Friday, January 6, 2017
Davies's Deptford Trilogy - and why it's worth reading
At the suggestion of Cousin Fred (he has been suggesting this for years, in fact), I have started reading Fifth Business, the 1st volume of the (weirdly titled) Deptford Trilogy, by the Canadian author Robertson Davies. I've read a couple of things by Davies before (like one, not so much another), interviewed him years ago when I was a books editor, not sure why I never got to the Deptford books, but on first take I'm impressed and maybe ready for the long journey. The first volume was published in 1970 and pretty much established Davies's reputation as one of the leading Canadian novelists (interviews always mention his three-career background: first as an actor at the Old Vic, then as a newspaper editor, then an academic at UT) and an often-mentioned Nobel candidate (too late - he died in ca 1995). This book is a memoir-like novel, first-person narrated, part of that really long English-lit tradition going back to Fielding, the "novel of education," about a young man's coming of age, often of provincial or impoverished origins (or so it seems - in Fielding "noble" lineage is sometimes the late reveal) and rising into a place of stature in the culture. Davies's narrator, Dunstan Ramsey, was born and raised in a small Ontario farming village, population about 800, but still large enough to have 5 sometimes contentious churches. The frame for the novel is Ramsey's response to a newsletter from the school in which he taught about his retirement; Ramsey finds it to be condescending and inaccurate, and he writes, allegedly, to the headmaster to set the record straight. The major motif in the first parts of this novel concern the most profound of mysteries, w/ obvious religious overtones, of death and resurrection. There are at least two incidents in which a major character dies, or seems to die, but is revived by the attentions of a woman: in the first instance, it's Ramsey's older brother, who seems to die of an infection while Ramsey is watching over him; for some reason, the teenage boy runs across the village to seek help from a minister's wife who is deranged and ostracized; she lays hands on the brother and brings him back to life - though no one in the village believes this. Later, Ramsey himself "dies" in action in World War I, but it turns out he was in a months-long coma and was nursed back to life by a lovely young English nurse; a romance ensues, ends, and Ramsey returns home to a hero's welcome in Deptford, which he believes he does not deserve. Back home, he finds that the young woman he'd "left behind" is now engaged to another young man from town, Ramsey's lifelong rival and to some degree his antithesis: he rose in rank during the war to major, though it's not clear whether he saw any action. The writing throughout is clear and straightforward and engaging; the closest contemporary in manner and style would probably be Jonathan Irving - himself a bit of a literary throwback (often compared w/ Dickens).