Avram Davidson: A Reminiscence of the End

Repost from the old site. This is a reminiscence of a famous person I actually had the pleasure to know personally as a friend, Avram Davidson, a great science fiction writer. Most have never heard of him, but that’s too bad. He was one of the greats. Avram was a writer’s writer, and he was hard in the same way that Joyce is hard. This post describes the times when I visited with him. He came to stay with me near the end of his life. He was a difficult person, as a lot of artists are, but I’m not sorry I knew him. He was one of the smartest people, or possibly the smartest person, I have ever known. He was one of those guys whom you actually felt it was an honor to even be in the presence of, since he always entertained you with his mind, no matter what he was doing. You put up with his crap because of the honor of knowing a great thinker and artist. It’s not like you meet people like that every day. This piece got posted around a bit in the sci-fi and fantasy community. Some wonder about the Avram Davidson link on the sidebar of the old blog. Avram (Dave) Davidson was a famous science fiction writer who was a friend of my family, and a friend of mine. The last time I met him, he was near death, so unfortunately, this eulogy is going to deal with those difficult days. I understand that there are folks out there on the Net trying to put together biographies of Avram, so in towards that effort, I offer this. My father met him in WW2 and they kept up a friendship throughout life. Davidson visited me in the Central Valley just before he died. He had heart failure and diabetes at the time, and he was drinking several good strong drinks a day, which is not a smart thing to do, but he was always sort of like that. He was looking for a place to live in Fresno, but we could not seem to find him one. The one place we found that seemed right had young, rather ghetto Blacks in it, and I think he was terrified of them. I think he felt that they would victimize him. He saw the Blacks and said no way. Avram could be a very difficult person, but he was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. Just to know him and have a glimpse at that incredible mind of his was an amazing experience. And yes, he was Jewish, as you might have guessed from the name. I remember once my father screaming at me when I dissed Israel in his presence, but he really wasn’t all that involved in Jewish politics, at least when I knew him. His writing is really incredible stuff, if you can get through it and make sense of it. He’s operating on a James Joyce-type level, so his work is going to be inaccessible to a lot of people. Further, he wrote in the science fiction and fantasy markets, and he did not sell well even there, so he was sort of doomed to obscurity. I read Virgil in Averno, but I’m not sure if I understood it. I thought he was riffing off The Inferno, which is one of my favorites books. You almost need a guide to these books so you can figure out what’s going on. He gave The Phoenix and the Mirror as a gift to my folks, but both of them said they couldn’t really get into it or figure it out. One either had a taste for Avram’s stuff or you did not. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says, “He is perhaps SF’s most explicitly literary author.” That sounds about right to me. I did read one of his last short stories, (I think it was Go Forth, Thou Grore) and it was pretty cool when I finally figured it out. It was definitely a work of genius. I realize I may be tainting his memory by accusing him of racism as I did in my other post, but Avram definitely had some racist tendencies, albeit of an integrating type. He was also very liberal, even socialist, politically. Religiously, he abandoned Judaism and took up Shintoism, or Tenrikyo actually. He lived in Israel for a while, but left because he said he missed the New York Times. He also lived in Belize for a while. He lived in Haight-Ashbury in the middle of the hippie revolution. I asked my father if he got high, being a head myself, and my father said proudly, “No, he was never a doper.” Later I asked Avram about the era and he admitted that he had taken “mescaline” once at the time (probably LSD) but he didn’t like the experience. Handrolled unfiltered cigarettes and booze, preferably whiskey, and food were his vices. Avram was the poster boy for the anti-health food, anti-healthy living set while still retaining a bohemian class and without being a serious degenerate. I