BOOK REVIEW / Chasubles and orphreys

THE CUNNING MAN Robertson Davies Viking £15.50

"Ornaments abounded: chasubles, of course, with splendid orphreys to enrich them; copes, it seemed without number; dalmatics, humeral veils, tunicles wherever possible." This is Dr Jonathan Hullah, the novel's narrator, describing the services at his local church, St. Aidan's in Toronto; which tells us not only that St. Aidan's is very High Anglican indeed, but also that Robertson Davies retains his playful love of using old- fashioned out-of-the-way words wherever possible, to enrich his style, much as orphreys enrich chasubles.

The vicar of St. Aidan's, Father Hobbes, dropped suddenly dead at the altar during Good Friday Mass in 1970. There was a short-lived campaign to canonise him, and Hullah is being encouraged to recall the incident by a young journalist researching a series of articles on "The Toronto That Used to Be." Hullah is moved to make some notes on his life story in an unused casebook, and that text, supposedly, is the novel.

He grew up in Sioux Lookout, where his father ran a mine; he claims it was "over 2,000 miles" north-west of Toronto, though it can't be more than 750. He decided to become a doctor after a local Indian woman cured him of childhood scarlet fever by pitching her tent on the lawn and making animal noises ("calling the helpers"), which partly explains why he is now an unconventional, holistic doctor in exclusively private practice, treating rich hypochondriacs.

The mix of magic, religion and Freudianism will be familiar to Davies disciples, and at Hullah's smart Toronto boarding-school one of the masters is Dunstan Ramsay, the hero of Davies's best novel, Fifth Business, which appeared as the first part of the Deptford Trilogy some 20 years ago.

Also familiar is the gently patronising, old-codger tone Hullah adopts towards his younger self and his young friends. Davies's ageing narrators never truly re-inhabit their youth but always regard it from the heights of their wizened-but-wiser seniority. This is not too disagreeable because Davies really is a rather wise old bird, but just occasionally it grates.

Explaining how he temporarily lost contact with his youthful friends, Brocky and Charlie, Hullah rounds up with, "No, in youth one must get on with one's life, lickety-split. . ." Purely an old man's view. The young usually feel they have to wait ages for anything to happen, and when it does, it wasn't worth waiting for. It is the later years that seem to fly.

Still, the strangely resilient good humour with which Davies tackles disappointment and loss, death and disease, the mysteries and miseries of life, is what makes him such an approachable writer. In a very funny sequence, the newly qualified Hullah is roped in to judge the annual bad- breath contest at a Toronto bar. He recognises the give-away stench of a fatal condition in the proud winner's sample blast, but doesn't spoil her evening by telling her.

The point of the story - who, if anyone, killed Father Hobbes? - is mostly lost sight of till near the end, but Davies remains good company. Although the characters' frequent discussions about art and life seem rambling and all-embracing, they actually cover only a couple of pages each and never become tiresome. One learns unexpected things, that Charles Laughton, for example, would never play Falstaff because, as a former hotel manager, "he had been compelled to throw too many of Falstaff's kind out of the Pavilion at Scarborough to have any tolerance for the breed."

Not all of Davies's lore can be taken on trust, though. Noting Charlie's shame at undressing in front of a nurse, Hullah digresses to muse on the Victorian horror of nakedness, and especially John Ruskin's shock when he discovered that his beautiful wife "had pubic hair, an adornment which had apparently never entered his consciousness in spite of his high-minded familiarity with the world's great art." As poor Ruskin confessed in divorce court, it was because of, not in spite of. Great art allows only the merest peach-fuzz.

It looks as if this book follows on from Davies's last, Murther and Walking Spirits, and may be the second part of yet another trilogy. Conor Gilmartin, the ghost in that work, is Hullah's murdered godson. Robertson Davies's writing has been fairly samey for a long time, but no matter: more of the same, the warmth, the richness of reference, the easy universality, the sheer page-turning readability, is always welcome.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'