So seeing Robertson Davies's portrait in the Yousuf Karsh exhibit at the MFA got me curious to read Davies. I had read at least the first book in the Deptford Trilogy back in college, so I started there. Here's my take on those books:
Fifth Business (1970)
Written as the memoir of Dunstable (Dunstan) Ramsay, upon his retirement as a history teacher at a Toronto boys’ school in 1970. He realizes the boys see him as ridiculous, and in a fit of indignation he decides to tell the headmaster the story of his life. Fair enough: I think the narrator realizes what a silly figure he cuts trying to justify himself, but at the same time he succeeds in convincing us that his life has some dignity, primarily by claiming for it the precise measure of dignity he deserves and no more. This is where the ittle concept comes in: Davies invented it as a term of European opera, meaning a fifth role type besides male and female leads and second leads: the fifth business is the odd man out who moves the plot forward in key ways for the others. And that’s what Ramsay is: by the end of the story we realize he’s only a bit player in his own life, and in the life of the world. The real story is about Paul Dempster and Boy Staunton.
The central incident of the story happens in 1908 when Ramsay is ten. He gets into an argument with his friend Boy (Percy), who starts throwing snowballs at Ramsay. Ramsay dodges behind some passersby, and a snowball hits one of them, a pregnant woman, Mary Dempster. She collapses, has her baby prematurely, and is never right in the head afterward.
Ramsay’s mother takes it upon herself to care for Mary, and so Ramsay himself ends up doing chores for her. At the same time Ramsay feels tremendous guilt—she took a shot meant for him. The baby, Paul, survives, but is never accepted by the village. The boys all ridicule the Dempsters, and it gets worse after Mary is caught having sex with a hobo. They become outcasts, Paul runs away with a circus, and Ramsay’s guilt grows.
He comes to see Mary as a living saint. Her simple wisdom and charity impress him, and later he sees her raise his brother from the dead; much later, he has a vision of her superimposed on a Madonna, when he’s near death on the battlefield at Paschendaele; still later he learns that the tramp she slept with reformed his life and started a mission for hobos. Ramsay considers these the three miracles required for sainthood.
He’s interested in saints throughout his life, although he was raised Presbyterian (=no saints); as a scholar he becomes a celebrated expert on hagiography, driven partly by his desire to see Mary recognized as a saint, and partly by his attraction to miracles and the possibility of wonder in a world rapidly becoming devoid of it.
He maintains an uneasy friendship with Boy his entire life; Boy is successful at everything, and eventually becomes one of the richest men in Canada. Boy marries a girl Ramsay had once had a crush on and lords it over him ever after (Ramsay lets it get to him, although he had ceased to love Leola long before she marries Boy). Boy seems to feel no guilt at all over what happened to Mary; Ramsay feels it ever after, and as Mary’s family dies, and Ramsay’s, Ramsay becomes her guardian and supports her for the rest of her life.
Ramsay encounters Paul a few times as an adult; Paul has become a magician, something Ramsay had introduced him to as a child. Magic, wonder, mystery, synchronicity, spirituality all play a huge part in the novel; the characters all have one mythic overlay or another, and in the course of the story Ramsay encounters a holy fool Jesuit and a Swiss woman, Liesl, he sees as the Devil; she gives him some good advice and they become sex friends.
The whole thing ends with a revelation and a mystery. Boy, Ramsay, and Paul meet when they’re all old men, and for the first time Ramsay talks about what happened with Mary and the snowball. Paul never knew; Boy says he can’t remember. And Ramsay reveals that the snowball had held a rock, which he has kept all this time. In other words, Boy’s action was serious, more than just a snowball – it would have seriously hurt whoever it hit. Boy doesn’t care; Paul says little. But that night Boy is found to have driven his car off a pier and committed suicide, seemingly; the stone is found in his mouth. Did Paul hypnotize him and kill him? Is this a long-delayed revenge?
You see what I mean: Ramsay plays a key role, but the real actors are Boy and Paul. Ramsay just suffers, just feels guilt – enough for him and Boy. And yet the focus is squarely on Ramsay: the dignity and psychology of the Fifth Business, who knows that’s all he is, and is content with it. Is in fact dedicated to trying to understand life from that perspective.
So: Davies famously employs Jungian archetypes in his fiction. I don’t know much about them. But I can pick up on some of the myth here. Mary=Madonna, Dempster=redemptor; Boy=eternal boy; Liselotte=Satan, he who lies a lot; etc. If that’s all that was in the novel I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much, but Davies gives each of these characters a life and a weight that makes them specific people, as well as archetypes; and sometimes they’re aware of their own or each other’s status as archetypes, although not to a metafictional degree.
There’s a lot here, a lot of plot strands I haven’t even mentioned; Ramsay’s relationships with women, for example, never very successful or ardently pursued. For a relatively short book, it’s packed with quite a lot of stuff. Davies doesn't waste a word, a scene, or a character. And yet it doesn’t feel like that: there’s time for verbal play, for attention to style, to the nuances of Dunstan’s voice, for scenes that feel relaxed and random even if they later prove to have moved key themes forward in an economical way.