met him once in the early 1970’s when he was living in Sausalito in a small, dumpy, messy flat with another writer. There were papers, books, coffee cups and clothes scattered everywhere, and the other writer was kind of a strange guy, with an odd, distracted stare in his eyes you see in a lot of out of lunch genius types wandering around the world’s great campuses. I was a teenager, and I asked, “Who is that guy?” and my father said, “Oh, he’s another writer,” and then it all made sense. Avram always loved to live in rather dumpy places. I don’t know what he would have done if he had gotten rich and bought a mansion. Probably trashed the place so he could feel more at home. He showed up at my house in Orange County in 1981. I was shocked to see him. He was dressed like a street bum! If you saw him on the streets, you might think he was a wandering homeless guy. I had a Kabbalah Tree of Life poster in my room, and Avram came down to look at it. This was long before Madonna made it hip, but Avram really appreciated that – it went right back his Jewish and Talmudic scholar roots. Most everyone else thought it was either bizarre or downright evil. Avram was the only person who ever liked that poster, because he knew what it really was. Avram was a really interesting guy, and although he was difficult at times, as a lot of writers are. He could also be very warm and delightful, and he always had a good, chuckling kind of sense of humor. When he was happy or joking, he had a wonderful little twinkle in his eye. He always got a joke, too, no matter how clever or obscure – actually, I think he liked those jokes best of all. He could also be generous. On the last visit, he found out I liked bird-watching, and he bought me several nice bird books. In addition to being so smart he almost seemed to be another species, he also had a lot of wisdom in areas that most non-specialists never seem to get, so in that way, he transcended the ignorance of the typical American, even the typical American intellectual. We drove him back to San Fransisco in January 1992. On the way over there, we stopped in Herndon at a store and he went in to get something. He took like 10 minutes to walk across the parking lot (heart failure), and I remember this Hispanic guy just stopped and freaked on that, his mouth hanging open. When I saw that, I figured Avram didn’t have long. But even when obviously on his last legs with not much to live, Avram didn’t seem depressed particularly, or not how most folks would be. He’d gotten a bit more cynical and hard, but he always loved life, even at the end. I’m not sure Avram was ever depressed in his life. I think he had too many interests. He never seemed the type who wouldn’t want to get up in the morning. Some people are sad. Avram never seemed sad, even at the end, when, admittedly, that delightful twinkle in his eye was less evident than before. In San Fransisco, we dropped him off in some flophouse type hotel south of Market Street. He was always most comfortable in dumps like that; I don’t know why, but he never cared anything for money in his life. I think he was going to meet up with his son, Frodo (named after the Hobbit character), who was living in San Fransisco. He wasn’t in a very good mood when we dropped him off and he didn’t say goodbye very nicely; in fact, he was downright hostile, but I really didn’t care. He was old and sick, and I figured what the Hell. I said goodbye warmly, shook his hand, and we left him. We were walking down the hallway and my Mother said to me with a hard look of determination and foresight, “That’s the last time we’ll ever see him.” The sentence ended like a pound on a table, a hard finality. That made me sad. I asked rhetorically, “What do you mean?” She said, “He’ll be dead before we see him again.” He was. It was 1½ years later, in May 1993, and we heard he was dead. I saw my Mom and she said, “What did I tell you?.” I’m not sorry I knew him. How many people get to be good friends with a world-famous writer? He could be mean and nasty, screaming, yelling, philosophical, warm, friendly, kind, laughing, joking and delightful and loving. A mere conversation with him was an incredible experience, like a visit to a great library. But he was always sui generis. Wikipedia on Avram. Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite writers (and highly recommended) in a two-page tribute to Davidson, compared him to the greats Saki, G.K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling and error3


