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Davies, Robertson 1913–

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Davies is a Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, editor, and publisher. Both his fictional and critical work reflect his breadth of learning and are presented with wit and elegance. He is considered a central figure in Canadian letters. Davies has written under the pseudonym of Samuel Marchbanks. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Ivon Owen

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When it first appeared, Tempest-Tost struck one as a pure, delightful jeu d'esprit, quite what one would expect from the typewriter of Samuel Marchbanks. A funny book. In 1958, it stands as the first of three novels about the same Ontario town of Salterton, and this makes a difference. Novelists who return repeatedly, as Trollope did, to the same place or the same broad circle of characters, achieve in time a stereoscopic depth that can be attained in no other way. Tempest-Tost can now be seen through the stereoscope, and it is still a funny book, but it is a good deal more. (p. 56)

[The relationships between the characters] make for straight comedy in Tempest-Tost. In Leaven of Malice they dominate, and take on a darker hue….

Essentially the book is about the efforts of the aged and unbalanced to fetter and cripple the sane and young. And though it is a very funny book there is genuine anger in it. It contains some of the author's best comedy: the ghastliest of his many ghastly parties, the Old Mess, and a fine discourse on Charles Heavysege would be enough to make it memorable. But the central story-line—who put in the announcement?—is too slight to bear the weight of incident and comment hung on it and yet too stressed to be considered a minor element.

The new novel, A Mixture of Frailties, is livelier, fuller, more imperfect, and more delightful. It has two plots, a Salterton and a London one. In the Salterton story, which forms the outer frame, the parent-child theme is carried to a yet higher pitch of indignation. (p. 58)

Set into this story is the history of Monica Gall, the soprano from the Heart and Hope Quartet of the Thirteenth Apostle Tabernacle who is chosen to benefit from [a] trust….

Monica's training as artist and as human being takes place in Britain, and forms the heart of the novel. It is the largest thing Robertson Davies has attempted or done. This three-quarters of a novel is in fact, with all its faults, fuller and more interesting than the other two and a quarter novels put together. It is a rich mixture of attitudes (not frailties—it's a bad title), attitudes to art and to life in profusion.

Each of these novels expounds a professional topic of which the author has special knowledge. In Tempest-Tost it is how to direct a play (which he has done); in Leaven of Malice, the life of a daily editor (which he lives); in A Mixture of Frailties (and I don't know how he managed this one), how to be trained as a concert soprano. It is done in convincing and lively detail. (p. 59)

The difficulty of handling the art-and-life training themes is complicated further by the Canadian-in-England theme. So far as Monica is a provincial in London, she might just as well be from Leeds as from Salterton. There is nothing peculiarly Canadian about her situation. But since in fact she is from Canada, the situation does call for observations about the experience of being a Canadian in England, and the sensations—pleasant and miserable, physical and spiritual—of that experience are beautifully selected and described. However, the picture is put badly out of focus by the caricature of a Canadian couple in London. They are very funny but too far from any human reality to make a point.

Mr Davies will say—has already said—that he didn't write the novel to illustrate these themes. Of course not—good novels aren't written in that order. But it is the interplay of these themes and ideas that make the story; in a sense they are the story, a story of a mixture of attitudes.

In brief, it is a muddled, untidy novel…. But it is irresistible as entertainment…. Mr Davies, an actor and a playwright before he was a novelist, never forgets to be an entertainer…. His lively mind is host to a variety of interests, and he is always ready to stop and talk about them; just as he is ready to wrench the story about for a third-act effect. His plot-machinery, creaky at the best of times, makes an unpleasant grinding noise on these occasions.

His novels are frankly diffuse, and being novels they don't suffer from it…. But they are a playwright's novels: the story consists of well-defined scenes in which people advance the plot and reveal their characters almost entirely in talk. How they do talk. It is well-heard idiomatic talk; it is effortlessly readable and endlessly entertaining and often quite incredible. In a play, things that in real life are left unspoken are put into dialogue because that is the way the author has to tell the story; the characters talk with unfailing fluency in impossibly well-rounded sentences because they would soon empty the auditorium if they talked as we all do in our living rooms. This fluent volubility, this compulsion to put everything into words, is shared by nearly all Mr Davies's characters, and it comes directly from the stage. (pp. 61-3)

Ivon Owen, "The Salterton Novels," in The Tamarack Review, Autumn, 1958, pp. 56-63.

