Canadian Bacon -- An Appreciation of Robertson Davies

11.9.2004 | Robert Latona | Literature
When Robertson Davies died in December 1995, Canada’s state broadcasting corporation, the CBC, offered live radio coverage of his funeral. Unthinkable south of the border, but such last rites were nonetheless less ostentatious than the televised send-off that other culturally self-aware dormer colony, Australia, gave to its antipodean Adonais, second-rate rocker and suicide Michael Hutchence of INXS. Could Canada have offered any lesser honors to its grand old man of letters?

Not only did Davies look every bit the part with his pentateuchal white beard, he conspicuously played it to the hilt, never turning away a fathead interviewer he could dazzle with his unflappable erudition, bespoke aphorisms and ready wit. So he was a borderline celebrity and a national literary hero. To their credit, though, a good many Canadians had actually read the novels penned by one of the century’s most beguiling and lucid writers.

Of course there was sniping from the sidelines as the cortege rumbled by. “He went to Oxford, you know,” sniffed a poet, “one of those colleges” — an unintentionally perfect Evelyn Waugh line if ever there was one. Another scoffer took Davies to task for his scant concern for “the unexamined privileges of color, class and gender”. Actually, much of this sort of thing had been said before, most famously in a 1978 piece by Joyce Carol Oates which is that much more effective on account of its relative restraint and grudging acknowledgement of Davies’ “charming” traits.

Yet Oates was reviewing not the novels but a collection of Davies’ essays, lectures and journalistic odd jobs. Several such miscellanies appeared during Davies’ lifetime and two more after his death. In all of them, he remains charming but also waxes windy and repetitive as he hits the declamatory grace notes required to keep a gaggle of graduate students or an after-dinner audience from nodding off. Along with the two volumes of posthumously collected letters, these are a balm for us Davies diehards but irrelevant to his achievement as a novelist. That so many such cullings were printed only attests to the author’s thwarted vocation for the theater and the adrenaline rush of playing to an audience. No reason to be put off by just a lingering whiff of Canadian bacon (no offense intended — he loved, taught and knew everything there is to know about 19th century melodrama). But he was never, alas, as good an actor or a playwright as he had hoped to be.

Before arriving at that conclusion and moving on, he had been on the boards at Oxford, where he made a specialty of playing “pedants, idiots, old fathers, and drunkards” and of the Old Vic, where he first met Tyrone Guthrie, married his stage manager, and later became Guthrie’s chief-of-staff when the director came to Canada to get the Stratford festival off the ground. Davies’ dozen or so plays range from the negligible to the un-actable. Several were “about” the Canadian identity issue, which must have been a sure-fire way of getting them performed in the 1950s and 60s as well as helping focus his thoughts on something more successfully articulated in the novels.

There were, however, two more careers to be exhausted before Daives would focus his energies on the novel. The war drove him back to Canada, where he edited the newspaper owned by his father, a self-made immigrant who became a very rich man, and then a senator who eventually returned to Wales and bought a castle to die in. Later Davies fils did a 20-year stint as the master of Massey College, a graduate school at the University of Toronto, and it was during this period, when he was all but beyond middle age and occupied with teaching, administering, thesis advising, and churning out preposterous ghost stories that he experienced his real flowering as a writer.

Three previous novels had been concocted out of daubs of Canadian local color, Stephen Leacock-like humor and a squaring of accounts with the constricted, self-regarding and bigoted world of the upper Ottawa Valley, finally getting up to cruising speed in A Mixture of Frailties. But there were deeper reserves of intellect and sensibility that remained untapped until Fifth Business came along in 1970, amazed reviewers, sold like crazy, was cited in sermons, translated and talked about, making a splash well beyond the frog pond of Canadian belles lettres. It’s still a good point of entry into the world of Robertson Davies,

That book and its two unforeseen sequels organized themselves into the first of his trademark trilogies after Davies found he wasn’t ready to let go of some of the characters he created or the predicaments he devised for them. That special Davies touch comes, however, in his exploration of the ongoing albeit subterranean roles of magic, myth, mystery, religious  ritual and rank superstition in contemporary human affairs.

How the author of World of Wonders would have relished the fact that nearly a decade after his death, Massey students have made a fixed ritual out of touching the nose on the bronze bust of Davies in the college library that bears his name before defending their doctorates. (Surely he would also have inquired dryly as to its effectiveness as fertility fetish). The authorial snout has become quite shiny, one hears.

“What I am really trying to do,” he once said, “and what I think a moralist generally does, is to point out patterns in human behavior which are inexorable; they are archetypes of behavior, and I’m not saying that they’re either good or bad. I am simply saying they are so.”

Well, actually not all that simply. Without getting into a list of heat-and-serve term paper topics, you start out with Davies’ understanding of Jung as a useful road map for exploring the human psyche or of comedy as way of illuminating the mysteries of selfhood, with excursions into eclectic sidelines such as scatology, hagiography, art forgery and opera production.

What Melville did for whalers, Davies does for obscure saints, actor-managers, defrocked monks, itinerant carnival hucksters, and Rabelais scholars. Often for the core narrative of “individuation” a spiritual father or mentor is required, but in a sense broad enough to encompass a pair of off-duty guardian angels, a frighteningly ugly woman with nymphonic tendencies, a Jesuit priest with a sweet tooth, the Limbo-locked spirit of E.T.A. Hoffman, or an Indian shaman (shawoman, actually). The narrator of Murther and Walking Spirits gets killed off in the book’s first sentence and discovers that death makes a wonderful shortcut on the path to self-knowledge.

As to my own take, then, as a Davies reader of long standing…

The Manticore makes the Deptford trilogy sag in the middle — not too much, but a little. What’s Bred in the Bone is best read apart from its flanking volumes — it really is on a different level than the goings-on at the extraordinary College of St. John and the Holy Ghost. Which is not to diminish its side-iron companions. Read sequentially, The Rebel Angels and The Lyre of Orpheus make a double-decker Victorian comic novel that leaves Thomas Love Peacock looking like Thomas Love Turkey. And if you really want to find out about Canadian identity, hold off on the one that addresses the question directly, Murther and Walking Spirits until you’ve digested the supporting cast of Fifth Business and What’s Bred in the Bone, because just like Flaubert’s Homais, a “minor” character drawn with deadly accuracy can reveal all that needs be known about blighted and blinkered provincial life — and Davies churns them out a dozen a time.

The last trilogy was cut short at number two. Since he was in his eighties by then, sensibly enough, rather than waiting for the fraying pullcord to be severed, he rang the curtain down preemptively in The Cunning Man with a Prospero-like valedictory: “No, this is the Great Theatre of Life,” the character says.  “Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night.”

Goodnight to you, too, up there in the firmament where your star shines as brightly as does your nose down here on the planet where, you’d no doubt be pleased to know, Penguin has been good about not letting your books go out of print.


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