Davie, Elspeth 1918-1995
DAVIE, Elspeth 1918-1995
Born March 20, 1918, in Kilmarnock, Scotland; died November 14, 1995, in Edinburgh, Scotland; married George Elder Davie (a philosopher and lecturer); children: one daughter. Education: Edinburgh College of Art, D.A.
Writer. Also worked as a teacher of art and painting.
Providings, J. Calder (London, England), 1965.
Creating a Scene, Calder & Boyars, 1971, Riverrun Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Climbers on a Stair, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1978.
Coming to Light, Hamish Hamilton (London, England, 1989.
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
The Spark, and Other Stories, Calder & Boyars (London, England), 1968, Riverrun Press, 1984.
The High Tide Talker, and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1976.
The Night of the Funny Hats, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1980.
A Traveller's Room, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1985.
The Man Who Wanted to Smell Books, and Other Stories, introduction by Giles Gordon, Canongate (Edinburgh, Scotland), 2001.
Contributor to literary journals, including Transatlantic Review and London.
"Elspeth Davie is expert at picking the sinister out of the ordinary," observed a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, "and at heightening normal situations into something obsessive or macabre." Davie's short stories and novels often depict the profound influence that seemingly insignificant events have on a person's development. Admiring her ability to render trivial incidents extraordinary, critics such as Nicholas Shrimpton in New Statesman praised Davie's astute attention to detail and "her painterly sense of landscape."
Paul Bailey in London likewise noted that Davie "can 'place' a landscape, an eerie house, a seaside hotel with enviable accuracy." Although Bailey noted the author's wordiness and the abundance of "Meaningful Conversations" among the characters in her first short story collection, he nonetheless commended The Spark, and Other Stories as "very much a bloom from the literary hot-house." One notable story portrays a widow who decides to continue buying as many groceries as she had before her husband's death. Gradually she becomes obsessed with shopping and fills her apartment with food and household supplies.
Davie's focus on the trivial continues in her second collection. Each story in The High Tide Talker is a variation on the author's "personal theory of relativity: one man's insignificant detail is another's obsession," wrote John Mellors in the Listener. For the title story, which concerns a preacher who avoids confronting God, Davie won the 1978 Katherine Mansfield Prize.
In the stories in The Night of the Funny Hats, wrote Jennifer Uglow in the Times Literary Supplement, Davie "concentrates on moments when… people perceive order in random elements." The final tale "reminds us of the dangers of too weighty interpretation, and it offers a delightful comic warning." In this story three sisters imagine that the letter "B" written in their late uncle's diary refers to a passionate affair, when in fact it refers to breadmaking. Upon learning the truth, explained Uglow, "they attempt to appease the insulted spirit by a fury of baking."
"The writing in The Night of the Funny Hats displays an acute observation of behaviour," noted the reviewer, "especially of the way people reveal themselves in speech." Uglow added: "Elspeth Davie sees language as pre-eminent, the cement which binds unrelated chunks of reality or personal history into structures with shape and meaning." But the author also recognizes the occasional inadequacy of language, she noted. In the title story, for example, travelers in Australia fail to articulate the beauty and expanse of the plains they are crossing. The characters' silence becomes Davie's means of describing the magnificence of the location. "Many of the stories derive an unnerving strength and resonance from the intellectual toughness which underlies their elegant and suggestive surface," Uglow concluded. "This is a most impressive collection."
A Traveller's Room, like The Night of the Funny Hats, examines "the idea of order—this unknown, perfect state of things that makes us feel askew," as Ann Hulbert quoted from one of Davie's tales. "In studiously measured prose," Hulbert wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "the Scottish writer Elspeth Davie conveys a sense of the repressive power of that idea of order." In two stories, female characters abandon their inhibiting, structured lives, one to pursue a lover and the other to live alone at the sea. In other tales, characters find the security of apparent understanding proven false, as when a landlady and a tenant misinterpret each other's use of the word "bulb," and when a young woman imagines that her boardinghouse room belongs to a dashing and mysterious explorer but later learns that it belongs to a nondescript traveling salesman. In one particularly absurd story, grass and flowers begin sprouting on a young man's head. "Here the idea of order… is robust rather than repressive," Hulbert suggested, for as the young man attempts to make sense of the strange phenomenon, he begins to appreciate his unusual personal garden.