S. E. Read

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[In A Voice from the Attic the] attic is "America's attic"—Canada—and the "voice" is that of Robertson Davies, critic, novelist, playwright, wit, humanist, actor, teacher, editor, publisher, and bibliophile, but above all passionate lover of literature, who stands firm in his belief that books are still a shaping power for good in this world of chaos and uncertainty. (p. 65)

"Clerisy" is a precious word, and, though Mr. Davies would have it otherwise, I doubt that it ever passed as common currency in the English language. But use it he must for it "has no familiar synonym" and is "little known because what it describes has disappeared".

But what does the word describe? What is it that has disappeared?

The clerisy are those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime but not to kill time; who love books, but do not live by books.

In years past, especially in the 19th century, the clerisy, he says, held "sovereignty in the world of letters". Through being united it wielded great power, but now, alas! if it exists at all, it is disunited, and "has been persuaded to abdicate its power by several groups …, which are part of the social and business organization of our time." Awake, then, oh Clerisy! Shake the slumber from your eyes; gird up your loins; and go forth once again, as your forebears did, to fight the battle for good books, good reading, and a better culture. Such is Mr. Davies' clarion call, and such the stated purpose of the book. But Mr. Davies is not really a pugnacious battalion commander, leading his Christian soldiers once again to war. Having uttered the call in his opening pages, he then gets down to his real purpose—to entertain the reader (with some Johnsonian instruction thrown in for good measure) through a series of brilliantly written essays on books and on reading. (pp. 65-6)

[The portions which show his love for the forgotten book] are brilliant fun, but to over-stress them is to do the book as a whole an injustice. For in nearly all cases the discussions of these works (and many others like them) are but prologues to deeply serious and sharp, razor-edge comments on some of the great and really significant writers of our own age, as well as on some writers who have achieved popularity without true greatness.

With a sure touch and with astonishing agility Mr. Davies moves rapidly from the works of Havelock Ellis, Freud, and Jung to the novels of Joyce Cary or the humour of Stephen Leacock. He discusses at some length the reading of drama and its relationship to live theatre. He looks at some of the problems that face the creative writer and briefly peers into those wells of inspiration from which writers take sustenance. He gives a cool appraisal of Maugham, the novelist (he "is a masterly conjurer, but we can only be deceived once"), and takes a close look at The Robe (that prime example of a best-seller by the "Lutheran Dumas", Lloyd Douglas) to probe the reasons why it achieved such phenomenal sales. He then compares it with Robert Graves' King Jesus, which, though a much greater work, was not a success at all…. And finally, after some despairing looks at the Romantic attitudes of North Americans and the role of the "Yahoo Hero" in modern fiction, he pleads with us to understand and to appreciate the role of literature in the modern world:…

[There] is nothing minor about it, and when it truly mirrors any part of the soul of the time, it is revelatory and prophetic as nothing else can be in quite the same way.

But no such summary as I have given can really indicate the flavour of the book, or its real values. To appreciate it at all fully one must read it at a leisurely pace so that the joy that is within it can be really tasted and its rich intellectual contents slowly digested. Certainly not many books of like value have appeared in the history of Canadian critical writing, and rarely does such a pleasant critical work appear anywhere. It will surely appeal to nearly all readers who can lay a claim to discrimination and taste in the world of books. They may be irritated (and rightly so) by Mr. Davies' occasional sweeping generalizations, they may take issue with some of his critical evaluations. But the irritations will be offset by the pleasures to be found on almost every page. For Mr. Davies is not only a man possessed of a daemon; he also has at his command an urbane wit, a sharp critical mind, and a vast store of learning, which he carries lightly and on which he draws without ostentation or pedantry. (pp. 67-8)

S. E. Read, "A Call to the Clerisy," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1961, pp. 65-8.

Margaret Wimsatt

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The Manticore is a funny, engaging, literate novel by a Canadian author who deserves to be better known in this country. It has the theatrical virtues of scene, set and design; it has the literary virtue of plot, incident and character. It is easy to read and hard to put down. It is almost unique in being a sequel-book that stands on its own. (p. 536)

The manticore does exist, as explained in the novel's pages and confirmed by my dictionary: a mythical beast with the head of a man, the body of a lion and the tail of a dragon or scorpion. It is one of the symbols that turn up in the course of an analysis undergone by the narrator….

