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28 October 2005

The Scarlet Fig by Avram Davidson is the third and last Vergil Magus novel. It seems to be unfinished in a sense, in that Davidson probably wanted to revise and polish it further before publication; but he finished the first draft in 1989, four years before his death, and did rewrite at least some parts of it. Three excerpts have been previously published as short stories. This Rose Press edition is edited by Grania Davis and Henry Wessells, and includes essays by each of them (and the publisher, Philip Rose) and excerpts from Avram's other unfinished Vergil writings and his notebooks and index cards on the Vergil story cycle. The main part of the story seems to be set awhile after Vergil in Averno (1987) and long before The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969), though some flashback scenes of Vergil's childhood are earlier.

In the first chapter (published separately as "Yellow Rome, or Vergil and the Vestal Virgin", in Weird Tales and reprinted in The Avram Davidson Treasury), Vergil is present when a mule-cart carrying one of the six Vestal Virgins passes by and is upset when the pavement gives way beneath it; several passersby help steady the cart and prevent its overturning, and Vergil touches the Virgin's arm in helping her not be thrown to the ground. Subsequent events lead him to fear that certain parties regard this touch as a crime deserving death, and he leaves Rome quickly, first going home to Naples, then, when that seems equally unsafe, goes on a long trip into remote parts of the Empire and beyond it.

The long sea voyage — indeed, the novel as a whole — is episodic and less densely plotted than the earlier Vergil novels, though stylistically this novel is, at least in parts, just as dense as Vergil in Averno. (Some sections, whose relation to the rest of the novel was unclear, or which Davidson seems to have cut during the revisions in the last four years of his life, are printed by the editors as appendices.) Avram may have been suggesting that some episodes this sea voyage formed, along with the obvious sources in the Odyssey, the inspiration for Aeneas's sea voyage in the Aeneid; for instance, there's a character who in her relation with Vergil might be an analogue to Calypso/Dido in relation to Odysseus/Aeneas.

The ending is cryptic, and perhaps somewhat unsatisfying; it doesn't conclude the dangling plot threads or set up for the chronologically later The Phoenix and the Mirror in any obvious way, though Henry Wessells offers an interpretation in his "Note on the Text" as to how the cryptic final chapter may imply a tragic ending for some of the character Vergil met earlier. Still, when all is said and done, one doesn't read Davidson primarily for the plot (though some of his best works do have intricate and satisfying plots as well as great style, characterization and worldbuilding). This novel is as good as one can hope for a posthumously published, not quite finished novel by a great author — better than Titus Alone, for instance, the final volume of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, and more nearly complete than Stevenson's St. Ives or Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The Rose Press limited edition is beautifully bound and illustrated and the typography is quite readable, but there are some serious typos — the worst of which involves several missing lines in one place, and duplicated lines elsewhere; fortunately they are in the first chapter, which most readers will also have access to another copy of in The Avram Davidson Treasury. Besides this there are many obvious typos such as "that" for "than", "thought" for "though" and so forth. Given Avram's idiosyncratic spelling (often etymologically reconstructed or fusing related but distinct words), diagnosing less obvious typos is impossible without access to the manuscript and fairly difficult with access to it; the editors did quite well at a probably very difficult job. Davidson is one of my favorite authors, and I had no hesitation at spending $50 plus shipping on this limited edition, but I hope someone (Tor, maybe?) will do a trade edition, or perhaps a three-novel omnibus since Vergil in Averno has never been reprinted.

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