Davies, (William) Robertson (Vol. 25)
(William) Robertson Davies 1913–
(Also wrote under pseudonym of Samuel Marchbanks) Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, and publisher.
An outstanding figure in Canadian letters, Davies satirizes Canadian provincialism and manners in his writings. Although he was a strong force in Canadian theater and journalism for many years, Davies's fame primarily rests on his novels. His Salterton trilogy (Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties) is a caricature of a bourgeois Canadian university town. The Deptford trilogy (Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders) which followed, focuses on the individual's need to accept the irrational, unconscious side of the self. In his recent novel, The Rebel Angels, Davies once again utilizes a university setting and academic characters to create a biting satire laced with his eclectic themes.
That Davies has been considerably influenced by the theories of Carl Jung is evident in the mystical, magical, and mythical themes which pervade his work. Because Davies's style reflects a wide range of intellectual interests and expertise, it is considered pedantic by some critics.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 7, 13 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
Marchbanks' Almanack, recorded once more by Samuel Marchbanks' devoted amanuensis, Robertson Davies, is just as funny, just as witty and just as wise as the Diary and the Table Talk were before.
Some readers may find their gorge rising at the names of Marchbanks' correspondents, others will find the plan of the book (an almanack filled out with health hints, meditations and so on) a little forced. But no reader can really argue with the spaciousness of mind, the wide range of human contact and the richness of general reading which distinguish this book. What other writer would on one page talk about the oiling of aspidistra leaves, the film Ivanhoe and the inscription on Strindberg's tomb?…
There is the delicious musing about a garter-belt found by Marchbanks as he shovels a load of sand out of his driveway: "Who, I wondered, could have discarded her garter-belt in a sand-pit, and why? Was I, all unwillingly, turning over the grave of some fleeting summer romance? And if so, was a sand pit not a somewhat gritty place for extramural amours?"
There is the incidental information that the handkerchief was invented by King Richard II, "the first man known to history to carry a piece of linen or silk, clean every day, for blowing his nose."…
To quote further would be to quote the whole book, for such gems occur on every page.
(The entire section is 283 words.)
The assertion of Magnus Eisengrim near the conclusion of The Manticore, "I am what I have made myself," and Liesl's postulate in the same chapter that "the modern hero is the man who conquers in the inner struggle" crystallize the theme which underlies all five novels of Robertson Davies from Tempest-Tost (1951) to The Manticore (1972). It is the theme of psychological growth toward wholeness which is based on the existential struggle carried on in the interior spaces of the mind and culminates in the fulfilment of the "yearning for greater enlightenment through mystical experience." (Tempest-Tost)
This theme runs through the five novels in a three-fold manner. In its most obvious form it serves as the framework in which the events and the characters evolve and progress within the boundaries of each novel. Whether the inner growth of the principal characters is painfully slow and barely recognizable as in the early novels, or far-reaching and symbolically significant as in the later ones, it is embodied in a specific way in each of the five books.
The series of novels viewed as a whole reflects the same theme in the progression from its embryonic expression in the form of unrest and dissatisfaction and the "yearning for greater fulfilment" through various stages of development toward levels of insight and into realms of wisdom and serenity.
Thirdly, as manifestations of a...
(The entire section is 1880 words.)
Walter E. Swayze
Included [in One Half of Robertson Davies: Provocative Pronouncements on a Wide Range of Topics] are aspects of Davies' personal life and habits, beliefs and convictions, aims and intentions that had never been made clear through the person of Samuel Marchbanks, characters in the plays and novels, or the author's own published literary criticism. No totally unsuspected Robertson Davies steps out of these pages, however, and to suggest that these pieces weight equally with everything that he has published to date will arouse expectations that are not fulfilled.
Even stylistically there are few surprises. In the preface Davies says, "What is meant to be heard is necessarily more direct in expression, and perhaps more boldly coloured, than what is meant for the reader." But in the diversity of styles in which Davies has written for publication direct expression and bold colour have been constant features. Perhaps the most obvious difference between some of these speeches and published essays on similar topics are a less rigorous organization, and a more informal proportioning and linking of parts. Holding an audience with eye and voice, a speaker may indulge himself more readily with a telling personal anecdote, a lengthier plot summary, or more casual transitions than he would permit himself in writing for print.
Regardless of title and proposed distinctions, this collection justifies itself as an unusually...
(The entire section is 652 words.)
Joyce Carol Oates
[The] experience of reading One Half of Roberston Davies was enlightening—I was forced to realize how close, how astonishingly close, colossal vanity is to pristine innocence. (p. 24)
Of these 22 pieces perhaps five are worth preserving; the others, particularly a "satirical" poem on Hair, not to mention a coy, cute animal story written for children but included here because "several people" assured Davies it was really for adults, might have been tossed away without regret. The collection improves as it progresses, though this may be a consequence of Davies's choice of subject matter (Freud, Jung, Trollope, melodrama, ghost stories, Proust, etc.) rather than the actual quality of his writing…. On Dickens he writes knowledgeably, if without any particular genius; on Jung he is disappointingly simplistic, and makes statements I would challenge—"For Jung," Davies says, "God was a fact for which evidence existed in the mind of man." And is it true that "Jungians assert the existence of God"? The Jungian position as I understand it is that a God-experience of some kind is possible psychologically. But as an empiricist Jung would hardly make the claim that God exists apart from the human psyche.
The collection ends with four conversational lectures on the problems of evil in literature, and one of those essays most Canadian writers have felt compelled to write in recent years, "The Canada of Myth...
(The entire section is 529 words.)
