Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2787
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 another: David Staunton (Boy’s son) is the central figure in The Manticore; the stunted child of Mary Dempster, now Magnus Eisengrim, centers the third novel, World of Wonders.
The Manticore, an examination of Jungian psychology, serves as dramatis personae for all Davies’ novels: The archetypes appear again and again in various disguises, from the shadow figure to the father figure to the hero, from the anima to all of its component parts. David Staunton’s analyst, Dr. von Haller, a woman truly balanced between reason and feelings, helps him find the missing part of his life and represents the Davies character that appears in every novel: the grown woman, wise, often not beautiful but very attractive nevertheless, who leads the central figure past his conventional assumptions about all women into a deeper, more substantive appreciation of the Eternally Feminine.
As Staunton describes the death of his “swordsman” father, Boy Staunton (the name’s significance becomes clearer as the analysis progresses), he learns to recognize all sorts of shadows in his past that have led to his celibacy, his indifference to feelings, and his essential loneliness. Ramsay was one of David’s tutors, and their reunion at the novel’s end, also in the presence of Magnus Eisengrim and Liesl Naegeli, an “ogress,” is another example of the sense of reconciliation and closure that each novel offers, despite the interrelationship of the trilogies themselves. The reader is treated to a full-length portrait of the major characters and then finds them, like old friends, reappearing in other places, other novels, so that the reader is in fact dwelling in the same regions as the heroes of the books. It is a reassuring and comforting realization that, once a book is finished, the characters will be back to reacquaint themselves with the reader in future volumes.
World of Wonders
World of Wonders follows Magnus’s career up to the point at which Ramsay is asked to write a fictional autobiography of Magnus as part of a large commercial enterprise that includes a film on the life of Harry Houdini, with Magnus in the title role. The central metaphor is once again a duality, the division of illusion and reality, for Magnus’s real genius lies not in the tricks of the trade but in a spiritual gift, given to him at his unusual birth. Now the story of Ramsay and Boy Staunton and Mary Dempster is told from yet another perspective, that of the putative victim, enriched beyond measure by the accident of the stone-filled snowball. The stone inside the snowball, like the knives of Spanish literature, is almost alive, with a mind and a direction all its own; Boy Staunton’s body will be found in the river with the stone in his mouth; at the end of The Manticore, Ramsay had tossed the stone down a mountain, remarking almost in passing, “I hope it didn’t hit anybody.” In this way Davies looks at the cause-effect duality apparently at work on the plane of reality, reflecting a larger karmic cause-effect relationship on the spiritual plane. Magnus’s life and success, unforeseen at his birth, tell the listeners (they gather each night to continue the story) that human beings can neither foresee nor alter the future by conscious acts, but they affect the future nevertheless by their own facticity. That is the “world of wonders” the book’s title introduces.
The Rebel Angels
A special and very important motif for Davies is the mentor-protégé relationship, which appears in every novel in some form or another. The Rebel Angels, which begins a new trilogy, is an example. The protagonists are three professors who have been asked to oversee the distribution of a vast collection of art and manuscripts that has been left to a charitable foundation by Francis Cornish (the subject of the next novel in the trilogy, What’s Bred in the Bone). Their contentions and agreements form the framework for a deeper discussion of the nature of human achievement. Simon Darcourt is one of the executors, the kindest and broadest in his interests; he shares the narration with his gifted student Maria Magdalena Theotoky, a young woman about to venture on the same academic, “reasoned” path as her tutors. Her Gypsy mother insists, however, on a larger image of her life, and in the reexamination of her values, Maria discovers the Rabelaisian side of herself in the person of Parlabane, a dissolute, perverted, and most warmhearted individual, a murderer and a suicide, who gives her a great gift in his dying wish.
At least three plots join and part as the book progresses, even the two narrative voices alternating as the story unfolds. Parlabane is a modern manifestation of the seventeenth century Rabelais, Maria’s dissertation topic and the author of three valuable letters stolen by one of the three executors. A thoroughly unlikable character named McVarish serves as a foil to the larger, more humanitarian lives of the other professors and the idealized free-enterprise benefactor, Arthur Cornish. Cornish eventually marries Maria, but not before her idol, Clement Hollier, almost absentmindedly has his way with her on the office couch (a false start in the mentor-protégé relationship). In the process of telling four or five stories at once, Davies manages to give the reader a tour of dozens of cultural worlds, including the care and feeding of rare violins, the cataloging of art collections, the literary secrets of seventeenth century letter writers, the habits of obscure monastic cults, and the fine points of academic infighting.
