Monday, March 29, 2010

Robertson Davies: Murther and Walking Spirits (1991)

An Arts editor for a Toronto newspaper, Connor Gilmartin (or Gil) is murdered by his wife's lover. Gil's ghost, who narrates the book, follows his murderer until the latter, a theater and film critic for the newspaper, goes to a film festival. At which point the ghost begins seeing "films" of his ancestors' lives, rather than the classics his murderer sees.

The bulk of the book, then, is about the narrator's ancestry, tracing it from the eighteenth century to the twentieth. It reads less like a multi-generational saga than a series of vignettes, however, because we mostly zero on on significant episodes for each ancestor, rather than birth-to-death chronicles. We start with the Gages, a family of Loyalists in New York during the American Revolution - out of pride and self-preservation they flee up the Hudson River to Canada. We then join a Gilmartin who was an early disciple of Wesley's in Wales, and his progeny in Wales and then in Canada. We end up with Gil's father, a professor of English lit and a WWII veteran.

The story of the Gages was the most memorable, a brief retelling of the Revolution from the point of view of, essentially, Canadians, with the Americans who declared independence seen as rabble, smugglers, traitors, and bullies. Needless to say, a perspective I'd never seen before, and quite interesting.

The rest of the book was a bit disappointing. This kind of broad summary of Canadian spiritual history should have been Davies' masterpiece, since it enables him to tackle head on a lot of the themes that have been submerged in earlier novels, such as the effect of various forms of religion on the modern Canadian character, the particularly Canadian perspective on world-historical events, etc. But I think he handles these themes much better elsewhere - in What's Bred in the Bone, for example. Except for the Gages, I didn't find him saying much new here, and more importantly, I didn't find him saying it in as interesting a way.

Part of it I think is what I noticed about the Salterton books: he's simply most alive when he's able to engage great art and discourses through hyper-intellectual characters. In this book he's mostly returning to Salterton territory - not the town itself (although it does make a cameo appearance), but its Everycanadian kind of people. And it feels limiting to his vision. I don't think it's just that I like these characters less; I think I'd say that his characterizations just aren't as true, his stories aren't as revealing, here.

And his writing, that glory of his past nine novels? Perhaps because the story isn't working, his writing begins to feel like shtick here, employed to compensate for deficiencies in the book's conception, rather than to complete the transmission of any new message. Part of this can be seen in his treatment of the film motif - unlike his stage and opera and cinematography metaphors of novels past, the film metaphor isn't used in a particularly original or effective way. His use of film terminology, for example, is superficial, as if he'd picked up an Intro to Film book and tossed in terms from the glossary without really internalizing them...

Davies would have been 78 when this was published, and I hate to say it, but it reads like he was losing it.

On the other hand, it's possible that I just wasn't into it because I was reading this book in airplanes, airports, buses, and hotel rooms, jet lagged and on very little sleep...

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