As a novelist, Mr. Davies has the great strength of invention. He thinks of things and people that make pale suburban novels look duller and paler yet. So it may sound like quibbling, with so much to be grateful for, to complain that Mr. Davies does not know how to end a book. (p. 537)

Margaret Wimsatt, in America (© America Press, 1972; all rights reserved), December 16, 1972.

Judith Skelton Grant

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That there is a market in these days of tight publishing budgets for a bibliography of works by and on Robertson Davies, a study of his plays, and a collection of his "Pronouncements" is an index of Davies' current popularity. This popularity is based on his second trilogy—Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders—for in these books Davies has created vivid and distinctive central characters whose eccentric interests have both popular appeal and a philosophic undercurrent. (p. 56)

[Davies'] childhood love of theater bore fruit in his excellent Oxford thesis, published under the title Shakespeare's Boy Actors (1939) and in a stream of plays from the mid-forties on. Fourteen of these have been published and some ten others produced. His early plays earned him a permanent place in the history of Canadian drama. (pp. 56, 58)

Some of [Davies'] witty and irascible comment on the passing scene published in the Peterborough Examiner under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks was collected in The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947), The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949), and Marchbank's Almanack (1967). Some of the Saturday Night book review articles constitute the core of A Voice from the Attic (1960). Here Davies first reveals the idiosyncrasy and breadth of his reading. His knowledgeable discussion of aspects of popular culture from Shakespeare's day to our own, ranging over subjects like joke books, sex manuals, popular science, health tracts, and melodrama is not only diverting reading but the first real hint of the resources Davies brings to his recent novels. The Marchbanks books and A Voice are the mere iceberg tip of Davies' writing for periodicals. (p. 58)

[His first trilogy: Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954), and A Mixture of Frailties (1958) is] in the mode of the satiric romance. Davies' long experience as critic, dramatist, and journalist gave them an astonishingly impressive finish. His dialogue rooted in comedy of manners is lively; his plots are tight and workmanlike. But these surface strengths cause problems. The plot of Tempest-Tost permits significant development for only one of the half dozen characters Davies brings convincingly to life. The frame devices of the first two novels, though interesting and lively, jar, because they differ in subject or tone from the rest of the books. And there are technical problems with the omniscient narrator. But Davies learns and develops as he moves from book to book. The third in the series, A Mixture of Frailties, is a very fine novel indeed. Here Davies holds satire to a minimum, keeps his narrative stance consistent, focuses attention on one developing central character, and tackles his theme, the value of culture, seriously and openly. (p. 59)

The three volumes of the Deptford trilogy—Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders … were well worth waiting for. Davies had avoided first-person narration in his early novels because he felt uncomfortable with the self-revelation and direct communication he associated with the technique. Now he used it masterfully. The intertwined stories of Dunstan Ramsay, Boy Staunton, and Magnus Eisengrim are told by three distinctive and convincing first-person narrators who compel the reader's interest in the story that begins when the stone-laden snowball thrown at Dunstan by Boy hits Mrs. Dempster and causes the premature birth of Magnus.

Davies centers each story in a different kind of knowledge. In Fifth Business the consequences of the snowball lead Dunstan to saints and myth; in The Manticore they lead David Staunton (Boy's son) into Jungian analysis; in World of Wonders they lead Magnus to magic and stagecraft. These provide the thematic core of each book; but only in Fifth Business, the master work of the trilogy, does Davies create an organic whole from his disparate materials. All the lore on saints and myth is firmly connected to the central character, reflecting his interests, showing how he thinks, influencing his life, and playing a part in his interpretation of events. That this is not the case in The Manticore is partly intentional. David Staunton has held his life together by banishing some things from consciousness, acting in stereotyped patterns, and blunting his feelings with alcohol. When his father's suicide shatters his customary defenses, he needs outside help if he is to find a meaningful pattern in his life, and he finds this help at the Jung Institute in Zurich. There is thus an initial inevitable division between the narrated life and the Jungian theory supplied by his analyst…. World of Wonders likewise falls short of the standard set by Fifth Business and again the problem centers in Davies' handling of data which occupies long stretches of the book. (pp. 59-60)

Though flawed when compared with Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders are intriguing and challenging works. With Fifth Business they contain the self-revelation compelled by first-person narration that Davies had earlier avoided. What constitutes self-revelation is not autobiography but philosophy. The ideas that overarch the Deptford trilogy are of two kinds: the speculations about myth and psychology pertain to natural philosophy; those on saints and magic, good and evil, God and the Devil to moral philosophy. With the first Davies feels sure of his ground as he follows in the footsteps of such trail blazers as Frazer, Freud, and Jung; with the second he is tentative and suggestive.

