It’s been a wonderful long weekend of reading Robertson Davies! Thanks to all who joined in this event; here are the posts I gathered:
Calmgrove on Tempest-Tost: “This then could be how the novel works: a light entertainment, yes; perhaps a work to share with bookish friends, certainly; but also possibly a work laden with significances, above and beyond its seeming nature.”
Bookish Beck on The Rebel Angels: “If I can generalize about Davies from having read just two of his books, I would say that his novels engage with philosophy and the Christian tradition, and though he dives into the dark things of life his is an essentially comic vision, giving his work an attractively puckish air.”
Cath Humphris on Why Robertson Davies?: “Reading it was an audacious adventure, something that was different to anything I’d read before, and yet I knew that it was what I’d been working my way towards all of my literate life.”
Trevor Murphy on The Manticore: “an engaging narrative and delivers the richness of detail and alternate perspectives within the world of his creation that make Davies a unique artist.”
And my own post on The Cunning Man: “What is the necessity we are covering up, and how shall wholeness be restored when we don’t want to look at our full, uncensored selves?”
This takes us from Davies’s first novel to his last, with stops at his other major trilogies and a glance at the essays as well. I couldn’t have organized it better if I’d tried.
I will leave you with the final words from that final novel, a curious and quirky envoi that is delivered in response to a phone call that turns out to be a wrong number — if there can be said to be any such thing, in the fate-conscious, magic-infused imagination of Robertson Davies.
“Eh? Isn’t that the Odeon?”
I decide to give a Burtonian answer.
“No, this is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night.”
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.
For this year’s Robertson Davies Reading Weekend, I wanted to revisit Davies’s last novel — which, of course, he could not have known to be the last; he had begun to draft a new novel at the time of his death, so it seems he intended to at least complete his final trilogy. But with this reread, I was struck by how as if in valediction it seems to be a sort of compilation of “greatest hits” of RD. It has music and art and theatre; it has Toronto and Salterton and a backwoods Ontario town; it has references to Freud and Paracelsus and obscure Victorian drama; it has Scots and Celts and Anglo-Catholics, saints and artists and scholars and journalists and scientists and priests, and even a cameo appearance by Dunstan Ramsay, a central character from the Deptford trilogy.
It could seem that this would add up to an uncomfortably derivative sort of Davies stew, but he is too good a storyteller for that. The mix gels around its central character, Dr. Jonathan Hullah, who quickly pulls us into his distinctive life story and its defining question: Can a doctor be a humanist?
In another case of literary cross-pollination, that happens to be the title of an excellent lecture by Davies that is included in the nonfiction collection The Merry Heart, and its theme is played out in fictional form here. The lecture was given in 1984, the novel published in 1994 — so it’s clear this was a topic that occupied the author for some time.
The results are likely to puzzle some, anger others, and resonate with some, like me, who believe that the body is more than a very complicated machine, and that there are mysteries which can’t be uncovered with a scalpel or a brain scan. Hullah’s medical education includes his own early healing by a Native American woman who calls on mysterious “helpers” and thus gives him the fascination that becomes his medical calling. He goes on to witness a painful operation on a school friend who becomes ill when forcing himself into an examination he knows he’ll fail.
“It wasn’t his body that was betraying him, and it wasn’t possible for his mind to bully his body into subjection. It was something else, some more profound and radical Charlie that was trying to keep him out of a contest in which he would certainly be hurt.”
Who is this other self that calls up the very thing our conscious minds most rebel against, and manifests it in a physical form that we cannot ignore? In the course of a career that includes service in the coroner’s office and as an army doctor, Hullah comes to believe it is the signature of Fate in human life. “Mankind, it appears to me, seeks gloves with which to clothe the iron hand of Necessity, and these gloves he calls diseases.” An interesting, if somewhat disquieting idea, in these times of disease and fear. What is the necessity we are covering up, and how shall wholeness be restored when we don’t want to look at our full, uncensored selves? In the novel, the question is left open, but it drives the art of a healer such as Hullah.
The book is not all grim medical philosophy, by any means. As mentioned, there is also a strong dash of art and religion; Hullah hones his humanism with an amateur theatre company that does a memorable version of Faust, and he rents his office facilities from the “Ladies,” an artistic couple who have fled an unwelcoming England for the wilds of Toronto, holding a weekly salon that is the talk of the town. (They are the ones who name him the “cunning man,” an old term for a wise man or sort of village shaman). Their house is on the grounds of an Anglican church that provides another dimension to consider, as Hullah’s childhood friend, now a priest there, has whipped up the music and ritual to a very high level, and has become obsessed with saints. Is it all another form of play acting? Or is there something more behind all of that?
