Sunday, April 18, 2010

Robertson Davies: The Cunning Man (1994)

The Cunning Man was Davies's last book, and I think it's safe to assume it was meant to be the middle book in a trilogy. It interlocks with Murther and Walking Spirits in precisely the same way that his other trilogies interlock, not by moving a particular plotline forward but by utilizing some of the same characters and settings events as the earlier book but shifting them in importance and point of view, turning main characters into bit players and vice versa, making one person's triumph another's mere annoyance. In this case, the character of Gil, the murdered narrator of the previous book, becomes the narrator's godson and perhaps son, and his murder, which happens late in this book, is the occasion for soul-searching and revelations, rather than the expected grief.

One wonders, of course, how Davies would have concluded the trilogy if he had lived, but ending things here doesn't produce a sense of unfinished business, fifth or otherwise. Doubtless he knew he might not live to finish the project, because this book wraps up with a curious sense of finality, not to mention fatalism - and the last words are "Good-night."

So what's it about? As with the middle novels of his last two trilogies, it's a life story. In this case it's the autobiography (in the form of a "Casebook," supplemented in one key section by letters written by a neighbor, offering a valued second perspective) of Jonathan Hullah, a physician of unconventional methods. Influenced at a very young age by an Indian shamaness and later by the classical and medieval wisdom typical of the Davies intellectual, he practices a kind of mind-body medicine. It might be termed "holistic" if not for that term's New Age-y connotations; and in fact Hullah rejects homeopathy and other varieties of mysticism. Hullah's philosophy is, rather, Old Age-y, a conviction (bolstered by quotations from forgotten sages of the European Tradition) that spiritual ills will manifest themselves in bodily, and that in some cases the best thing a healer can do is just listen to the patient - the Talking Cure - and understand his or her particular grievances against Life. There's some Freud in Hullah's approach, as he admits (an interesting detail in light of the Jungian underpinnings of the Deptford books).

Medically I don't have much confidence that Hullah's ideas stand up, and I doubt Davies does, either. Rather, Hullah seems to be Davies's prescription for the ills of the modern world, another in a long line of his arguments for the Liberal Education.

But in a sense Hullah's not what this book is about. Just as Fifth Business was narrated by a man obsessed with saints, but not really about him, this book is really about a saint, even though Hullah's story only comes back to that subject here and there.

Hullah's practice is located next to a church, St. Aidan's, the parson of which, Ninian Hobbes, is a strikingly holy man: gives everything to the poor, radiates goodness, patience, and humility, is almost a simpleton in his faith. Keels over during mass on Good Friday. His flock and his assistant are ready to have him canonized. Problem is, this is an Anglican congregation, and such things just aren't done nowadays.

St. Aidan's, through no particular influence of Hobbes's, is an unusually Romish sort of Anglican church, very High: the assistant, Charles Iredale (a boyhood friend of Hullah's), is intent on restoring a lot of the Latinate beauty and majesty to the rituals. He attracts like-minded people to make over the church's music, vestments, and decorations, and for a while the church is a sort of temple to Beauty, a spiritual counterpart and even extension of the weekly salon conducted by a lesbian couple who live next door in a house that had once been part of St. Aidan's glebe. The Ladies, as they're called, comprise a kind of home base for the struggling arts scene in Toronto in the immediate postwar decades, and the membership of their salon and the neighboring church largely overlaps; Hullah is involved in both.

The push to canonize Hobbes causes a short kerfluffle, then fades away, but it forms the backdrop to the whole novel, even during the long stretches when it fades away from the narrator's attention. It seem to represent, as best as I can tell, an insistence on the old magics of faith and mysticism as being present in the modern world under different guises, combined with a yearning for transcendence in art and life. And those themes are everywhere in the book (as indeed they are in Davies's mature work). This despite the fact that only about a third of the book involves Hobbes, and that only indirectly. Mostly this is Hullah's story of his own life and education, involving long sections about his boyhood in a remote Ontario village, his schooling at Colborne, his visits to Salterton, his experiences in WWII, his friendship with Iredale and with Brocky Gilmartin (Gil's father)... Lots of sly references to earlier works.

It is, in other words, a meandering book. Davies's best work, the Deptford and Cornish trilogies, were discursive and expansive, but never meandering: they always pulled you along, either through the cleverness of the plot (there's usually some mystery going on somewhere) or the addictive medicine of the prose. This book does neither.

But it's not a failure like its immediate predecessor. It lacks the urgency of his best work, but it recaptures the depth of feeling, and of characterization, that Davies was once master of, and so the lack of urgency doesn't matter as much. We're in old-master territory here, where a reflective stillness can be enough, and nostalgia can be indulged, because it's been earned. It's a much more satisfying final chord than his previous book would have been.

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