Robertson Davies Reading Weekend: The Manticore (Guest Post)

As an extra bonus at the close of this year’s Robertson Davies Reading Weekend, I received a very nice email from a Davies fan who was unable to post a review on his own blog because he doesn’t have one. I offered to put it up as a guest post, and he kindly agreed. So thanks to Trevor Murphy for extending our weekend celebration, and enjoy!

The Manticore: A Guest Post by Trevor Murphy

Is The Manticore required reading for fans of Robertson Davies?

The Manticore, the second novel in the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies, was published in 1972 and won the Governor-General’s Literary Award in the English language fiction for that year.

The story plumbs the experiences and emotions of David Staunton, the son of Percy “Boy” Staunton, whose mysterious death propels much of the action in the Deptford Trilogy. Recovering from grief over his father’s death in Fifth Business (the first book in the Deptford Trilogy), David heads to Zurich for Jungian psychoanalysis. The story charts David’s insights using his first-person narration and transcripts of the therapeutic sessions.

It’s interesting Davies focuses so closely on this character for the middle novel in the Deptford Trilogy. David made only a brief appearance in Fifth Business as a successful barrister and “a drunk.” David is virtually absent from World of Wonders, the final book in the trilogy. Even in The Manticore, David’s interaction with the trilogy protagonists occupies only a portion of the story incited by a chance encounter.

Additionally, considering the book from the perspective of 2020 makes sympathy for David Staunton questionable. Should we spend a significant amount of time rooting for a protagonist born into privilege, unashamed of being wealthy himself (he earns more than CAD 600,000 a year adjusted for inflation), and is an addict?

The answer is ‘yes’ for readers who want to engage in Davies’ full exploration of the intersection of magic and the everyday. The novel successfully takes the reader into the trilogy’s central issue: the interplay of magic and the contemporary world. Unlike the books in Davies’ Cornish Trilogy, which consider the metaphysical in the context of university scholars reasonably comfortable with medieval magical thinking, The Manticore juxtaposes the otherworldly with twentieth-century psychotherapy. The exploration of magic in a world of science continues in Davies’ The Cunning Man (also reviewed as part of the 2020 Robertson Davies Reading Weekend), which considers the supernatural quality of art investigated by a medical doctor.

It’s true that The Manticore does not feature Davies’ most memorable protagonist. Additionally, in a rather shocking offense to a devoted reader of Davies, the ending of The Manticore employs a technique that was better used by Davies to conclude A Mixture of Frailties, the final novel of a separate Davies trilogy. With all that, The Manticore provides an engaging narrative and delivers the richness of detail and alternate perspectives within the world of his creation that make Davies a unique artist. The Manticore is most rewarding when considered as a part of the author’s canon than on its own merits, but it stands as a worthy component of the writer’s work.

Trevor Murphy is a reader and marketing professional who lives in LA with his wife, audiobook narrator Emily Eiden, and their children.

High Spirits

Today, a venture into a sort of side-line of Robertson Davies’s narrative genius, the ghost stories told by him each Christmas while Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. Naomi of Consumed by Ink tells us what makes these seemingly transient trifles still worth a look today — even though regrettably we cannot hear them read in the author’s inimitable voice.

Guest post by Naomi of Consumed by Ink

High Spirits

From “Stories About Storytellers” by Douglas Gibson:

“Then there was the voice. Elderly ladies who as girls in Kingston took part in theatricals in 1932 that were directed by young Rob Davies still talked more than seventy years later about his marvellous voice, and how impressively he could use it.” (p.121)

Knowing Robertson Davies’s background in theatre, it’s unsurprising that these ghost stories were originally told out loud. In addition, they were told solely as a source of entertainment to party attendees at Massey College every year at Christmas. A new story each year for eighteen years. From what I’ve read about Robertson Davies so far (which is admittedly not much), I imagine he was in his glory telling these stories. I also imagine the stories would have been even more delightful to listen to than they are to read. I’m sorry I will never get to hear one.

The ghost stories in “High Spirits” are not scary – they are intended to “amuse”, not to “frighten”. And in this he succeeds. They are delightfully funny and creative. Even the introductions to each story are amusing, building on the last as the years go by. As well, they all take place at Massey College or are connected to it in some way.

“… this College is well advanced in its eleventh year, and we have had a ghost story every Christmas. Ten ghosts, surely, is enough for any college? In a modern building, such a superfluity of ghosts is almost a reflection on the contractors. Or could it, on the other hand, be some metaphysical emanation from the spirit of the Founders who were, to a man, connoisseurs of ‘bizarrerie’? Or – and this, I assure you, is where the canker gnaws – is there something about me that attracts such manifestations? There are men who attract dogs. There are men of a very different kind who attract women. Can it be that I attract ghosts?”

