At the core of Robertson Davies’ novels is a sense of humor that reduces pompous institutional values to a refreshing individuality. Interplays of the formal with the specific—officious academia versus lovable satyr-professor, self-important charitable foundation versus reclusive forger-artist, elaborately constructed “magic” paraphernalia versus truly gifted magician, Viennese Jungian psychology versus painfully intimate self-exploration—are the pairings that make the novels come alive. The theatrical metaphors from his early work come forward whenever Davies’ novels are to be described: Behind the scenes, his cast of characters perform their roles even more effectively than on the stage of their professional lives, but Davies, often in his fictive personas of Dunstan Ramsay and, in the later trilogy, Simon Darcourt, is there to unmask them and make them laugh at themselves.
Davies perceives a basic duality in human nature and exploits the tensions between the two sides to produce novelistic excitement and philosophical insight. Another way to clarify the duality of Davies’ view is to make use of the central “grid” in The Manticore: reason versus feeling. Giving both of the main characters’ human impulses their proper due, Davies finds the fissure in their marriage and wedges his humor into the gap, penetrating the surface of their union to reveal the weakness of one and the domination of the other. The “gypsy” in each individual (a subject at the center of The Rebel Angels) must be answered to, or else an imbalance will turn life sour. For David Staunton in The Manticore, reason has overpowered his ability to feel; for Parlabane in The Rebel Angels, feelings and emotions have made his intellectual life a hollow pretense. Davies finds and repairs the imbalances, giving to each novel a closure of reconciliation between feeling and reason. Thus, despite the intertwining of characters and incidents, providing a “perspectivist,” kaleidoscopic view of both, each novel stands apart, complete, while at the same time the richness of the situations promises more.
Coupled with Davies’ vast erudition and education (he has been called a “polymath” by more than one critic) is a fine sense of how the English language works; these qualities combined provide both the broad stroke and the marvelous attention to detail that make his novels successful. One unusual feature of all of his work is the very high level of education enjoyed by virtually all the characters, an intellectual mise-en-scène that allows the reader and Davies to share all kinds of sophisticated observations. The title Rebel Angels subtly suggests its subject, François Rabelais; What’s Bred in the Bone echoes the “paleopsychology” of a character in The Rebel Angels; and the character Magnus prepares the reader for the fact that another character, Pargetter, will be called a “Magus” in a subsequent novel. The puns and plays on words are polylingual and are never spelled out (the character names Parlabane, Cruikshank, and Magnus Eisengrim are examples ready to hand); Davies does not patronize his readers. Ramsay lost his leg in World War II; he may be David Staunton’s biological father, having been in love with Leola Cruikshank Staunton (her maiden name means “crooked leg”). These few examples point to a general trend: metaphor before bald statement, reflected heat before direct blast, euphemism before naked statement. When Dr. von Haller refers to a person’s age as “a psalmist’s span,” she makes no apologies. Full appreciation of what Davies is getting at in his work requires of the reader a fairly comprehensive cultural literacy.
The earthiness of real life is never lost among the intellectual conceits, however: A plot line of one entire novel deals with the quality of dung to improve the tonal qualities of stringed instruments. When the time is right for describing sexual aberrations or cadaverish details, Davies is ready. It is true that Ramsay’s vast knowledge of arts and letters (Davies himself was famous among his colleagues for extemporaneous but highly informative lectures on obscure subjects of every kind) gives glimpses, if not insights, into such a broad range of cultures and historical periods that Davies’ fullcanon can almost serve as a checklist of gaps in the reader’s erudition. Still, as Ramsay himself points out while speaking of his own book in World of Wonders, Davies’ novels are “readable by the educated, but not rebuffing to somebody who simply wanted a lively, spicy tale.”
Dunstan Ramsay is clearly the authorial persona in the Deptford novels, as actor and audience; whether taking part in the plot directly, as in Fifth Business, or as observer and narrator in World of Wonders, or as a coincidental facilitator in The Manticore, Ramsay emerges as having the closest to Davies’ own fine sense of the observably ridiculous, along with a forgiving spirit that makes Davies’ work uplifting and lighthearted, despite its relentless examination and criticism of everything spurious and mediocre in the human spirit. Simon Darcourt, a priest and academician in the later novels, is yet another Davies persona, recognizable by his penetration into (and forgiveness of) the foibles of the rest of the characters.
Fifth Business, the first novel of what became The Deptford Trilogy, has been cited by many critics as the real beginning of Davies’ major work, a “miracle of art.” The novel marks Davies’ first real “thickening” of plots and details, and a list of the subjects dealt with reads like a tally sheet of Western civilization’s accomplishments to date: saints’ lives, psychology, mythology, folk art, place-names and family lineages, magic arts, medieval brazen heads and other tricks of the trade, and the complex workings of nineteenth century theater. It is the autobiography of Dunstan Ramsay himself, at age seventy, looking backward at the impulses that formed his life and character, beginning with an accident in a winter snowball fight in which a passerby, Mary Dempster, was injured, causing the premature birth of her son.
The “friend/enemy” relationship between Ramsay and Boy Staunton (intended target and careless launcher, respectively) is the singular metaphor for Davies’ pursuit of the dichotomy in every person: a drive for worldly success foiled by a need for spiritual or aesthetic grace. For Ramsay, the reverse is true: His life is so affected by the snowball-throwing incident that he never succumbs to merely material reward but spends his life in self-examination. In this novel, all the major characters for the next two are introduced in some form or...
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