Monday, April 14, 2014

Magician at Work: Robertson Davies and his novel Fifth Business

Friends recommended Robertson Davies to me in 1985. Before his death a few years later, I managed to catch up on all his other trilogies (for he always wrote in sets of three), and books of his essays, and even a collection of ghost stories he wrote for faculty Christmas parties.

One tidbit of one interview interests me to this day. He was constantly curious, and researched any- and every- thing that struck his fancy, accumulating piles of note cards on such subjects as magicians' tricks, restoration of antique violins, gypsies, psychology, counterfeit art, whatever. When the piles overran his desk, he would concoct a story that could encompass all the cards. Naturally, his novels are like crowded flea markets, filled with unexpected and obscure erudition.

He wrote three trilogies, each set in a different town of Canada. He never completed his fourth one, though the last book felt like a benediction, set in the Afterlife, which turns out to be a vast movie theatre where the late film critic sits through a festival of films about his own life on earth.

An earlier set of three novels introduced me to the idea of "personal mythology."   The trilogy revolves around an eccentric art collector in a university setting. In What's Bred in the Bone, an art forger uses an old-fashioned style and ancient symbols to express his own "personal mythology," incorporating characters and ideas from his long life. Davies uses this plot to explore an interesting question: If experts are fooled by a new work of art in an old style, then why is it worth less than the originals on which it's modeled?

His first trilogy, written in the 1950s, was more conventional in style, less cluttered, and very rich and entertaining, concentrated around a small town called Salterton, comprising The Leaven of Malice about consequences of a rumor printed in the local newspaper, Tempest - Tost about loves and high jinx during rehearsals for an amateur Shakespeare play, and Mixture of Frailties about the worldly education of a talented soprano selected from a family Gospel band to study voice (and life) in Europe.

Still, it was the Deptford Trilogy that brought Davies to the attention of US readers and the Times Bestseller List in the late 70s. I began with Rebel Angels from his 80s trilogy, having been promised that there was one scene in the story that was so bizarre, so violent, and so funny that I would never forget it. "How will I know if it's the scene?" I asked. Everyone assured me, "You'll know." They were right: I remember the hotel room in Saratoga NY where I sat twenty years ago and read, incredulously, as the scene unfolded.

But that's not what I'm writing about here. Here follows the review I wrote of the first novel of the Deptford trilogy, Fifth Business: (page references are to the paperback edition published around 1980):

Fifth Business achieves something I'd like to achieve. It is frankly concerned with religion without being heavy-handed. Its narrator Dunstable (later Dunstan) Ramsay is a hagiologist (i.e., scholar of saints) of Presbyterian background who discovers a more sacramental Catholic-Anglican view of the world.

The novel follows his life chronologically but also topically. All threads begin in a boyhood incident: he ducks a rock-filled snowball hurled at him by spoiled rich rival Peter Boyd Staunton [using roots, that translates as "rock-boy of standing"] in small Canadian town Deptford, and it hits the wife of grim Baptist preacher Amasa Dempster, causing her to give premature birth to son Paul and also to "go simple." From guilt, Dunstable serves this family of social outcasts, even after Mrs. Dempster becomes the town's greatest scandal, having been found in an "adult situation" with a hobo in the town's quarry. Forbidden to visit her, and she being literally tied to her house, Dunstable nevertheless remains devoted to her, and runs to her in panic when his very ill older brother dies, and everyone else is at the fair. She comes to the boy's bedside and restores him to life. Dunstable tells the town that it's a miracle, performed by a saint, and he becomes the town's joke, as Dr. Staunton laughs that the boy must not have truly been dead. To escape derision, Dunstable runs away to fight in the first great war. He's the second to run away: Paul Dempster ran away with the circus to escape the ridicule of Boyd Staunton and his gang for having such a mother.

After this set-up, the rest of the story follows how each deals with his demons (and, in Dunstable's case, his saint) and re-connect in the decades that follow.

One theme plays throughout the novel. It's wrapped up in something Dunstan teaches his students about "the mythic view of history," as opposed to the scientific view (13, 15). Again, he says that atheists "miss metaphor," (54) which Davies uses as a near-synonym for "psychological truth" (71). The idea of depth to reality [would "Deptford" be "deep river" -- suggesting more under its surface?] comes across in such passages as this description of the "saint" Mrs. Deptford:
When she had seemed to be laughing at things her husband took very seriously, she had been laughing at the disproportion of his seriousness. . . [She was] wholly religious. I do not say "deeply religious" because that was what people said about her husband, and apparently they meant that he imposed religion as he understood it on everything he knew or encountered. But she. . . seemed to live in a world of trust. . . . It was as though she were an exile from a world that saw things her way . . . . [T]he queerest thing about her was that she had no fear.
Her son's becoming a magician seems to relate to this idea that nothing is "to be trusted in a strange world that showed very little of itself on the surface" (36). Also, Dunstan is surprised when others are surprised that he has two sides to him: "I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two sides to him" (72). In a description of Boy (a.k.a. Boyd Staunton), Dunstan says, "To him, the reality of life lay in external things, whereas for me the only reality was of the spirit -- of the mind, as I then thought, not having understood yet what a cruel joker and mean master the intellect can be" (114). Davies seems to be suggesting that both views are incomplete, and reconciled by the third boy in the middle, the one who finds "magic" in material.

Another theme resonates with "The Beast in the Jungle" by Henry James, a story that was key to the mythology of my own life. In Fifth Business, a German amazon from the circus named Liesl confronts Dunstan: "You despise almost everybody except Paul's mother. No wonder she seems like a saint to you; you have made her carry the affection you should have spread among fifty people. . ... Well it is not too late for you to enjoy a few years of almost normal humanity" (216). Later she adds, "Life is a spectator sport to you. Now you have taken a tumble and found yourself in the middle of the fight and you are whimpering because it is rough"(222). She assaults him and he twists her nose (an obscure reference to St. Dunstan who twisted Satan's nose with tongs) but later becomes her lover. She then says,
 [Calvinist religion] is a cruel way of life, even if you forget the religion and call it ethics or decent behavior or something else that pushes God out of it. . . . [Calvinists] have the cruelty of doctrine without the poetic grace of myth. ....Why don't you shake hands with your devil, Ramsay, and change this foolish life of yours? Why don't you, just for once, do something inexplicable, irrational, at the devil's bidding...? You would be a different man. (226)
 She says he fits into Myth as "Fifth Business," stage slang for the supporting actor in stage dramas who plays confidant and plot catalyst.

One more savory idea: an old monk in the story says he's much older than Jesus ever lived to be, and therefore knows what Jesus never knew. He searches for a God who'll teach him to grow old. He says "I have found Him, and He is the very best of company. Very calm, very quiet, but gloriously alive; we do, but He is. Not in the least a proselytizer or a careerist, like His sons."

A few surprises, elegantly written. Most enjoyable for its enunciation of a worldview I'm coming to assume. - June 1985; edited April 2006

-reprinted from my personal web site  This blog includes reflections on the other two books of the trilogy. 

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