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"We move through a throng of Sleeping Princesses, Belles Dames sans merci, Cinderellas, Wicked Witches, Powerful Wizards, Frog Princes, Lucky Third Sons, Ogres, Dwarves, Sagacious Animal Helpers and Servers, yes and Heroes and Heroines, in a world that is nothing less than an enchanted landscape."
— Robertson Davies
Myth, magic, and miracles, freaks, saints, and devils—such is the world of wonders unleashed by a simple snowball thrown in the village of Deptford in 1908.
Fifth Business is Davies's masterwork, the book that cemented his reputation as one of the great storytellers of our time. When the book appeared in 1970, he had already published the three books of his Salterton Trilogy, which won him recognition in his native Canada as an incisive cultural critic and an endlessly entertaining novelist. He had struck a note near Mark Twain in his portrayal of small-town culture, satirizing the residents' pious absurdities without seeming cruel, dramatizing their dreams and good intentions without becoming sentimental.
With Fifth Business, he plumbed new artistic and spiritual depths. The opening scene, which he envisioned taking place at his boyhood home in Thamesville, Ontario, haunted Davies from the first time it appeared to him in about 1960 until he began to draft the novel ten years later: "It was simply a scene that kept occurring in my mind, which was of two boys on a village street on a winter night—I knew from the look of the atmosphere that it must be just around Christmas-time—and one boy threw a snowball at the other boy. Well, that was all there was to it, but it came so often and was so insistent that I had to ask myself, Why is that boy doing that and what is behind this and what is going on?"
Many elements of the novel that emerged from this vision were drawn from Davies's early childhood. Like Dunstable Ramsay's father, Davies's father was the one-man publisher of a village newspaper, and Davies grew up in the newspaper business. "In a newspaper family," he said, "you learn not only all the news that's fit to print, but all the news that is not fit to print, and you acquire an insight into human nature and the essence of a community which is very hard to acquire . . . in any other way."
Like his protagonist in Fifth Business, Davies was raised in the Presbyterian Church. Although he eventually rejected its particular doctrines, he retained a strongly religious temperament. His spiritual explorations ultimately found resonance in the works of Carl Gustav Jung. "Orthodox Christianity has always had for me the difficulty that it really won't come . . . to grips with the problem of evil," Davies said. "What looks good can be pushed to the point that it becomes evil, and . . . evil very frequently bears what can only be regarded as good fruit." Jung had portrayed God as a psychological reality that embraced polarities of good and evil, light and shadow; the devil is an inextricable part of him. One had to confront this shadow face-to-face in order to live a moral life. "The devil is the unexamined side of life," Davies said, "and the great evils spring from acting without knowledge of your subconscious intentions."
Davies was also drawn to Jung's deities because they had womanly as well as manly faces, faces that are reflected in his portrayal of Mary Dempster. Here were the feminine elements he found woefully lacking in Christianity, with its focus on God the Father and the Son. In Jung's landscape of the psyche, Davies found a theoretical grounding for the diverse representations of human quest and conflict he had come to appreciate. Beyond the Judeo-Christian literary tradition was a rich world of folk tales, myths, ghost stories, and legends that were sacred in their own way, striking deep spiritual chords in our unconscious. From this same sensibility sprang Davies's lifelong interest in saints, which he, like Ramsay, appreciated not as narrowly defined religious figures, but as archetypes of universal characters and tales.
The remarkable events that unfold in this "enchanted landscape" owe much to Davies's lifelong love of the theater. From boyhood he was drawn to the traveling circus, the magic show, and the movie palace. Over the course of his career he worked for the Old Vic Repertory Company in London, wrote a dozen plays, and was one of the founders of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. His passion for theater was so intense that his novels have sometimes been criticized for their theatricality: How does Ramsay just happen to meet Paul Dempster repeatedly in his travels, and how does Surgeoner "randomly" pick Ramsay from the crowd at Colborne College? But such theatrical events—call them coincidence or fate—lie at the heart of Davies's worldview. "I'm not in any way a devotee of realism," said Davies, "and the theatre is never realistic, even when it's pretending to be intensely so." The meaningful stories in our lives are dramatic rather than naturalistic, remarkable rather than random.
