In 1983 my friend Larry came across a journal called Conjunctions, in which we found "O Gadjo Niglo," a story by Guy Davenport. Unknown to us, Davenport was a well-regarded essayist, illustrator, and sometime fiction-writer. His first collection of stories, Tatlin!, had been published in 1974 by Scribner's (for which he was paid, as he told me many years later, "a perfect palindrome, $30.03"). A wide-ranging collection of his essays, The Geography of the Imagination, came out in 1981 from Berkeley's North Point Press. "O Gadjo Niglo" was strange and enchanting. The lyrical, compact lines told the story of a Swedish boy named Jens, his gypsy friend Tarpy, and their friendship over the course of two summers in the early 20th century. It is an Arcadian love story and also a kind of elegy to boys.

Davenport's descriptions of sex, particularly masturbation, were astonishingly detailed and erotic, suffused with a kind of lusty precision and amplitude of joy that was breathtaking. I had never seen so many names for the various parts of the erect cock, nor so many verbs to describe a closed fist moving up and down. Davenport observing Jens and Tarpy was like Darwin discovering the Galapagos. And there were girls too, and women and men and animals. Davenport was a kind of naturalist of human Eros--Eros in the mind as well as the muscles. In a Davenport story a discussion of aesthetic theory constitutes a kind of foreplay, while the collecting of plant specimens or the working out of a compositional problem leads eventually to orgasm.

"O Gadjo Niglo" also has no commas, but I didn't notice that until 15 years later when Davenport mentioned it in a letter. Another story, "Notes on Some Lines of Virgil," is written in 125 sections, each with five four-line paragraphs. The structural play in Davenport is as vigorous as the sex. And the stories were filled with Davenport's formidable learning. "O Gadjo Niglo" taught me Swedenborg and "bon ton." From Apples and Pears I learned about Cezanne, bicycle racing, Fourier, and botanical morphology. Whatever delighted Davenport found its place in his stories.

This was a revelation. I had never known that fiction could be such a playground of both the mind and body. My whole life, at that time, was devoted to loud, fast music but Davenport showed me a prose so robust, vital, and overfull that its hold on me rivaled the bone-shaking pleasures of punk. Writing was a music that could address my whole being; I started to write.

Sometime in 1984 I began tinkering with a story that I hoped would mimic the pleasures of "O Gadjo Niglo." It was in every way imitative. I put my protagonist in an educated family at the other end of the 20th century and gave him an enchanting friend to have sex with. I larded the text with all my favorite things--delicious foods, fantastical architecture, endearing, amateurish sex, astonishing vistas, philosophical puzzles, and lots of swimming and rain. I imbued my hero, Maxwell, with the same "bon ton" Jens had learned so earnestly from his mama. I gave Max a terrible fever, just like Jens, and mined his fever dreams for meaning.

Six years later this story, Landscape: Memory (my first novel), was published by Scribner's (for somewhat more than $30.03). An enthusiastic reviewer named Bruce Bawer sent a copy to Davenport and a few weeks later I received the most gratifying letter of my life. Davenport liked my book. He praised it with the same generous spirit that shone in his stories. This letter meant the world to me. It was the first of scores in a correspondence that lasted for the next nine years and helped guide me toward greater hopes and greater risks in my own work. Through his letters, and the example set in his books, Davenport taught me to be curious and to set no limit on the pleasures my prose courted.

Though we exchanged letters every few weeks for nearly a decade, I never met Guy Davenport. Larry did, traveling by bus to Lexington, Virginia where Davenport gave a series of talks that would later make up the core of his book Every Force Evolves a Form. Larry returned with tales of a daunting formal dinner in which local faculty squared off against Davenport in a strained battle of obscure references that went well into the night. I was happy to have missed it. I am sad to miss him now.

Matthew Stadler is the author of Allan Stein and several other novels, and is the editor of Clear Cut Press.