As we continue to this week’s appreciation of the work of Robertson Davies, we turn to a literary form that is severely endangered in the age of e-mail and texting: the art of letter writing. Davies was a prolific and highly versatile correspondent, and recipients of his missives often treasured them for years. A selection has been published in two volumes, of which For Your Eye Alone is the second — dating from the years of his increasing prominence as a novelist.
On what would have been Davies’s 106th birthday, Lizzie Ross is our guide to this revelation of the private man behind the public writer, about which she concludes, “If you don’t mind a good dose of warts-and-all, these letters let you into the life of a famous writer.” Read on to learn more about what she discovered.
Guest post by Lizzie Ross, Writer
“O mihi praeteritos!”
For Your Eye Alone: The Letters of Robertson Davies (1999), selected and edited by Judith Skelton Grant (335 pages, + 40 pages of Notes and a 20-page Index)
The letters in this collection begin when Robertson Davies, age 63, was writing The Rebel Angels, the first novel in his Cornish Trilogy; they continue until his death twenty years later and through the publication of an additional four novels. Having read the Cornish Trilogy, his series about art and music and university culture, with a bit of murder and scabrous doings thrown in, I was quite happy when Lory offered me the opportunity to review For Your Eye Alone for her celebration of Davies’ 106th birthday.
A peek into this author’s day-to-day world, via his correspondence, satisfied my voyeuristic bent, showing me not only his creative concerns, but also who and what he admired, as well as a few pet peeves – which, as for most of us, are pretty silly if not downright despicable. If you don’t mind a good dose of warts-and-all, these letters let you into the life of a famous writer.
Davies read widely, and references and quotes (even if occasionally misidentified) abound. Shakespeare, Jung, and the Bible appear most frequently, but Davies also drew from authors such as Yeats, Milton, Poe, George Eliot, and Apuleius. While best known in the U.S. as a novelist, Davies was also a librettist and playwright, finding pleasure in three forms of live performance: theater, symphony, opera.
He wrote appreciative letters to actors, opera singers, conductors, not to mention other authors. One letter to Margaret Atwood (June 30, 1983) congratulates her on a recent Convocation speech and then engages her further on one of her points, about Oscar Wilde. Davies calls him “doom-eager”, a term I have never heard or read, but so apt.
In letters to his friends, Davies never hesitated to rail against critics, express fears about imminent cataract operations and yearly attacks of asthma and flu, or complain about misused language. He wrote to Leon Edel (n.d., 1981) about John Irving’s “poverty of language” (one of Irving’s characters uses a single epithet too often), and even bewailed his own biographer’s “sloppy usages”:
“She* really has no feeling for language or she would not pour it out like a man emptying a sack of bird-seed. But who gives a damn about language? The folly which most burns me, because it is so common, is that of saying that something “is cut in half” when in fact it is either cut in halves or cut in two. Reduced to half, perhaps: cut in half, never.” [letter to Horace W. Davenport, November 20, 1994]
He’s a musical snob as well, noting every unsatisfying musical experience, including “a young black man in a pink skiing suit” attempting Für Elise on a steel drum on a Toronto street corner. “… for a giddy moment I thought of giving him a dollar. But no – the assault upon Beethoven was too grievous and I fled.” [letter to Robert Finch, January 10, 1991]
All this would be funny if his rantings weren’t also occasionally tinged with racism and homophobia. He dismissed the value of creative writing courses, seeing no point in encouraging everyone to write:
“This is sour but I am oppressed by the amount of crap that comes over my desk about how tough it is to be a woman, or gay, or a lesbian or a Red Indian, and that every peewee minority has a “right” to a literature of its own.” [letter to Horace W. Davenport, February 8, 1991]
He defends his use of racist epithets with the that’s-how-I-was-raised excuse, and his frequent wishes that the people he dislikes get AIDS are just plain disappointing. I can’t say that Davies is a favorite author, but I’m still sad to find that he was so unkind, even if only “in jest”.
