Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost (1951)
The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.
When I was in college, my campus bookstore had a tempting array of current fiction on the way to the textbooks. Among these were several strikingly designed Penguin paperbacks by an author named Robertson Davies. After looking at them for years I finally bought one: Davies’s first novel, Tempest-Tost, about an amateur production of Shakespeare’s play in a provincial Canadian town.
And how glad I was that I did! With a sure comic touch, Davies assembles his cast of characters and lets them make fools of themselves, occasionally learning something in the process, in the best Shakespearean tradition. The pompous English professor who simply must play Prospero with his own special touch; the drama club president, preoccupied with impressing her social superiors; the suddenly stage-struck mathematics teacher whose staid and comfortable life is shaken up by his venture into theatrical circles; the gloriously unconventional church organist with a passion for Henry Purcell; the young assistant director bound by painful ties to his invalid mother; all these and more entertain and divert us with their own comedy alongside the one they are preparing for the stage.
In this early work, Davies sometimes lets the seams of his novelistic construction show. He can’t resist including some incidents and bits of dialogue that don’t quite fit — as when he puts one of his favorite sayings (“chastity means having the body in the soul’s keeping”) in the unlikely mouth of the ingenue Griselda, or shoehorns in a scene that shows off his knowledge of the value of some forgotten old books. An actor, director, and playwright himself, Davies is somewhat given to staginess and long passages of dialogue that seem out of place in this brief work of fiction.
All of these rough spots would be smoothed out in future novels, where Davies really came into his own as a fiction writer. The comic sense and eccentric characters, as well the evidence of his formidable learning and eclectic interests, remain — but his storytelling becomes more accomplished and compelling, resulting in a most satisfying reading experience. For a sample of his narrative power at its height, I recommend Fifth Business (first of the Deptford Trilogy, about the surprisingly interwoven destinies of three boys from a small Canadian town); my personal favorite, What’s Bred in the Bone (a wonderful exploration of the art world, among other things); or his final novel, The Cunning Man (conceived as the memoir of a physician who was “holistic” before it was trendy).
Rereading Tempest-Tost just now after an interval of many years, I was struck by the opening scene — a motherless young girl, living in a large estate, with a faithful ex-military family retainer and a lovely older sister she describes as “brainless,” engaged in a somewhat shady activity. The activity is wine-making instead of concocting poisons, and the girl’s family is still comfortably wealthy instead of living on the edge of insolvency, but is this set-up not reminiscent of that of the Flavia de Luce mysteries? The two girls even both have unusual names that start with F (here, Fredegonde).
In another somewhat awkward move, Davies abandons Freddy after the opening chapter and his story goes into quite a different direction — but still, it made me wonder whether fellow Canadian author Alan Bradley was consciously or unconsciously inspired by this scene. It would not be a bad thing for more writers to read and be inspired by Davies’s example of intelligent, emotionally resonant fiction, or for more readers to discover its pleasures.
Davies never won the Booker Prize, though he was shortlisted for What’s Bred in the Bone in 1986. At the time surprise was expressed in the UK at the presence of two Canadians on the list, the other being Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale. Davies said dryly, “The English are just a little late in discovering what the rest of the world has known for some time.” (Alas, both lost to third-time nominee Kingsley Amis.)
We’re in a different world now, where Canadian authors like Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Carol Shields, and Bradley himself garner wide readership and honors, but Davies was their forerunner, and deserves all the recognition we can posthumously give him. Whichever book you start with, I hope you’ll agree.