It is a rare - and intensely exciting - experience to pick up a book of which one has no particular expectations and to find, within a dozen pages, that one has stumbled not only on a born writer but, quite possibly, on a great one; and no novelist in the past 30 years can, I suspect, have made just such an impact on more British readers than did Robertson Davies.
Why even now this literary phenomenon should remain so relatively little known to the world at large constitutes, to all those readers, an impenetrable mystery; eminently worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature, only once was he ever short- listed for the Booker. His Canadian background obviously had something to do with it; it is impossible to believe that, had he lived and worked in England, his genius would not have been more widely recognised.
But that was not the whole story. There was also the fact that his books were unlike other people's. They were long; they often deliberately rambled; they touched on magic, food, semantics, poetry, the supernatural, holistic medicine, Jungian analysis, murder, art forgery, the theatre, the interpretation of dreams and anything else that happened to strike the author's astonishing imagination while he was writing. His novels, in the extravagance of their plots, the outlandishness of many of their characters, the luxury of their language, were baroque through and through; and unhappily, in the late 20th century, the baroque is no longer fashionable.
Born in 1913 in Thamesville, Ontario, Davies was educated at Queen's University, Toronto, and at Balliol College, Oxford, after which he taught and acted in London at the Old Vic; it was there that he met his wife, the Australian actress and stage manager of the company Brenda Mathews. The theatre was in the blood of both of them, and on their regular visits to England there were few nights - apart from the occasional evening at dinner with close friends - when they were able to keep away from it. "Rob" Davies's unmistakable figure - as he grew older he looked more and more like some mischievous Old Testament patriarch, with his snow-white beard and brilliant, twinkling eyes - was almost as familiar at Stratford- on-Avon as it was at Stratford, Ontario; and it was a matter of real sorrow to him that none of his own 30-odd plays had any real success outside his native country. He consoled himself with his novels; "I like being a novelist," he used to say, "for the same reason that Charles Dickens liked being a novelist. You can play all the parts, arrange the scenery, be the whole show and nobody gets in the way.''
The theatrical metaphor is significant - the more so when we remember that Dickens too had a lifelong passion for the theatre. (As a particular devotee of amateur theatricals, how he would have loved Tempest-Tost, 1951, the first of three novels forming the "Salterton Trilogy" and the funniest book on the subject ever written.) He and Davies had a lot in common. Both were prepared to allow their imagination to take them where it would - though never so far that they could not find their way home again; both were drawn, irresistibly, towards the grotesque; neither was afraid - when the time was right - to go, consciously and quite deliberately, over the top. Davies's hilarious account, in what sadly proves to be his last novel, The Cunning Man (1995), of the Coburg Social Parlours Annual Bad Breath Contest, is a case in point.
His literary life, however, was not confined to novels and plays. On his return to Canada he had become a journalist, not only editing and publishing the Peterborough Examiner - owned by his father - but for many years contributing a regular column purporting to be the work of a cantankerous columnist named Samuel Marchbanks.
Professor of English at the University of Toronto from 1962, in the following year he was appointed first Master of the new Massey College. (Although he retired in 1981, he held the titles of Master Emeritus and Professor Emeritus until his death.) It was during his years at Massey that he became famous for telling his annual Christmas ghost story, a major event in the university calendar. Ghosts always fascinated him; one of them, indeed, is the protagonist of his penultimate novel, Murther and Walking Spirits (1991). "I believe in them," he once said, "as Shakespeare believed in them. They are a way of exemplifying something you know to be true, but which is very hard to give substance to.
"Why does Hamlet see his father's ghost? It's in order that he may recognise what he knows in the depths of his own mind. It doesn't really mean that people are floating around in nighties looking for someone to scare."
Inevitably, with his genius, his reputation - and his looks - he was cut out to become the Grand Old Man. In a recent letter he wrote:
All of a sudden I seem to be a public monument . . . If someone has a brilliant new scheme for revitalising the drama, or giving fresh juice to the novel, I am just the lad to give it a push. "Celebrity auctions" implore worn-out pairs of socks . . . The latest is a demand for a bottle of my favourite wine to be auctioned for some literary cause; I have not the face to tell them that my favourite
wine is the one that appears on the
table, and although I can tell whitefrom red in a good light I am not otherwise a wine buff. But the real nuisances are the ones with talented children. Last week, as I lay on the hospital table while a cardiologist read what a machine was saying about my heart, the doctor confided to me with blushes that his son was a Flaubert in embryo, and it would mean so much to the lad if I would talk to him about writing. Under such circumstances, what does one do? If I refuse he may poison me . . . They
are all sure there is some secret, and
they all think that writing is a high road to opulence. Many also imagine that being a writer attracts the caresses of exquisite society beauties, which I have never found to be the case.
Another fascination of Robertson Davies was with the preternaturally gifted. The young Paul Dempster, whose mother was killed at the beginning of Fifth Business (1970) by a misdirected snowball, grows up to be Magnus Eisengrim, the greatest illusionist-magician the world has ever seen. Dr Jonathan Hullah, hero of The Cunning Man, is its most inspired diagnostician. And yet, reaching the end of the canon, one is forced to the conclusion that Davies himself was a greater magician than Eisengrim could ever hope to be, and saw yet more deeply into the human psyche - or body, for to him it was all one - even than Hullah. He not only looked like a sage; he was one. His work is as instinct with wisdom as it is with imagination, and with humour, and with the drama.
As Hullah says; "This is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous."
John Julius NorwichReuse content