Davies’s prose is interesting: at least in this book (which is trying to capture a sort of rusticated intellectualism slightly before the author’s own time), it’s a little more ornate than was standard for its day, and yet it’s recognizably modern. The humor is a little schoolteachery, a little fulsome, but this is balanced out by the novel’s pithy unsentimentality. The lack of sentimentality, on the other hand, never chokes off real emotion, never crosses into out and out cynicism. It’s a poised book.
It insists, most of all, on a spiritual dimension to life, on wonders and miracles as a part of human experience, even as its protagonist goes through all the disillusionment and soul-crushing of life in a claustrophic small Canadian town, the Depression,and service in the first World War. Boy becomes an atheist, but Ramsay points out that’s because he only ever worshiped himself anyway. Ramsay always knew there was more: Mary showed him that.
A peculiar book. Courtlier than what I’ve read of American fiction of its day, but no less modern.
The Manticore (1972)
In a way it feels like a middle book: interesting, but dependent on what came before, and ending in a way that only sets up the third book. Except that this doesn’t really resolve anything from the first book, and the third resolves nothing from this.
It’s about, and narrated by, David, the son of Boy Staunton, the guy who dies at the end of the first book. David is a lawyer, a bachelor, and an alcoholic, and he comes close to a breakdown just after his father’s death, and flees to Zurich to see if the Jungians can help him out. The book is mostly his conversations with Dr. Johanna von Haller, his psychiatrist, and as such it’s a straightforward explanation of the Jungian ideas that seem to have influenced the first book, but remained shrouded in mystery there. There’s mystery here, too, but lots of straightforward Jungian theory, too.
David’s story is essentially that he’s always been under his father’s thumb, but he worships his father. Took refuge in cold intellectualism—the law—partly because feeling scared him, with his mother dying and suspicions that she had been cheating on Boy with Ramsay (David is in denial about his father’s infidelities), and even suspicions that Ramsay might be his father… David’s life itself isn’t that interesting. One encounter with sex: his father arranges a night in Montreal with one of his mistresses. One encounter with love: a Jewish girl in Toronto whose parents decide he’s not good enough for her. One major discovery about his ancestry: that the first Staunton to go to Canada was not a respectable person but a bastard whose mother defiantly begged until she could take her child away from England. She had guts, is the word, and this stands David in good stead at the end… The one really new character we get, besides von Haller, is David’s nurse Netty, a domineering woman who may have killed, or at least facilitated the death of, Leola, because she always loved Boy.
In the end, on a break from therapy, David runs into Ramsay, Liesl, and Eisengrim in Switzerland, and they spend the holiday at Leisl’s castle. Leisl takes him up the mountain into a prehistoric cave once used as a chapel for worshiping bears: to get there they have to crawl through this tunnel for a quarter of a mile; coming out is terrifying for David, and he has to call on his great-grandmother’s strength to make it. A confrontation with the atavistic darkness and worshipfulness of the race, and a rebirth.
It’s definitely not the novel its predecessor is. Mainly I think this is because it seems to work so hard to explain the Jungian schematic. There’s more to it than that, but that’s where its heart seems to be, and it means that it falls a bit short of the delights of the first. On the other hand, it’s just as good a display of style, and in a different way. This is written in a pithy, measured, but still elegant style that reflects the lawyer’s love of simplicity, directness, and accuracy. And when it’s not trying to filter its characters through Jung it’s just as vivid a realization of character as the first book is.
This ends with the hint that David is just about to confront a very important woman, the next stage in his anima, someone who will help him complete his spiritual/psychological journey. But that's not what the third book is about.
(Or is it?)
(No, it isn't.)
World of Wonders (1975)
This one is told by Paul Dempster/Magnus Eisengrim. That’s not quite true: it’s Ramsay recording Paul’s life story as told by Paul in several marathon sessions. Paul’s audience is Ramsay, Liesl, and three people who are working with Paul to make a movie about the historic French magician Robert-Houdin. The three are a Swedish film director, Lind; his cinematographer Kinghovn; and Ingestree, a British novelist who’s coordinating the project for the BBC. The narration is taking place sometime after David’s in the second book, and the venue is first Switzerland, and then London, but there’s very little action in the present, just conversation.
But what conversation! There are few things I enjoy more in a novel than well-written dialogue, and this book is all that. My favorite novel for this is Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, with conversations and monologues that go on for chapters at a time, but never get boring. This is a whole book of that.
I dug My Dinner with André, too.