As the main character in his stories, Davies runs into a host of ghosts or spirits, ranging from a future master of Massey College to Satan himself. Canadian authors such as Ernest Thomas Seton and Mrs. Susanna Moodie hang around, “clamouring to be reborn” (“’Perhaps they hope that this time they might be born American authors,’ said I”). King George the Fifth comes to Massey College to search for a valuable stamp that his “ass of a secretary” used on a letter to Mr. Massey in 1934. Davies partakes in The Charlottetown Banquet with Sir John A. Macdonald, where he couldn’t help but ask if Sir John A. had seen Expo ’67. “’I certainly did,’ said he, laughing heartily, ‘and I took special trouble to be there at the end when they were adding up the bill. The deficit was roughly eight times the total budget of this Dominion for the year 1867.’”

Mackenzie King, tenth prime minister of Canada

One year, Davies runs across a student named Tubfast Weatherwax III who believes he is Little Nell from Charles Dickens’s novel. Another year, he finds a frog named Igor that has been cursed and believes the only way to lift the curse is to be kissed by Khrushchev. The spirit of William Lyon MacKenzie King inhabits a small table that was bought as a gift for the Davies’ daughter. Albert Einstein comes to play “Bach’s Six Sonatas for Clavier and Violin”, with Einstein on the violin and Davies on the piano. (“I was a musical marvel.”)

My favourite story in the collection was inspired by the first “uncanny tale” Davies read when he was ten – “Frankenstein” – which terrified him “unforgettably and gloriously”. After hearing their professor lament about the loss of all the Massey cats to Trinity College, two of his students (Victor Frank Einstein and his girlfriend Elizabeth Lavenza) decide to create the Ideal College Cat. They build a Frankenstein-like cat, twelve times the size of a regular cat, put together using pieces from twelve regular cats and two goat eyes. It can talk like a Victorian novel, has a shovel on the end of its tail to clean up after itself, and has such a mighty tongue that it tears the skin off Davies’s hand when it licks him. I’ll leave it to you to discover what happens in the end.

The final story in the collection is, in my opinion, the creepiest (although, Franken-cat comes in at a close second). A four-hundred-and-fifty-year-old visitor comes to Massey College from his Cryonics Institute in South America, scouting for “candidates”. He seems to run on vinegar, rather than food and water, and has other odd requirements. Which result in a shocker of an ending.

Some good lines…

“Canada needs ghosts, as a dietary supplement, a vitamin taken to stave off that most dreadful of modern ailments, the Rational Rickets.”

“I wish I could either forget both faces and names, or remember both.”

“It pleased me to hear the Ghost quote Scripture; if we must have apparitions, by all means let them be literate.”

“Nakedness is unfriendly to a clumsy curtsy.”

“It used to be said that cobbler’s children were always barefoot; by some kindred freak of Fate author’s houses are always barren of pencils and paper.”

For Your Eye Alone

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.

1892 cartoon of the “doom-eager” Oscar Wilde

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]

Elisabeth Sifton, Davies’s editor at Viking

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].

Pioneering physiologist Horace Davenport, friend and frequent correspondent of Davies

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,
Eheu fugaces
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.

The Deptford Trilogy

On this first day of Robertson Davies Reading Week, it seems appropriate to celebrate what is probably Davies’s most well-known work: the cycle of three novels known as The Deptford Trilogy. I’m so glad that my invitation to contribute to this event prodded Chris of Calmgrove to finally read these books, because I thought he would love them — and I was right! See below for more about his experience, a rich reflection upon a many-faceted work that continues to enchant readers worldwide.

Guest post by Chris Lovegrove, Calmgrove

Time is. Time was. Time is past.

“… a continual reminder of the consequences that can follow a single action.”

The Deptford Trilogy is my first — but not my last – foray into the world of Robertson Davies. How have I not been aware of his work up to now? Like many another convert to his writing I’m recommending him to anyone who will listen, and our household has now invested in two further trilogies of his. Yet how to explain his appeal in a few paragraphs when every page, sometimes every paragraph, offers some new delight?