And yet he could be sympathetic in ways that seem to contradict his reaction to the Toronto steel drummer. He politely answered queries from readers of all ages. In one answer he revealed a surprising tolerance for popular fiction, suggesting that Harlequin novels sell well because
“… people are perpetually hungry for narrative and although they are not quite like the people of an earlier day who delighted in hearing the same story over and over again in precisely the same form they do, nevertheless, like stories which embody fantasies which feed their imagination and in some measure give meaning to their lives….” [letter to Sheila Kieran, April 6, 1981]
His novels, of course, as well as essays and lectures, are frequent topics in his letters. These letters include too few notes on Davies’ writing process. (In The Merry Heart, reviewed yesterday by Lory, Davies comments at greater length on his writing process for several of his novels.) Instead, he summarized themes and plots, while also expressing a writer’s doubts about the value of his work. Each completed manuscript was submitted with an accompanying letter saying, essentially, that it was probably all drivel but he could do no more with it. After The Rebel Angels was published, he summarized the themes for his editor at The Viking Press, ending with the opinion that “the novel sounds like one of the really great Literary Turkeys of all time.” [letter to Elisabeth Sifton, February 6, 1982]
Self-doubt is familiar to every writer, so I can empathize with Davies. Yet, he was amused when a
“Canadian reviewer, who had knocked Fifth Business, came to see me and said (I quote his very words), “I don’t get this; the book didn’t go very well up here, and I didn’t like it, but now they’re praising it in the States. What’s wrong?” A foolish sense of courtesy forbade me to tell him what I thought was wrong.” [letter to Leon Edel, Canadian Thanksgiving, 1981]
Davies’ polite silence is admirable, for he certainly didn’t hold back when it came to religion. He was scathingly sarcastic to one reader who vehemently disliked the “lies, sacrilegious slander and filth” she found in an excerpt from The Rebel Angels. In response, he thanked her for setting him straight and requested “a photograph of yourself, so that I may behold a countenance suffused with Christian love, and perhaps even yet repent”. [letter to a woman in Manitoba, October 13, 1981] He wrote to a high school English teacher that
“I am often amused and exasperated by people like your students who, as conventional Christians, are always ready to see offence in anything they have not understood. Tell ‘em so from me.” [letter to Thomas R. Harris, March 11, 1982]
Religion, and Christianity in particular, are two topics Davies discussed at length. He responded to the author of an article about charity, both public and private, noting Christ’s statement, “Ye have the poor always with you,” and then adding, as an irreverent aside, that Christ “so far as we know never gave a shekel to anybody out of his own purse”. [letter to Robert Fulford, February 25, 1985].
He willingly called himself a religious man, but found the hypocritical morality of many Christians reason enough to dismiss their zealotry as more harmful than otherwise. He considered Christianity a dying “Mediterranean faith, hitched to a lot of Mediterranean hierarchical and sacerdotal organization,” which has “shoehorned a little mercy into the savagery of mankind”, pointing out that “civilizations have existed before Christ – great ones, too – and some very remarkable people lived and said their say without benefit of Christian morality.” [letter to Horace W. Davenport, November 22, 1986]
Finally, it’s impossible to ignore the pressure of mortality that increased as Davies aged. A lifelong sufferer of asthma and related pulmonary ailments, he fell ill nearly every winter, with flu and doctor’s visits becoming frequent topics. As I neared the end of this book, I knew that Davies was nearing the end of his life, and each hopeful letter, full of plans for a lecture in Europe and a new novel, became more poignant. I knew that novel wouldn’t get beyond a few sparse notes, that lecture would never be written. Like him 13 years earlier, I grew to resent the “things imperative but not important” that ate up his time for writing. [letter to Leon Edel, July 29, 1982]
A little over a year before his death, he quoted this excerpt by R. H. Barham:
‘What Horace says is,
Anni labuntur, Postume, Postume,
Years glide away and are lost to me, lost to me,
Now, when the folks in the dance sport their merry toes,
Taglionis and Ellslers, Duvernays, and Ceritos,
Sighing I murmur, “O mihi praeteritos!” ‘
[letter to John Julius Norwich, August 1, 1994]
“O, my past!”: Robertson Davies never seemed to regret anything he had done, but it was easy to sense his regret at how little time there was to do all he wanted. Even so, with so many books completed, his oeuvre is the envy of any aspiring writer, and his intelligence, however marred by prejudice and pure crankiness, admirable.
* Note that “she” is Judith Skelton Grant, who selected these letters, whom he initially refers to as “La Grant”. I admire her inclusion of Davies’ cranky attacks on her literary skills. I also hasten to point out that Davies’ opinion soon changed, and he came to admire her work, referring to her as “Judith”, before he died late in the following year.