Saturday, January 7, 2017
Robertson Davies and 1 reason why he was never as populat as Jonathan Irving
Robertson Davies's Fifth Business (1970), the 1st volume of his Deptford Trilogy, is what they call a good, old-fashioned yarn; as noted in yesterday's post, he's really not part of any school or tradition - completely removed from the two major trends in American fiction that were dominant (and to a degree at odds) in the 60s and 70s: postmodernism (Barth, Hawkes, Barthelme, Gass et al.) and minimalism (Carver, Beattie, et al.). He's similar to Jonathan Irving (right down to the interest in circuses and magic), and both owe a huge debt to Dickens - but he did write in the 20th century, after all, so his novel is more open about sexuality, careerism, and accumulation of wealth. In essence, it's a Tale of Two Boyhood Rivals: the narrator, Dunstan Ramsey, who led a seemingly uneventful life as a boarding-school history teacher (the whole premise of the novel is that it's Ramsay's communication to the headmaster to show him that in fact his life was full of events), and his outwardly more successful friend and sometime rival, who goes by "Boy," who becomes really wealthy through shrewd investments before, during, and after the Depression. What distinguishes this volume, however, is Davies's (and Ramsay's) fascination, even obsession, with spirituality: as a historian, Ramsay's subject is hagiography, and through this we learn about the lives and times of various saints (from what I checked out, these are accurate, not fanciful, narratives, odd as they may seem) - and he is on a lifelong quest to determine, or perhaps to prove that a mentally ill woman from his home town of Deptford, Mrs. Dempster, may have the powers of a saint: He believes she brought him back to life after he was wounded in battle and performed other miracles; over time, he becomes her guardian and has no option but to place her in a public mental asylum in Toronto. So all told the novel is a mixture of bildungsroman narrative, religious speculation, a some toying with ideas of mysticism and miracles - lots of material, very well paced, accessible prose. Could it have been a hit on the scale of Jonathan Irving? Maybe - will think about that further - but for one thing Davies did not help himself with his ridiculous and obscure book titles (something at which Irving excelled). Couldn't an editor have helped him out there?