Davidson’s later work has a unique style that is a joy to behold, dancing through half a dozen different lines of thought at once with a light touch and a ready wit. I will talk about some of his essays the next time I am on the same continent as my copy of Adventures in Unhistory, but in the meantime let’s look at a Dr Eszterhazy story.
These do not summarize easily. There are usually several plots running concurrently, some providing entertaining cul-de-sacs, some tying neatly into an unexpected ending (in which this story is particularly strong). I could say that there’s an engineer with a new type of water-powered turbine, or a sacred grove in a superstitious part of the country in which a dead woodcutter was found, or that gingerbread men are a recurring motif. I could talk about the setting, a fictional version of Eastern Europe sometime after the fall of Napoleon, where there are countries like Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania (whose capital is Bella).
But I don’t feel this is terribly helpful. So here’s a sample, after Dr Eszterhazy has just picked up a newspaper and read the headline:
Illyria and the Italian Alliance. Happy, happy Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania, to be fretted by small Illyria! All through the Dog Days and the Silly Season, not over-scrupulous editors would sell off an otherwise perhaps-unsaleable edition by smearing a quarter of a page with, in large type, ILLYRIA AND THE ITALIAN ALLIANCE. There was somehow a feeling that Illyria ought not to have an alliance and that if Illyria nevertheless felt that it must have one, it bloody well ought to have one with Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania. And as Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania had never had an alliance with Italy, why should Illyria have one? The logic of this seemed irrefutable. At least in Bella. As for the King of Illyria, King Procopio, whose nose (admittedly rather long) had always been good for an affectionate jest in Bellanese music halls, why, it was to be feared that His Adriatic Majesty’s veracity was now come to be questioned on the local musical stage; and that he was even occasionally nowadays being referred to there as King Pinocchio.
It’s the style that makes Davidson’s work memorable. This is not to sell its other attributes short – there is always a good plot at its core, and Dr Eszterhazy’s character of ‘amiably investigating everything’ is enjoyable – but it’s the meandering humour by which it’s told that elevates the story.
Writ in Water, or the Gingerbread Man by Avram Davidson
Availability: print only
Word count: 14,400
First published: Amazing Stories, Sept 1985
Where to find it: The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy, collection, 1991, Owlswick Press