The basic premise is easily told. This series introduces us to the lives of three men from rural Ontario over some seven decades, through the first world war, the interwar years and on into a Europe at peace. Fifth Business is recounted by one of the author’s alter egos, Dunstan Ramsay, who sees his life through the prism of a childhood incident when a woman gives premature birth because she has been hit by a stone inside a snowball. The Manticore, another first person account, narrates the story of the son of the boy who threw the snowball, as told to a Swiss psychoanalyst. With World of Wonders we’re back with Ramsay, who now reports the conversations which Paul Dempster – the boy born prematurely sixty years before but now, as Magnus Eisengrim, a world-famous illusionist – has with BBC personnel making a drama documentary, in which he plays the role of another great illusionist from history.

The problem the reader has is deciding when a narrator is being unreliable, which could well be most of the time. Reported speech is given in great detail which, if these were genuine memoirs, would require prodigious feats of memory. Nevertheless, such is the author’s skill and stylistic legerdemain we mostly buy into what is being spun, this despite the fact that Davies gives so many untrustworthy clues. In The Manticore David Staunton describes Ramsay’s creed: “history is the mass of observable or recorded fact, but myth is the abstract or essence of it.” This encourages us to doubt Ramsay’s account in Fifth Business, for how can we innocent readers distinguish between what is historical and what is mythical in what Ramsay tells us?

Medieval image of “Ysengrimus”

Further, the myriad dissembling themes in the trilogy are nearly all signposts to the spell being cast over us: Ramsay’s cack-handed attempts at sleight of hand, and Dempster’s mastery of conjuring; the roles soldiers must play in the theatre of war, and the assumption of stage names in travelling shows and in repertory; the masks and make-up that hide our true selves from the audience, and the personas we assume and the symbols we acquire to play the parts we wish to present. Such is ‘fifth business’, the fictional term the author endows on the figure who is the catalyst to an action; such too is the manticore, a composite animal of myth which was reputed to devour humans, and also Eisengrim, the wolf of medieval fable; while the World of Wonders in the third novel refers to the North American carnivals which in the early 20th century displayed freak shows and acts — not all of them genuine — from bearded ladies and sword-swallowers to strongmen and conjurors.

If the Deptford Trilogy was only about playing around with themes and symbols and words it would still be a fine creation. But it is of course more than that. It concerns itself with big themes that humans have struggled with for eons, themes such as conscience, guilt, culpability, courage, love and obsession. Was Ramsay, who ducked when his friend ‘Boy’ Staunton threw the snowball, responsible for Paul Dempster’s early birth and the descent of Paul’s mother into a kind of half-life? Was Ramsay’s award for bravery on the battlefield due to courage or the madness that comes out of war? Does David Staunton deserve more love from his father than his father is able to give? And do Paul Dempster’s undoubted skills and talents, obsessively learnt and perfected, compensate for the dubious part he plays in the deaths of the men whom he regards as having abused him?

The three novels focus almost entirely on four men, three who are near contemporaries plus the son of one of them, and the author explores their personalities and psychologies in great depth. But though women appear to play rather secondary roles it is they who, as catalysts or as matrices, effect change. In the first book we are presented with several women who figure in Ramsay’s life. His mother dominates his early years but he is drawn more and more to the ‘holy fool’ who is Paul’s mother. Then there is his first love Leola, whom he loses to his boyhood rival but with whom he will continue being in touch to the end of her life; and Diana, who becomes his nurse, lover and friend but not a wife. In the middle instalment David Staunton never quite connects with his mother and despises his stepmother, but does experience transference with his psychoanalyst Johanna. In the final book we hear more of Liesl, business partner (and more) to Eisengrim; but the female figures now are more transitory, background to the egoists that are the conjuror and to the narrator Ramsay. In fact, the final word is just that: egoist!

Vermont sideshow, 1940s

Though said with considerable humour it is Liesl who declares it, and as a comment it is both insightful and fitting that it should be a woman. She it is who is the voice behind the Brazen Head act that delivers the shocking statement that follows ‘Boy’ Staunton’s death in Fifth Business, she it is who may or may not be the woman in David’s dream that ends The Manticore, and she alone who delivers the judgement at the conclusion of World of Wonders.

Friar Bacon’s Brazen Head originally pronounced the dread words ‘Time is. Time was. Time is past.’ Perhaps significantly, it’s a trilogy in miniature.

A book I fell in love with

Today, I’m over at Bookish Illuminations as part of a two-week celebration of “Books that we fell in love with.” What a great idea for Valentine’s Day! I’m talking about Beauty by Robin McKinley, one of my very favorite fairy tale retellings. Please check it out, and be sure to visit all the posts from February 5 to 20 for more lovely book recommendations.