In The Rebel Angels, morality and hilarity contribute in about equal parts to a story of theft and murder set in the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (Spook, to its familiars) on the campus of a large Canadian university. Careful readers of Davies will not be surprised by the simplicity of the story-line, the adept management of narrative structure, the lively characterisation, the re-emergence of familiar themes, the acerbic commentary on academic and other forms of life, and the flurry of esoteric information. (p. 578)
The narrative takes the form of two linked first-person accounts, one by Simon Darcourt and one by Maria Theotoky, alternating through the novel…. The distinction between them is so neat as to appear almost over-contrived, yet is is thematically appropriate as well as structurally useful, for each of them represents a psychic element of the other which must be reckoned with. Darcourt [an Anglican priest] must come to terms with his physical self, particularly in the form of erotic love and a tendency to put on weight. Maria, whom he loves, must come to terms with her Gypsy inheritance while living in a gadje (non-Gypsy) society, represented at its best by Darcourt.
Although Darcourt is an interesting and well-realized character, it is Maria who really occupies the center of the novel, for she is one of Davies' most engaging characters, and certainly his most interesting female...
(The entire section is 885 words.)
Discussions of Davies' first three novels—the so-called Salterton trilogy—tend to emphasize his comic and satiric vision. By contrast, criticism and discussion of the Deptford trilogy—[Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders] …—have focussed on the psychological and religious dimensions of the novels and Davies' substantial debt to the thought of the Swiss analytical psychologist C. G. Jung. Filaments of continuity are evident between the two trilogies but there is no doubt that Davies' reputation as well as his almost unchallenged status as a serious thinker, sage or pundit … depends on the later body of work. In this case the common view is at least partly right since there's little doubt that Fifth Business is Davies' masterpiece and together with The Stone Angel, The Scorched-Wood People and Coming Through Slaughter, among the handful of Canadian novels that count. (p. 30)
Davies' concern in his later work has been with man's need to acknowledge the emotional, the irrational and the unconscious side of the self…. The central figures of Fifth Business and The Manticore suffer from an excessive dependence on conscious or rational modes of being, and the action of each novel moves towards a moment of recognition in which we witness the return of what has been repressed/suppressed and the consequent development of an integrated self…. Up to a point, the second...
(The entire section is 1251 words.)
In the main, the heroes and heroines of Robertson Davies' novels, the characters through whom he chooses to tell his stories, are scholars. They are also pedants. They have many opinions, whereas scholars in the strict sense have only a few, closely related to their disciplines. In the course of their conversations and meditations. Davies' heroes and heroines express their opinions expansively and with wide-ranging references to history and literature. Furthermore, since the habit of forming opinions extends most easily into matters of human behavior (politics and propriety), Davies' opinionated scholars are inclined to priggishness. They editorialize extensively and gratuitously on hygiene, university budgets, women's lib, wisdom, contemporary music, and a thousand other subjects.
It's hard to deny a writer his turf, and pedants and prigs are certainly fit subjects for fiction. However, a pedant who remains a pedant can't very easily be a hero and a convincing narrative voice. In a novel, characters and events must seem real…. Against the backdrop of real life, in the context of a convincing plot, pedantry must look pathetic. Successful pedantry must look unreal.
Unfortunately, Davies' pedants are eminently successful. They may learn many things, but they are always confirmed in their pedantry and priggishness. They claim to understand the peace that passeth understanding, and they are supported in their claim by...
(The entire section is 1448 words.)
John Kenneth Galbraith
Davies is a fine writer—deft, resourceful, diverse and, as noted, very funny. But his claim to distinction is his imagination, which he supports by an extraordinary range of wholly unpredictable information. (p. 7)
Fitzgerald, Hemingway and even Faulkner dealt with a world to which the reader feels some connection. Similarly located and circumstanced, one might see what they see. Davies deals with matters far beyond the experiences of his readers; yet, you find yourself taking his word for it, according him full faith and credit. Even if he invents the way a magician practices his art, you have to believe that the invention is at least the equal of the original.
The new novel, "The Rebel Angels" … yields to none of the others in either diverse and esoteric knowledge or complexity of theme….
The story is told in alternating chapters by Maria Theotoky and Simon Darcourt, and the device allows two different accounts and perceptions of the same flow of events. It is less confusing, once one becomes accustomed to it, than might be expected; in fact, it serves exceedingly well….
There is a convention that, in describing a novel, one should not give away the plot. But the attraction here for me is in the style of the story, the fun, and in the truly massive array of information which the book, like its predecessors, conveys….
It is fair to say that one does not...
(The entire section is 411 words.)
Davies' work reveals a progressive attempt to define human identity in the fullest possible sense. In the development of his work from Shakespeare's Boy Actors to World of Wonders, he can be seen to examine the possibilities of role-playing, the second self, the autonomous personality of the artist, the Jungian self, the romance hero, and the Magian soul, and to assess each as a possible mythologem of the completed human identity. His exploration of these possibilities is rooted in his deep and long-lasting affinity with Jung, and, for the most part, is carried out within a frame of reference firmly based on Jung's ideas. Nevertheless, Davies eventually moves beyond his affinity with Jung to a more impartial assessment of Jungianism as simply one way of looking at the universe, one myth among a number of others, and finally he is able to present the Jungian self as only one among several concepts of complete human identity.
Each step of his exploration of human identity involves incursions into what Jung calls 'the smaller infinity' …, for a definition of human identity can be formulated only in terms of the inner reality of human beings. It is this inner reality which Davies describes as the 'enchanted landscape.' His inner world is not, however, 'the cosy nursery retreat of Winnie-the-Pooh. It is a tough world, and it only seems irrational or unreal to those who have not grasped some hints of its remorseless,...
(The entire section is 1044 words.)