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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.