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.”
My reading has tipped more towards physical books than e-books recently, and my book acquisitions have been getting rather out of hand after some cheeky charity shopping and an influx of review copies. Plus this afternoon we’re off to Bookbarn International, one of my favorite secondhand bookstores, for an evening event – and naturally, we’ll fit in some shopping beforehand. It would be rude not to after traveling all that way.
With all this tempting reading material piling up, I’ve been thinking about some of the traits I most appreciate in books…
Omnibus editions: two to four books for the price of one. What could be better?
Built-in ribbon bookmarks: elegant as well as helpful. I also love how Peirene Press releases come with a matching paper bookmark for every three-book series.
Everything about the hardback edition of Claire Tomalin’s Dickens biography is gorgeous, in fact. I especially love the vintage illustrations on the endpapers and the half-size dustjacket.
Deckle edge is one of my special loves. For the most part it’s unique to American books (over here I’ve heard it complained about as looking “unfinished”), and always makes me think nostalgically about borrowing books from the public library in my parents’ town.
It may sound shallow, but I love these four novels almost as much for their colorful covers as for their contents. (Is it any wonder one of my favorite tags to use on Instagram is #prettycovers?) Several of these covers have raised lettering as well.
The History of Bees is one of the most attractive physical books I’ve acquired recently. The dustjacket has an embossed image; underneath it the book itself is just as striking, with a gold honeycomb pattern. There are also black-and-white bees dotted through the pages.
Colored text blocks (also called sprayed edges) are so unexpected and stylish.
And now for a few physical book traits I’m not as fond of. Perhaps my biggest pet peeve, impossible to photograph, is those matte covers that get permanent fingerprints on them no matter how gingerly you try to handle them.
I wish proof copies didn’t often come in nondescript covers that don’t give a sense of what the finished book will look like. (No ice cream cone on Narcissism for Beginners; no leaping fox on English Animals.) However, keeping in mind that I’m lucky to be reading all these books early, I mustn’t be a greedy so-and-so.
All Fitzcarraldo Editions books are paperbacks with French flaps. Another book I’m reading at the moment, As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths (from Dodo Ink), also has French flaps. It’s not that I dislike them per se. I just wonder, what’s the point?