Obituary: Avram Davidson

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The Independent Online
Avram Davidson, writer: born Yonkers, New York 23 April 1923; died Seattle, Washington 8 May 1993.

TO BE misunderstood, it seems, was Avram Davidson's chosen and cherished fate. As a writer and editor of science fiction and fantasy in the US from about 1950 on, he began several successful careers, but truncated each one before his audience began to know what to expect. He was an expert creator of baroque space opera, but abandoned the genre suddenly, subsequently bestowing upon his bewildered readership several fantasies of a sometimes daunting discursiveness. Each of these fantasies demonstrated his great powers as a fabulist; but he never finished any of them. His best novels remain half-told.

Davidson was vastly erudite, in a scattershot and medieval fashion, sounding sometimes rather like a blind man trying to describe a dragon. Raised as an Orthodox Jew, his best work was iridescently pagan.

Avram Davidson was born in 1923 in Yonkers, a dozen miles upriver from Manhattan, and spent much of his life in New York. He served with the Israeli Army in 1948-49. He began to write seriously in the early 1950s. His success was immediate, though typically scattered. He won Hugo and World Fantasy Awards for short work, a collection of stories and for editing the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He won an Ellery Queen Award (he also published two novels as Ellery Queen) and the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award. Several times he was almost famous; several times he dodged the limelight.

His first novel, Joyleg (1962), co-written with Ward Moore, was an exuberant tall-tale fantasy whose backwoods Tennessee protagonist is kept indefinitely young by moonshine liquor; it was followed by several fantasy-tinged space operas, the best of which - Rogue Dragon (1965) and Masters of the Maze (1965) - tend to subvert the traditional heroics of the genre while at the same time being engagingly energetic as stories. But he stopped.

From the mid-1960s to end of his life, Davidson did not publish one single 'normal' novel. It is the best of this late work - along with short stories published in collections like Or All the Seas with Oysters (1962) and The Redward Edward Papers (1978) - that has so deepened the impact upon the world of letters and upon his fellow writers, of this most perversely elusive of figures.

The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969) and its companion piece, Vergil in Averno (1987), two typical late novels, are opulent, antiquarian delights, redolent of the Arabian Nights any slippage into chinoiserie, however, is balanced by a chastened wisdom about the ironies of the mortal world. Davidson's masterpiece is probably The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy (1990), a collection of linked stories written over many years and set in a Ruritanian enclave haunted by history and death. In these stories, genre fiction meets Umberto Eco.

Bearded and gruff and Talmudic, Davidson became a cantankerous old man. In his last unwell years he tended to feel, not entirely without justice, a sense of personal isolation. But his work had already sparked the imaginations of many late 20th-century writers.

(Photograph omitted)