5 thoughts on “Avram Davidson: A Reminiscence of the End”

  1. Really smart people can be a joy, even when you vehemently disagree with them.
    You’re always smarter for knowing them.

  2. Hi Robert – great post!

    I agree with almost everything you said but a few thoughts/corrections. Frodo was a nickname. Avram’s son is actually named Ethan.

    Avram could be difficult with Publishers and Agents, but in general was a very good nurtured guy until later in life after several strokes. Racist he was not, he pushed for integration of White and Black soldiers during World War II. Believed in gender equality, detested the treatment of Native Americans, and felt being LGBT (not a term used during his generation) was their own business. You are correct he was very liberal for an Orthodox Jew of that generation. He always wanted to protect the underdog and those not treated equally.

    Unfortunately, after several strokes and being robbed there was a fear from him to live in certain neighborhoods. His mind wasn’t the same after the strokes, and one would hope he wouldn’t be judged in the same way. Depressed – absolutely – admittedly so, but I have to agree always with a twinkle in his eye.

    1. Thank you! I suppose you knew him too? Do you know the people who are writing a biography of his life? I would not mind talking to those people if they want to talk to me, that is.

      I don’t know anything about his relationship with the industry, but he was pretty irascible at the end all right. But I don’t harbor any malice. He was one of the smartest men I’ve ever met! I think he was actually a true genius. Not just a high IQ genius, but a real genius.

      I did meet him a few times before. He was always dressed like a derelict on skid row but this is how he chose to live. The stereotype of the grasping Jew didn’t fit him at all! He was the direct opposite of that. He had no use for money at all! I met him once in Sausalito in the 1970’s. He was living with a younger male single writer. The guy seemed kind of out there, but a lot of writers seem that way. They were both completely straight men. Avram was very conservative in that way.

      I met him again in 1981 at my parents house where I was living right after I graduated from college. I had a Jewish Kabbalah on the wall not because I believe in that stuff but more because I was into magic at the time and man, you put that thing on your wall, and it just sucks you in! I smiled with that little twinkle in his eye when he saw it.

      He seemed to have left Judaism, that is, if you can ever leave. There’s a theory that like with the Catholics, you never leave. They take a bite out of you. He lived in Japan for a while and converted to Shintoism. He enjoyed the religious dancing. He lived in Israel for a while too, but he said he missed the New York Times! Even after his strokes, he was still one of the smartest people I have ever known. His mind was ahead of you; he finished your sentences for you, and he was lightning fast. He got every little joke, no matter how subtle.

      He was irascible at the end, yes, and he was even an asshole at times, I hate to say. Like so many great writers and artists! Many are difficult people. But even after he almost shouted, “Goodbye!” at my mother and I when we dropped him off in that hotel room, I still shook his hand warmly and returned it with love. When we left, I said, “I still love him anyway.” My Mom said, “That’s the last we will see of him. We will never see him again.” I was shocked that she said that but he was dead in a year.

      Even at the end when he stayed with me for a while and shouted and screamed at me a few times, he could also be very warm, wonderful, and charming. He bought me a few bird books as housewarming gifts and they were not cheap. He was never a boor.

      About the racism, all I know is he used to say about Blacks, “A Black a block! Spread em out and civilize em!” In our idiotic woke culture that’s considered to be very racist, but to me, it’s just true! I say that exact same thing and I’m almost a Communist.

      My mother and father were both of that generation and my father was one of the most antiracist White men you could meet of his cohort. Yet now and again he would make that comment too. And my mother who is not very racist at all either for her generation of Whites (especially as she came from a racist Southern family with a very racist father) made comments like that quite often.

      As far as I am concerned, every White in that generation talked like that. If we don’t discuss that someone did, I figure we are lying about them. I would not say that Avram was an extremely racist White man, though. I know the wokies will turn this post into “Avram was a racist” but that’s just wrong. I believe he was a friend of Samuel Delaney too.

      The story of his life is the story of his life. He will be remembered in whichever way biographers talk about him. On balance, I liked the man even if he was a bit mean to me at the end. How often do you get to be personal friends with a great writer and a famous person!

      And I never heard him make a single unkind comment about homosexuals, Amerindians, and women. I’m much worse in that respect than he was! He just wasn’t mean-hearted enough to be a real hardcore bigoted person. He was too soft for that, deep down inside.

  3. Cool nickname for his son.

    Of course a genius won’t want to live by ghetto Blacks. If that’s racist, every sane person is.

    Jews can be more comfortable in filth. Bob Dylan was said to have green teeth. Howard Stern’s old Jewish teacher refused to bathe or brush. Jews love fart and poop jokes. I’ve heard even Anne Frank wrote about her poop. The stench of the big city is better than fresh air for some. The urban rat is most comfortable in the sewer.

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