Let us begin with his natural philosophy. In the first and third volumes, perceptive characters find in myth a tool for understanding character and for anticipating patterns of human behavior. In the middle volume, David's Jungian analyst explains why myth lays bare the core patterns of character and action as she tells David how he could dream of a manticore, a mythic creature unknown to him:

People very often dream of things they don't know. They dream of minotaurs without ever having heard of a minotaur. Thoroughly respectable women who have never heard of Pasiphae dream that they are a queen who is enjoying sexual congress with a bull. It is because great myths are not invented stories but objectivizations of images and situations that lie very deep in the human spirit; a poet may make a great embodiment of a myth, but it is the mass of humanity that knows the myth to be a spiritual truth, and that is why they cherish his poem.

In other words, myth gives insight into human behavior because its ultimate source is the psyche. (p. 60)

Davies' use of this material goes far beyond the mythic interpretation of character and events and the revelation of the source of myth's interpretive power. It also influences the nature of the reality in each book. In Fifth Business, the world is that of every day reality; myth interprets but does not transform Dunstan's world. In The Manticore, David deserts the ordinary world. As he learns new ways of thinking about his life, he finds his dreams presenting glimpses of a myth-like psychic life, hitherto unimagined. In World of Wonders, Magnus' daily life in Wanless's World of Wonders, in the old-fashioned traveling troupe, and in the gothic house and household he joins at the end of his story, is mythic. The heroic world David is challenged to find in the depths of his own psyche at the end of The Manticore is the world in which Magnus lives, for he has the "Magian World View" where the archetype of the Magus and the myth of Merlin are one and the same, and exist in broad daylight.

About the relation of God and the Devil to the natural world, Davies is exploratory and tentative….

[In] Davies' world, individuals continue to make meaningful choices, though always in the presence of absolute Good and Evil. (p. 61)

Where Dunstan moves toward God and Boy toward the Devil, Magnus experiences both. He seems to represent psychic wholeness, and the possibility of a rich middle ground where man, conscious of the vigor and omnipresence of the forces of good and evil, lives an heroic life.

And is this "wholeness" which seems to be Davies' ideal, a balancing of opposites? I think not. Rather it seems to be what a character in Fifth Business has in mind in saying that meeting the Devil is educational and what David's analyst in The Manticore means when she urges the value of reclaiming, examining and getting to know one's Shadow (the dark side of the self). For not everything that has been labeled Evil proves to be so, nor all that has been repressed ought to remain so. And the genuinely evil and justifiably banished are weaker if faced and understood. Together with the vigorous, lively and eccentric narrators of the last trilogy, these moral and the earlier mythic and psychological ideas have given these books a place among the dozen significant works of fiction published in Canada during the seventies.

One Half of Robertson Davies (1977) is a selection of pieces read aloud on occasions ranging from convocation to All Hallow's Eve celebrations. It is not as fruitful a totality as A Voice from the Attic because it lacks the sustained argument of the earlier collection and because some of the selections are slight. Nonetheless, five lectures constituting the heart of the volume are compelling, meaty reading. "Jung and the Theatre" approaches the Jungian material in The Manticore from a different angle; the four lectures called "Masks of Satan" tackle evil and good. Idiosyncratically, Davies approaches the latter subject through the medium of melodramas and novels of the nineteenth century, ghost stories and novels of the twentieth. The main lines of his argument will surprise no thoughtful reader of his late fiction, but such a reader will find his grasp of Davies' religious beliefs enriched and broadened and will find himself ruminating about some of Davies' pronouncements. He talks illuminatingly about poetic justice (Magnus' Great Justice?). He declares that the greatest art is created by those who believe in the existence of absolute Good and Evil, in God and the Devil. He talks of the necessity of opposites. He talks with a vigor that persuades one to expect more books plumbing the riches of Jungian psychology and speculating about the impact of God and the Devil on man's life. (pp. 62-3)

Judith Skelton Grant, "Robertson Davies, God and the Devil," in Book Forum (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson River Press), Vol. IV, No. 1, 1978, pp. 56-63.

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