Paul’s life story is this: he didn’t exactly run away with the carnival as a child, as we were told in the first book. He was abducted by the magician, Willard, who was a pederast. The carnival was called the World of Wonders, and Willard kept Paul for most of his teens, raping him regularly until Willard’s addiction to heroin robbed him of the will and strength to do it anymore. Meanwhile, Paul’s role in the carnival was to sit inside this huge, grotesque mechanical Oriental and do card tricks. The important point was that Paul’s identity was completely erased in this way: audiences never saw him, and he sat out of site of anybody who knew his existence for most of each day. It was self-effacement at its purest. Eventually Willard’s addiction killed him, and for the last couple of years Paul was the master conjuror, exhibiting Willard as a geek.
Paul’s carnival years fill essentially the first half of the book. The second half covers what he did in his twenties, which was to join the touring theatrical company of one Sir John Tresize and his wife. This was in the ‘30s, and the Tresizes, we learn, were actors in a romantic tradition that was all but dead by this point, thoroughly despised or ignored by modern critics, although they were still loved by unsophisticated audiences. Paul’s role here, too, involved self-effacement: he was Sir John’s double for athletic scenes, such as a high-wire bit in Scaramouche. This called for another kind of disappearance, as Paul was required to learn how to duplicate Tresize’s every move, every air.
This covers most of the rest of the book, and fills in most of the important points of the Magician’s Autobiography, a genre that is the topic of a lot of discussion in the first and third books, since Ramsay writes Eisengrim’s. From Willard Paul learned conjuring, from Tresize he learned showmanship. The final ingredient came during WWII, which Paul spent in Switzerland fixing mechanical toys for a rich man who turns out to have been Liesl’s father. Paul and Liesl fall in a kind of love, and her money and vision help him to become Magnus Eisengrim. The end.
And an interesting story in its own right, with lots of vivid detail about carnivals and theatricals, lots of entertaining grotesques and romantic cameo sketches. But what makes the book really interesting is that at the end of every chapter (after Eisengrim goes to bed, leaving everybody in suspense), we get the hearers interpreting what they’ve just heard. At first we get the spiritual and doomy Swede, Lind, versus his utterly practical photographer, debating whether or not it’s possible to find and or convey depth in a story like this. Lind is all about the mystery at the heart of human experience, but Kinghovn is all about surfaces: give me the right light, he says, and I can simulate any depth, but in the end it’s all about the light. Ramsay, meanwhile, is of course on the side of mystery, but his main interest is to find out once and for all if Paul killed Boy Staunton.
In the second half the running commentary takes on a different tone, because it turns out that Ingestree had been a youthful member of the theatrical company at the same time as Paul. But Ingestree hated and hates everything Tresize stood for artistically: Ingestree is a Modern, and he locks horns with the uneducated Paul over every detail of the company. This in itself is a very entertaining clash, as Paul tries to make the case for artistic values that are not necessarily in fashion, while Ingestree insists that only what is current is of any worth. It’s pretty clear where Davies’s sympathies lie, but to his credit he makes Ingestree a pretty sympathetic voice.
Paul is kind of an idiot savant: the fact that he has no formal education, but is very articulate and thoughtful anyway, is constantly emphasized (not least of all by himself: one of the more vivid bits of characterization in the book). But everyone around him is so hyperintellectual that it kind of undercuts his insistence on street learning; like the other two, it’s a very erudite book, even as it trucks with carnivals and melodramas.
The vividity of the worlds depicted in the novel present an interesting challenge after the second book. Having learned, supposedly, the basic tools of Jungian analysis in The Manticore, we get the feeling we’re supposed to be able to unravel Paul’s story according to archetypes, but the shiny surfaces (Kinghovn’s territory) distract us. That very tension is part of what makes the book entrancing, though. I don’t pretend to have penetrated its depths.
What of the trilogy? It turns out to be largely the same events, or three sets of intersecting events, narrated by three different participants, with three very different outlooks. Paul is the Doer, in the thick of life in all its unpleasantness: he’s intelligent, but not a Thinker. Liesl says he lives according to almost medieval codes for understanding the world. Ramsay is the Thinker, intentionally sidelining himself from the business of life so that he can study it. He has a late in life fling with action, hooking up with Magnus’s show, but even then he’s relegated to the role of scribe.
What of David, then? I think he’s a substitute for his father. David is a minor character in the first book, and entirely absent from the third; and his story is largely about his father, about him coming to terms with his father. Every boy’s story is, in a way—David is a boy/David is Boy. That’s facile, but if David is not Boy, then Boy’s voice is very conspicuous in his absence. The central event of the trilogy is the snowball that Boy throws at Ramsay that hits Paul’s mother. We get Ramsay’s account, we get Paul’s account, but we don’t get Boy’s. We do, however, get an account by the only member of Boy’s family who seems capable of self-reflection, his son.
So who killed Boy Staunton? This book gives an answer, but I’m not sure I buy it. I’m not sure we’re supposed to buy anything Magnus tells us. I think it was David, and for reasons that are totally outside the text, but I think right up Davies’s alley. Boy Staunton is a Goliath in his son’s life, and a small stone, once slung in anger, is involved in his death. Who slings stones at giants? Davids.
But then, I've just said I think David is his father.