of natural gas, basis of the city's immense wealth. Averno (in actual fact a crater lake 10 miles from Naples, which the poet Vergil once described as an entrance to the underworld) is an infernal city of forges and smoke, sulpherous, noxious, and inimical to everything except commerce.

Vergil's dealings with the magnates of the Very Rich City, his attempts to discover the nature of the Father Fire that smolders beneath Averno, is story-telling of a high order, as suspenseful and intricate as any fantasy novel published in the post-Tolkien vogue of the last 15 years. What distinguishes Vergil in Averno, however, is Davidson's voice. He adopts a faintly archaic diction and large vocabulary of half-familiar terms to evoke the romance of an ancient world, and succeeds without sounding affected or obscure. Davidson's enormous research — he has reportedly amassed thousands of data over more than 20 years — never obtrudes to slow the story.

Davidson's style has grown more idiosyncratic in the years since The Phoenix in the Mirror was published, and readers unfamiliar with the sequence should begin there and not here. Vergil in Averno, a novel much concerned with darkness and constriction, lacks the breadth of the earlier book, but its smaller compass suits the oppressiveness of its theme. The chimerical world that Davidson has created still shows through. He writes of imperial Rome as seen through the wondering eyes of a civilization struggling toward the Renaissance. In this, Davidson recreates the spirit of an age that remains moving for all that the age never was, and achieves an alchemy of his own.

First published in The Washington Post, 1987.
Reprinted with permission of the author.

Vergil in Averno. New York: Doubleday, 1987.

ISBN 0-385-19707-1
Publisher's Weekly 11/28/86

Inspired by medieval legends about the poet Vergil, who was revered not only as the author of the Aeneid but also as a powerful necromancer, Davidson embarked on his Vergil Magus series in the '60s with the intriguing novel The Phoenix and the Mirror. In this sequel, Vergil answers a magical summons from Averno, both the wealthiest and the filthiest of cities. The magnates there are worried about the waning and shifting of the natural fires that have fueled their industries and fouled their air. The bare skeleton of plot is fleshed out with an eccentric, wide-ranging series of digressions, reminiscences, dreams and cabalistic glosses, all in a rich, baroque, rhetorical style. Between that form and the subject matter (counterfeiters and alchemists, rituals of superstition and sorcery, mystic visions and magic lantern shows), the novel is less akin to fantasy than to the fiction of Laurence Sterne or William Gaddis. An acquired taste, the work is by turns witty and obscure, frustrating and fascinating. (January 23)

Return to the Checklist of Books by Avram Davidson

Return to the table of contents page