“A little girl, hustled into her pram by an officious nurse, discovered halfway home from the park that her doll Belinda had been left behind.”
That is the first sentence of Guy Davenport’s story “Belinda’s World Tour.” Though I have been familiar with Davenport’s fiction and essays for many years, I have not read him systematically, and so I encountered this story only recently, while strolling through Davenport’s retrospective collection of “new and selected writings,” The Death of Picasso. By the second page I knew it would be a story I would cherish, and one that would provoke at least a few scattered thoughts about reality and storytelling.
Many of Davenport’s stories portray small moments in the lives of famous or nearly-famous people of the past. “Belinda’s World Tour” is one of a handful of stories he wrote about Franz Kafka (the most celebrated of which is probably “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” an exquisite recreation of Kafka’s visit to an air show in Italy, a visit that prompted one of Kafka’s earliest publications, a newspaper article titled “The Aeroplanes at Brescia”). The story originates in an anecdote told to a few people by Dora Diamant, Kafka’s companion during the last year of his life. In an essay on Kafka’s time in Berlin, Mark Harman writes:
While out on a walk one day in Steglitz, Kafka and Dora met a little girl in a park who was crying because she had lost her doll. Kafka told her not to worry since the doll was away on a trip and had sent him a letter. When the little girl asked suspiciously for the letter, he told her he didn’t have it with him, but that if she returned the following day he would bring it.
True to his word, every day for three weeks thereafter he went to the park with a new letter from the doll. Dora Diamant emphasizes the care he devoted to this self-imposed task, which was of the same degree as that which he lavished on his other literary work.
In Davenport’s story, Kafka is a guest for tea at the little girl’s house when the girl, Lizaveta, returns with her nurse. “Her father and mother were at a loss to comfort her, as this was the first tragedy of her life and she was indulging all its possibilities.” Herr Doktor Kafka offers Lizaveta the comfort of a story, saying that Belinda met a little boy (“perhaps a doll, perhaps a little boy, I couldn’t quite tell”) who asked her to travel around the world with him, and so she has gone off to do so, but has promised to send postcards chronicling her adventures.
The rest of the story consists of the postcards. They are charming, gentle, and utterly bizarre, as Kafka’s Belinda presents Lizaveta with a picture of a world in which Londoners all wear clothes that cover their entire bodies (“the buttons go right up into their hats, with button holes, so to speak, to look out of, and a kind of sleeve for their very large noses”), everyone in Japan “stops what they are doing ten times a day to write a poem,” and at Niagara Falls newlyweds can get in barrels and ride over the falls (“you bounce and bounce at the bottom”). Belinda also has good luck meeting great writers and artists—in Copenhagen she encounters Hans Christian Anderson and Kierkegaard, in Russia both Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, in Tahiti Gauguin, and in San Francisco Robert Louis Stevenson.
These encounters add complexity and paradox to the story, because though on the surface “Belinda’s World Tour” is a delightful tale, at the core it is a conundrum. Davenport mischievously prevents us from settling on any one level of reality for the story. The only “reality” is within the text itself. For instance, if we accept the conceit that these are postcards by Kafka, what are we to do with the mention of Chekhov’s relatively little-known book about the prison island of Sakhalin? I have not been able to find a history of German translations of Chekhov’s work, but it is highly unlikely to have been translated before Kafka’s death in 1924, given that the book was not translated into English until the 1960s. Even if there was an earlier German translation, one early enough for Kafka to have read, there is not, as far as I can tell, a record of Kafka having read anything by Chekhov at all (though Tolstoy’s stories were among his favorites, and the German translation of Tolstoy’s diary was in his library).
A little knowledge and reflection, then, prevents us from accepting the postcards as having been written by Kafka (or, at least, the historical Kafka). They are artifices, just as the places Belinda visits are artifices. The character of Kafka uses the names of real places to create a certain sort of verisimilitude, but it is the verisimilitude of legends, stereotypes, and the ridiculously (or amusingly) contrived sort of historical novels where ordinary characters encounter one famous figure after another. Belinda’s chronicle of her travels collapses world culture into greatest hits and greatest myths, a delightful concoction for a child, certainly, but by teasing our desire for innocence and whimsy, “Belinda’s World Tour” also poses unresolveable problems of fantasy and reality. The names of real people and places within the story suggest connections and allusions in the reader’s mind, but those suggestions simultaneously tell us that the only reality the story adheres to is its own.
The anomalies in “Belinda’s World Tour” remove the story from any world other than the reality of its words, and so the actual items of life—names, books, places—become tools of fantasy. Details from real histories and real cultures function in the story as props for a fairy tale about a fairy tale. The effect is unsettling, like staring at a particularly clever optical illusion. Also unsettling is how delightful the story is, because the tale remains a closed system, separate from the realities it seems to reference.
The absurd portrayals of various cities, countries, and cultures in the postcards are occasionally based on misperceptions and generalizations that, in the reality of history, produced nightmares and bloodbaths. The presence of Wild West Indians in a few of the postcards recalls not only the one-sentence Kafka story “Wunsch, Indianer zu werden” (“The Wish to Become an Indian”), but also the genocidal policies and actions that constituted the reality hidden beneath the tales of brave cowboys and noble-savage injuns. The tales we tell of history and culture are as fanciful as the tale of a doll going off on a world tour.
The wondrous, disconcerting fantasies of “Belinda’s World Tour” rely upon the reality they seem to extend from, the reality they so beautifully brush away. Without its references to particular people and places, to real history and to real history’s lost dreams, the story would lack the paradoxes that provide its most satisfying meanings. The genius of the story is that it works at every level one might read into it. A reader who knows absolutely nothing about any of the names or places invoked is likely to find the tale a bit perplexing, perhaps, but, I expect, on the whole amusing. A reader who knows a bit about the various characters and settings will probably find the story to be charming. A reader whose mind, like mine, sometimes gets tangled on details and paradoxes might focus on those things, and also find considerable pleasure, though probably not satisfaction—which is fine, because once a paradox is satisfied, its fascination evaporates.
Fiction remains fascinating when it refuses to offer easy answers to questions of fantasy and reality, history and imagination, dreaming and waking. Though Belinda’s doll remains beneath a park bench, cold and alone, that reality is banal and unenlightening. Kafka, whether the real or the imagined, knew a fantastic story could provide comfort and joy. Davenport knew it could provide even more.