Entertaining and erudite, the novel absorbed me in spite of its rather awkward framing device — Hullah’s memories of the Toronto of the past being solicited by a young female reporter who later marries his godson, characters from yet another Davies novel, Murther and Walking Spirits. Into this format are wedged garrulous letters from one of the Ladies to her friend Barbara Hepworth, and Hullah’s musings about the medical questions in works of fiction (what did Little Nell really die of, and so forth). It’s a little unwieldy, and starts to fall apart towards the end, losing energy as does the aging doctor himself.
So it’s not my favorite Davies novel, but I did enjoy it, and find it a worthy end to an impressive career. I’m glad I read it again this year, and I’ll no doubt visit it again in the future. The questions it raises are ones that I’ll be working on for a long time.
Are you reading a Robertson Davies book this weekend? Be sure to let me know which one, and what you thought.
“One of the things that puzzles me is that so few people want to look at life as a totality and to recognize that death is no more extraordinary than birth. When they say it’s the end of everything they don’t seem to recognize that we came from somewhere and it would be very, very strange indeed to suppose that we’re not going somewhere.” — from Conversations with Robertson Davies
It’s here! August 28, 1913 was the birth date of Canadian author Robertson Davies, so I’ve designated this weekend to celebrate his many wonderful works.
If you’ve read and posted about any of them, please leave a comment here, or otherwise notify me, and I’ll do a wrap-up on Tuesday. My own post about The Cunning Man will be published on Sunday.
As summer begins, here is just a heads up that after last year’s Robertson Davies Reading Weekevent, there was enough interest in doing it again that I’ve decided to host a three-day “birthday weekend” for the Canadian author, August 28 to 30.
This will be a very free-form event; simply read whatever you like by or about Robertson Davies — fiction, nonfiction, plays, criticism, biography, or what have you — and if you are so moved, post about it during the weekend. You are encouraged to visit and comment on others’ posts as well. Be sure to link to the event here on ECBR so we can find you.
There will be further reminders as the weekend approaches, but mark your calendars and visit your libraries now!
It’s hard to believe, but our week has already come to an end. It’s been fantastic to see some other readers giving attention to the marvelous books of Robertson Davies. Many thanks to my fabulous guest bloggers:
As for next year, I was thinking of this as a one-time event, but I feel as though we are just getting started. Perhaps next year I’ll make it a one-day birthday celebration; that will give you all plenty of time to make plans and read a trilogy — or two, or three…
At any rate, please continue to read and write about Robertson Davies whenever you can. I’m grateful to you all for filling this week with lively comment and discussion, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it too.
Today, head over to Buried in Print for a consideration of Robertson Davies’s second-to-last finished novel, Murther and Walking Spirits — one that draws on his own family history in a remarkable way. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the main character dies (this happens in the first sentence) but beyond that we’re going to try not to give too much else away.
A couple of quotations to entice you:
“Thanks to Davies’ wealth of experience as a voracious reader and critical thinker, his stories are filled with brief excerpts from poems and narrative texts and a plethora of allusions. Even with a search engine at my side, I must be missing references, as there are echoes and homages – in names, word choice, syntax – peppering every page of his prose.
But if that’s all there was to it, his readership would be limited: he also tells a great story. In one moment, you are thinking about reaching for your dictionary — “Who are these tatterdemalions who have opened his gate and are coming toward him?” — but, in the next, you are too concerned with who they are to figure out precisely what they are (and the context is almost as good as a dictionary).”
“If you are looking for a dark-but-not-spooky story to curl up with on dark autumn evenings, Murther & Walking Spirits would be a fine choice.”
So please, click on the link to find out more about the ways in which this novel fits with Robertson Davies’s oeuvre: “His use of allusions, his quiet wit, his interest in manners and social relationships, his dependence on archetypes, and, most of all, his ability to tell a good story.”
This has been our last scheduled contribution to Robertson Davies Reading Week. I’ve had a blast, and I hope you have too! Tomorrow, a look back and a gathering of other posts that have appeared — be sure to mention yours in the comments, or use #ReadingRobertsonDavies on Twitter, so it can be included.
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.
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.’”
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.”
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.
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.
