I’m grateful to Lory (of The Emerald City Book Review) for hosting this past week’s Robertson Davies readalong, which was my excuse to finally try him for the first time. Of course, Canadians have long recognized what a treasure he is, but he’s less known elsewhere. I do remember that Erica Wagner, one of my literary heroes (an American in England; former books editor of the London Times, etc.), has expressed great admiration for his work.
I started with what I had to hand: Fifth Business (1970), the first volume of The Deptford Trilogy. In the theatre world, the title phrase refers to a bit player who yet has importance to the outcome of a drama, and that’s how the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, thinks of himself. I was reminded right away of the opening of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” In the first line Ramsay introduces himself in relation to another person: “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5.58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.”
Specifically, he dodged a snowball meant for him – thrown by his frenemy, Percy Boyd Staunton – and it hit Mrs. Dempster, wife of the local Baptist minister, in the back of the head, knocking her over and 1) sending her into early labor with Paul, who also plays a major role in the book; and 2) permanently compromising her mental health. Surprisingly, given his tepid Protestant upbringing, Ramsay becomes a historian of Christian saints, and comes to consider Mrs. Dempster part of his personal pantheon for a few incidents he thinks of as miracles – not least his survival during First World War service. And this is despite Mrs. Dempster being caught in a situation that seriously compromises her standing in Deptford.
The novel is presented as a long, confessional letter Ramsay writes, on the occasion of his retirement, to the headmaster of the boys’ school where he taught history for 45 years. Staunton, later known simply as “Boy,” becomes a sugar magnate and politician; Paul becomes a world-renowned illusionist known by various stage names. Both Paul and Ramsay are obsessed with the unexplained and impossible, but where Paul manipulates appearances and fictionalizes the past, Ramsay looks for miracles. The Fool, the Saint and the Devil are generic characters we’re invited to ponder; perhaps they also have incarnations in the novel?
Fifth Business ends with a mysterious death, and though there are clues that seem to point to whodunit, the fact that the story segues straight into a second volume, with a third to come, indicates that it’s all more complicated than it might seem. I was so intrigued that, thanks to my omnibus edition, I carried right on with the first chapter of The Manticore (1972), which is also in the first person but this time narrated by Staunton’s son, David, from Switzerland. Freudian versus Jungian psychology promises to be a major dichotomy in this one, and I’m sure that the themes of the complexity of human desire, the search for truth and goodness, and the difficulty of seeing oneself and others clearly will crop up once again.
This was a very rewarding reading experience. I’d recommend Davies to those who enjoy novels of ideas, such as Iris Murdoch’s. I’ll carry on with at least the second volume of the trilogy for now, and I’ve also acquired the first volume of another, later trilogy to try.
Some favorite lines:
“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.”
“Forgive yourself for being a human creature, Ramezay. That is the beginning of wisdom; that is part of what is meant by the fear of God; and for you it is the only way to save your sanity.”
It’s also fascinating to see the contrast between how Ramsay sees himself, and how others do:
“it has been my luck to appear more literate than I really am, owing to a cadaverous and scowling cast of countenance, and a rather pedantic Scots voice”
“Good God, don’t you think the way you rootle in your ear with your little finger delights the boys? And the way you waggle your eyebrows … and those horrible Harris tweed suits you wear … And that disgusting trick of blowing your nose and looking into your handkerchief as if you expected to prophesy something from the mess. You look ten years older than your age.”
I initially wanted to title this post “Books that Changed My Life,” but soon realized it would probably be more accurate to speak about them as the books that have shaped my life as a keen reader and meant the most to me as the years have passed.
In making this list I was inspired by a book I recently finished, Kate Gross’s memoir Late Fragments, which finishes with a bibliography of books that influenced her during different periods of her life. Gross, who died of colon cancer at age 36 in 2014, divides her reading life into five distinct, whimsically named eras: “With my back to the radiator” (childhood), “The grub years” (adolescence), “Emerging from the cocoon” (early adulthood), “The woman in the arena” (career life) and “End of life book club.”
I’ll do a follow-up post on the key books from my twenties next month, but for now I want to focus on the books that defined my growing-up and teen years.
What Bewick’s Birds was for Jane Eyre, my parents’ book on flower arranging was for me. I couldn’t tell you the title or author, but I think this green fabric covered tome with its glossy pages and lush full-color photographs was the origin of my love of books as physical objects. I must have spent hours paging through the illustrations and breathing in the new-book aroma. I’ve been a book sniffer ever since.
I can’t recall many of the individual picture books my mother read with me when I was little, but one that does stand out in my memory is Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, about an eccentric woman who goes about planting lupines. Again, it’s a gorgeous book filled with flowers – you’d think I might have become a botanist!
C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia were the first books I ever read by myself, starting at age five. It took me years to get to the allegory-heavy The Last Battle, but I read the other volumes over and over, even after the PBS television movies came out. The Silver Chair was always my favorite, but I’m sure I must have read the first three books 10 or 20 times each.
Richard Adams’s Watership Down was the first book I ever borrowed from the adult section of the public library, at age nine. Crossing the big open lobby of the Silver Spring, Maryland library from the children’s room to the imposing stacks of Adult Fiction was like a rite of passage; when I emerged clutching the fat plastic-covered hardback I felt a little bit like a rebel but mostly just pretty darn proud of myself. I inhaled the several hundred pages of this bunny epic and for years afterwards considered it my favorite book.
Nowadays I don’t like to commit to series, but as a kid I couldn’t get enough of them: after Narnia, I devoured the Babysitter’s Club and Saddle Club books, the Anastasia Krupnik books, and so on. Whenever I found an author I loved I dutifully read everything they’d written. The Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery, in particular, accompanied me through my early teen years. I think I saw the CBC/PBS television miniseries starring Megan Follows first and read the books afterwards. Bereft once the eight-book cycle was over, I read the much darker Emily trilogy, but it just couldn’t live up to the Anne books.
My first foray into the realm of heavy-duty classics was Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield at age 14. I bought a battered secondhand paperback from a library sale and was immediately entranced, from the first line onwards: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” No doubt the idea of discovering my own potential heroism was what drew me in, but I loved everything about this novel: the rich panorama of nineteenth-century life, the vibrant secondary characters, the under-the-surface humor you had to work a little bit to understand, and the sweet second-chance romance. This was the start of my love affair with Victorian literature. I’ve read it three times since then. If ever asked for my favorite book, this is what I name.
It wasn’t my first Hardy novel (that was Far from the Madding Crowd, another all-time favorite), but Tess of the D’Urbervilles is most memorable for the circumstances in which I read it. At age 19 I accompanied my sister, who’d won a singing contest on local radio, to the Season 2 finale of American Idol in Hollywood. If you were a loyal viewer, you might recall that this was the showdown between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, on whom I had a hopeless crush – it later emerged that he’s gay. I read Tess on the flight to Los Angeles. Stranger pairings have been known, I’m sure, but I’ll never forget that disconnect between bleak England (where I hadn’t yet been at that point) and the sunny entertainment capital.