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.”
When she read my review of As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths, Liz Dexter suggested Wendy Perriam’s books as readalikes and very kindly sent me one to try: The Stillness The Dancing – a title whose lack of punctuation confused me until I discovered that it’s taken from a line of T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”: “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” It took me nearly a year and a half to get around to it, but I’ve finally read my first Perriam (fairly autobiographical, it seems) and found it very striking and worthwhile.
The comparison with the Griffiths turned out to be apt: both are hefty, religion-saturated novels dwelling on themes of purpose, mysticism, asceticism, and the connection between the mind and body, especially when it comes to sex. Perriam’s protagonist is Morna Gordon, a 41-year-old translator. The end of her marriage was nearly as disorienting for her as the loss of her Catholic faith. Occasional chapters spotlight the perspective of the other women in this family line: Morna’s mother, Bea, who’s been a widow for as long as Morna has been alive and finally finds a vocation at an age when most people are retiring; and Morna’s daughter Chris, who’s tasting freedom before starting uni and settling down with her diver boyfriend, Martin.
When Morna accompanies Bea on a week-long religious retreat in the countryside, she meets David Anthony, a younger man she initially assumes is a priest. Here to deliver a lecture on miracles, he’s a shy scholar researching a seventh-century Celtic saint, Abban, who led an austere life on a remote Scottish island. Morna is instantly captivated by David’s intellectual passion, and in lieu of flirting offers to help him with his medieval translations. Still bruised by her divorce, she longs to make a move yet doesn’t want to scare David off. After 14 years of Neil telling her she was frigid, she’s startled to find herself in the role of sexual temptress.
Staid suburban England is contrasted with two very different locales: Saint Abban’s island and the outskirts of Los Angeles, where Morna and Chris travel for a few weeks in January so Chris can spend time with her father and meet his new family: (younger) wife Bunny and Chris’s four-year-old half-brother, Dean. California is “another world completely,” a fever dream of consumerism and excess, and Morna does things that are completely outside her comfort zone, like spending hours submerged in a sensory deprivation tank and breaking down in tears in the middle of Bunny’s women’s consciousness-raising circle.
The differences between England and California are exaggerated for comic effect in a way that reminded me of David Lodge’s Changing Places – but if for Chris it’s all about hedonistic self-expression, for Morna America is more of an existential threat, and she rushes back to be with David. There are several such pivotal moments when Morna flees one existence for another, often accompanied by a time of brain fog: alcohol, sleeping pills or grief disrupt her normal thought processes, as reflected in choppy, repetitive sentences.
I bristled slightly at the melodramatic nature of the final 60 pages, unsure to what extent the ending should be seen as altering the book’s overall message: Morna is denied a full transformation, but it seems she’s still on the spiritual path towards detachment from material things. Though still a lapsed Catholic, she finds some fresh meaning in the Church’s history and rituals. As her mother and daughter both embark on their new lives, her ongoing task is to figure out who she is apart from the connections that have defined her for so many years.
My favorite parts of the novel, not surprisingly, were Morna’s internal monologue – and her conversations with David – about faith and doubt. Perhaps I wasn’t wholeheartedly convinced that all the separately enjoyable components fit together, or that all the strands were fully followed through, but it’s an exuberant as well as a meditative work and I will certainly seek out more from Perriam.
Some favorite lines:
(Morna thinks) “If one had been exhorted all one’s girlhood to live for God alone, then how could one have purpose if He vanished?”
David: “I know our society shies away from any type of self-denial, regards it as neurotic or obsessional, but I disagree with that. Anything worth having is worth suffering for.”
Morna: “Are you still a Catholic? I know you said you believed in God, but that’s not the same, is it?” / David: “I’m still redefining all my terms. That can take a lifetime.”
Author note: Wendy Perriam’s name was completely new to me, though this was her 11th novel. Now in her 70s, she is still publishing fiction, with a crime novel released in 2017.
Page count: 536