Readers of Robertson Davies’s fiction — to which we were given a brilliant introduction yesterday in Chris’s review of The Deptford Trilogy — may become curious about the motivation and inspiration behind his multifaceted talent. Fortunately, there is a good deal of material to feed this curiosity, as Davies wrote and spoke extensively about various fields of interest throughout his overlapping careers as a journalist, an actor and playwright, an educator, and a writer of fiction.
Shortly after his death in 1995 two collections appeared that gathered some of this material, much of it delivered as lectures and previously unpublished, and these are a wonderful place to encounter his unique voice — whether or not you’ve already found it through his fiction. He generally speaks from a personal and idiosyncratic point of view, revealing much about his own tastes, opinions, and development, even as he opens windows into fascinating, often overlooked aspects of life, history, and literature.
Wise, surprising, funny, enlightening, sometimes cranky or cantakerous, not always to be agreed with or swallowed whole, but always lively and thought-provoking, these pieces give the impression of a mind endlessly enchanted with the richness and strangeness of life, and inviting us to dive into the depths. It’s this perspective for which I so value his writing, finding it a bracing antidote to the mix of utilitarianism and frivolity that seems to characterize our age.
This is the Magian World View, as described at the end of the novel World of Wonders — “a sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible world that existed side by side with a hard recognition of the roughness and cruelty and day-to-day demands of the tangible world … It was poetry and wonder which might reveal themselves in the dunghill, and it was an understanding of the dunghill that lurks in poetry and wonder. ”
In all of his work, I believe, Davies was calling us to bring back into our lives this unfashionable, challenging, yet deeply necessary and rewarding mode of meeting the world. And as a lifelong champion of the arts of the written, spoken, sung, and dramatized word, he knew from the inside out how a true engagement with those arts can enliven and redeem our pallid, worn-out modern souls.
That’s the overall subject of these two volumes: The Merry Heart with a focus on “Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books,” and Happy Alchemy on “The Pleasures of Music and the Theatre.” From the first piece, “A Rake at Reading,” to the last, “How To Be a Collector,” he champions the importance of what in another context he named the clerisy, the unofficial body of intelligent people for whom reading is a passion, but not a profession. In typically un-stuffy style, he gives homage to Dickens, Proust, and Balzac, but also considers the merits of the funny papers and the Ontario Primer; he appreciates Victorian melodrama along with Shakespeare and Shaw.
As well as lectures, essays, and autobiographical sketches, the contents include spoofs, parodies, and pastiche, in various forms ranging from verse to ghost story to film scenario. In the introductions, excerpts from his diaries shed light on the circumstances surrounding each piece’s composition, and his Theatre Diary is mined for opinions on various relevant productions. It’s a joyfully eclectic gathering that seeks always to point out the delight and inspiration to be found in the word-arts, and can be happily wandered through for many hours by those of us who share this predilection.
There are interesting glimpses into the process behind Davies’s own writing; he describes the genesis and pervading themes of some of his novels, and tries — when asked by a discerning audience — to give a sense of how intuition and consciousness come together to form a work of art, in a way that can surprise and delight the author as much as anyone. When confronted by boorish or unintelligent questioners, he responds with less patience; to the eternal question “Where do you get your ideas?” he likes to answer “I don’t — they get me.”
In similarly curmudgeonly fashion, he deplores the proliferation of people who want to write and gain money and fame thereby, but don’t want to pay the price in daily toil; he is dismissive of the vague blather in modern education about everyone being creative, and questions the quality of “engagé” writing that “emerges when a writer seizes upon a theme because it is for some reason popular, rather than because he has any strong initial feeling about it.” Davies is broad-minded in many ways, but he also has personal standards that may be called elitist. He doesn’t care, taking the view that an overly democratic approach to all areas of life, and to the arts in particular, will result in levelling everything to a sort of gray paste of mediocrity.
He could well be right. So against this numbing, dehumanizing tendency, he challenges us to read, write, and think out of our own individuality, which is yet rooted in the universal reality of our human nature. He calls us to look to the future without forgetting the lessons of the past, which he insists have not lost their relevance, however modern and liberated we like to think we are.
One of his favorite quotations, which he repeats in various contexts, comes from Vladimir Nabokov, who spoke of the shamanstvo of the novelist, his “enchanter quality.” The enchantment of Davies’s fiction is not at all deflated by these “behind the scenes” collections, but rather enriched and enhanced by them. I encourage you to give them a look, with confidence that you will discover literary magic of another sort.