What’s Bred in the Bone
The second novel in the trilogy, What’s Bred in the Bone, moves backward one generation, to Canada and Europe just before World War II. Francis Cornish, a member of the Cornish clan, recognizably similar to but different from the Staunton clan, is the scion of a rich Canadian entrepreneur. Brought up both Catholic and Protestant (like Davies), Francis combines a quiet talent for drawing with an uncanny ability to imitate the brushstrokes of the masters. A series of circumstances finds him forging paintings in a German castle, painting his own personal life story into large canvases (a metaphor for Davies’ own work), and spying for the British government by counting the clacks of the passing Nazi trains on their way to concentration camps. This mild form of spying is inherited from his military father, in the mold of Boy Staunton, a great diplomatic success but something of a failure as a nurturing parent and an aesthetic model.
Most valuable to scholars seeking biographical references are Davies’ descriptions of Francis’s childhood in rural Canada, especially his gradual, painful understanding about class differences and the sexual indiscretions of adults (a theme examined more fully in The Manticore). Simon Darcourt, academic-priest, has been commissioned to write a biography of Francis Cornish but has turned up some questionable material about Cornish’s European experiences: He may have forged some drawings that are now in the possession of a prestigious public museum. Davies uses the device of splitting the narration (as he does in The Rebel Angels) between two supernatural beings, one Zadkiel, the “angel of biography,” and the other the Daimon Maimas, a dark but energetic manifestation of the artistic conscience. Their otherworldly debate as Cornish’s story unfolds allows Davies to investigate once again the necessity of balancing human dualities for sanity and satisfaction.
The Lyre of Orpheus
The Lyre of Orpheus finds a musical theme for Davies, a lost and incomplete musical treatment of the Arthurian legend by E. T. A. Hoffmann. The music student Hulda, indirectly under Simon Darcourt’s tutelage, decides to complete the opera, and Darcourt is asked to supply a text—his choice of Sir Walter Scott’s poetic rendition of the legend makes for an excellent example of how Davies winds the arts around themselves into a whole act of achievement. Here the mentor-protégé relationship is developed fully, not only between the narrator and Hulda but also between the student and a visiting composer-conductor, Gunilla, one of Davies’ strong, ugly (but attractive), mature women. The “ominous” Professor Pfeiffer, called in as external examiner to Hulda’s examination, provides Davies with an opportunity to lampoon all that is disagreeable about certain academics of his acquaintance.
Murther and Walking Spirits and The Cunning Man
Two final novels complete Davies’ oeuvre. Both are set in present-day Toronto; each story is complete and unrelated to the other, though the main character in the first is the son of a friend of characters in the second, and a third novel could have conceivably united them into a trilogy.
Murther and Walking Spirits is a technical rarity in that the point-of-view character, Conor Gilmartin, is dead before the story begins, murdered by his wife’s lover. He stalks the murderer to the Toronto Film Festival, where he views all the films in the annual competition but sees a series that is uniquely his: film after film showing the story of his family, from their Welsh roots to their arrival in Canada after the American Revolution through their integration into the new society. After his “personal film festival” is over, Gilmartin has the satisfaction of watching his murderer exposed by the priest from whom he seeks absolution. The priest, a Roman Catholic on the faculty of the University of Toronto, belongs to a group of intermediaries between the physical and spiritual worlds who appear in all of Davies’ novels. It is fitting, then, that his last novel, The Cunning Man, concerns the mysteries of faith.
The Cunning Man tells the story of Jonathan Hullah, a doctor who witnessed the death, possibly the murder, of an Anglican priest at an Easter service in 1951. As the doctor discusses the events with a journalist, he reflects on his long life. He remembers the medicine woman who saved his life when he was deathly ill as a child in a remote wilderness outpost and who inspired his love of medicine. He recalls his education and his first years in the city, when he became involved in the parish where the strange events took place. His “cunning” is the semisupernatural knowledge that enables him to participate in the real world of money-grubbing, fame-seeking people while serving as a force for good.
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