"The life of the herbaceously hirsute young man is full of incident," observed Toby Fitton in the Times Literary Supplement, "making his story unusual in a series in which the point so often is that very little happens." Fitton remarked that Davie's emphasis on the trivial and her analysis of structure are at first intriguing, but eventually excessive and tedious. "Most of the stories, taken individually, are excellent," the reviewer appraised. Nevertheless, he continued, "the delicate incisiveness of Davie's refined technique seems somehow less impressive when its results are multiplied and gathered" in one volume. In a London Times review, however, Andrew Sinclair complimented the "scruple and judgement" of Davie's writing in A Traveller's Room and admired the collection as a whole. "A touch of the fey and a sense of the anarchy of things," he explained, "provokes the reader into a fresh consciousness of an everyday society."
Davie's longer works echo the themes and meticulous style of her short stories. Her first novel, Providings, is about an unexceptional young man, Peter Beck, who leaves his indulgent family to pursue life on his own. He cannot escape his childhood, however, which is symbolized in jars of jam sent unsolicited from home. "The spirits of absurdist playwrights Ionesco, Beckett et al hover over the insane (and unseen) kitchen where the jams are prepared," noted a Times Literary Supplement critic. The author delineates the novel's "painful absurdity with a sure sense of the dark comedy of Peter Beck's dilemma."
Like Davie's other works, her second novel "is calculatedly narrow," in the words of a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, "engrossed in detail and in the slow, imperceptible growth of human beings—via small experience—into degrees of maturity and success." Creating a Scene depicts the relationship between an art teacher and two of his students, who are commissioned to paint a mural in a public building. "The development of the painting, its sometimes subtle, sometimes radical (and once, significantly, forced) alternations," according to the reviewer, "is an obvious parallel for the amorphous, though never strong, connexions between teacher and pupils."
Davie's third novel, Climbers on a Stair, concerns neighbors whose tenement houses are connected by a common staircase. "Holding her characters at an equal distance," explained Susannah Clapp in the Times Literary Supplement, "Davie supplies brief glimpses not of daily habits but of different dominant passions"—a piano teacher's dislike for synthesized background music, for example, and a middle-aged widow's dreams of travel. Instead of a plot, Davie uses a series of conversations to develop the novel. "The most intricate and widespread discussion," observed Clapp, "is about ways of looking at the city… about the looming shadows of office blocks, the gleams of terraces at night, and about the bewildering quality of the tenement block itself." Davie masterfully reveals the different viewpoints, reported the reviewer, as she does the settings in her other writings: "by a dazzle of physical description."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Listener, December 16, 1976, John Mellors, review of The High Tide Talker.
London, May, 1969, Paul Bailey, review of The Spark, and Other Stories.
New Statesman, March 28, 1980, article by Nicholas Shrimpton.
New York Times Book Review, September 8, 1985, Ann Hulbert, review of A Traveller's Room.
Spectator, March 29, 1980.
Times (London, England), April 11, 1985, Andrew Sinclair, review of A Traveller's Room.
Times Literary Supplement, December 2, 1965, review of Providings; February 13, 1969; September 17, 1971, review of Creating a Scene; August 4, 1978, Susannah Clapp, review of Climbers on a Stair; April 18, 1980, Jennifer Uglow, review of The Night of the Funny Hats; April 19, 1985, Toby Fitton, review of A Traveller's Room; January 11, 2002, Alex Clark, review of The Man Who Wanted to Smell Books, and Other Stories, p. 21.
Times (London, England), November 16, 1995, p. 23.