This appreciation of the theater of the inner life could come only with age. Davies was in his fifties when he explored these demons of youth in Fifth Business, and the result is a captivating narrative stance. While working on the manuscript, he wrote, "It is autobiographical, but not as young men would do it; it will be rather as Dickens wrote David Copperfield—a fictional reworking of some things experienced and much rearranged—a spiritual autobiography in fact, and not a sweating account of the first time I backed a girl into a corner." Davies's protagonist frequently distances himself from immediate events, adding the tincture of age and humor to vividly recalled experience.
The unforgettable tone that arises from this perspective has been characterized as a hybrid of satire and romance. Davies somehow manages to marry these seemingly incompatible viewpoints, delighting in his own former naiveté and the follies of his youth while maintaining a fundamental earnestness about Ramsay's aspirations. It is the voice of a man at mid-life who has taken unusual paths, who is fascinated by the possibilities that lie before him, and who has lost neither his youthful seriousness nor his sense of humor.
Despite his established reputation in Canada, Davies was little known to U.S. readers and reviewers when Fifth Business was published in 1970. The American reception was exuberant, propelling the novel to bestseller lists in both the U.S. and Canada. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt described it in the New York Times as "a marvelously enigmatic novel . . . elegantly written and driven by irresistible narrative. One thinks of The Magic Mountain and The French Lieutenant's Woman, although Mr. Davies hardly needs Thomas Mann and John Fowles to prop him up."
Other reviewers praised the remarkable range of erudition he conveys in his works. Saints and card tricks, brandy and psychology, linguistics and bearded ladies are all objects of his insatiable curiosity. Davies is modest about the range of his learning, pointing out that some academics thought Shakespeare must have been a sailor because of the convincing seaman's slang in The Tempest: "It's all hooey. Shakespeare had a few telling details which he injected into his plays that made them seem realistic, and I have the same in my novels." A veteran once asked Davies where he had served in France during the Great War, for only a soldier could have captured the mud and panic of the trenches so vividly. Davies had to reply that he was in the cradle at the time. Similarly, his fictional prescription for bringing an ailing cello back to its true voice with a poultice of horse manure was pure fancy. Even the definition of "Fifth Business" that opens the book—cited from a dull, untranslated account of Danish theater and first taken as yet another example of Davies's eccentric knowledge—was revealed to be entirely fictional when the Norwegian edition of the book was published (although the notion it conveys of "Fifth Business" in the theater is quite accurate).
The key is to be convincing, true to the spirit rather than to mere facts. As Davies described the art of writing:
If you're a writer . . . you're a descendent of those medieval storytellers who used to go into the square of a town and spread a little mat on the ground and sit on it and beat on a bowl and say, 'If you give me a copper coin I will tell you a golden tale.' If the storyteller had what it took, he . . . told them a golden tale until it got to the most exciting point and then he passed the bowl again.
His storytelling prowess earned him frequent comparisons to Charles Dickens—a comparison of which he was not overly fond. The authors he admired included Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, Anthony Trollope, Evelyn Waugh, and Daniel Defoe, all very different writers, but all possessing what he called shamanstvo—the enchanter quality, from the word shaman. Like Dickens, Davies had a flair for the dramatic and could sketch a secondary character unforgettably in just a few lines (the portraits of Rev. Leadbeater, Orph Wettenhall, and Boy's stepdaughter Lorene in Fifth Business, for example). But he was more daring in his experiments with form than he is often given credit for, and his novelistic objectives are decidedly modern rather than Victorian.
As Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times, Davies "has created a rich oeuvre of densely plotted, highly symbolic novels that not only function as superbly funny entertainments but also give the reader, in his character's words, a deeper kind of pleasure—delight, awe, religious intimations, a fine sense of the past, and of the boundless depth and variety of life."
ABOUT ROBERTSON DAVIES
Robertson Davies was born in 1913 in Thamesville, a village of 800 in rural Ontario that would later be portrayed as the fictional Deptford. His father Rupert Davies, a Welsh immigrant, had worked his way up in the newspaper business to become the publisher of the Thamesville Herald. His mother Florence, Canadian born and half Highland Scot, was (like Mrs. Ramsay) an iron-willed keeper of the cleanest privy in town.
At age five his family moved to Renfrew, population 5,000, where Davies endured the miserable school experiences that are portrayed vividly in What's Bred in the Bone of his acclaimed Cornish Trilogy. A thin, unathletic child, he was the target of bullies and soon learned to fight back with his tongue rather than his fists. Davies was much happier when the family moved in 1928 to Kingston, a city of 22,000 that offered more cultural opportunities. He attended Upper Canada College, the model for Colborne College in Fifth Business, where he was active in drama and was editor of the school newspaper.
Unable to pass the mathematics portion of the exam required for university admission, he was forced to enter Queen's University as a non-degree student. Like the children of many other prominent Canadian families at the time, he eventually traveled to Oxford for his degree, graduating with a thesis titled, "Shakespeare's Boy Actors." At Oxford he was an active member of the drama society, and, after his graduation in 1938, moved to London to spend two years with the Old Vic Repertory Company, where he had a variety of small roles and wrote plays. He worked with director Tyrone Guthrie, who recognized his flair for playing grotesques and characters much older than him.
"I was the kind of actor who liked to put on a lot of makeup and humps and things," he said. "I never liked just being me, because I didn't really feel there was any me to be." It was at the Old Vic that Davies met Brenda Mathews, the company's stage manager, whom he married in 1940. Rejected for service in the World War II because of his poor eyesight, Davies returned with his wife to Canada, where he became literary editor for Saturday Night, the country's then leading journal of opinion. Soon he began writing a thrice-weekly column for one of his father's newspapers, the Peterborough Examiner, under the pseudonym of Samuel Marchbanks, a cantankerous bachelor who issued scathing opinions on Canadian life from his fictional home in Skunk's Misery, Ontario. Davies became editor and part-owner of the paper in 1946 and in the following years markedly increased its circulation and stature.
Besides publishing the Salterton Trilogy, he remained active in the theater during his Examiner days, writing and staging a number of plays. He cut a rather theatrical figure himself. With his trademark bushy whiskers, colorful vests, and broad-brimmed hats, he looked the part of a flamboyant professor even before he was summoned to academia to become Master of Massey College, Canada's first residential college for graduate students at the University of Toronto.
The years as Master of Massey produced his richest works, foremost among them the three novels of the Deptford Trilogy (1970-1975). He received the prestigious Governor General's Award for fiction for the second of the three books, The Manticore, in 1973.
Davies spent some of his happiest days during his retirement at his country home, Windhover. With his wife Brenda, also a great theater lover, he would see as many as thirty plays a year. He never ceased to write, publishing Murther and Walking Spirits in 1991 and The Cunning Man in 1994. When he died in 1995 at the age of 82, he still had plans to write another book dealing with his old age.
"He thought life was fascinating," Brenda Davies said on his death. "Nowadays not enough people think life is fascinating. . . . He was very keen that they should take a look at it as magical, fascinating and extraordinary."
Posted April 9, 2010
I feel that this book by Robertson Davies is one of the classics of Canadian Literature. It is an extremely well written book that although short in length, covers the entire life span of the protagonist. It beautifully captures Canada during the first half of the 20th Century. The story weaves us through the complexities of life in a small Canadian town, the politics of a private boys school, the horrors of World War II, and travels to many exotic locations in Europe and South America. Universal themes of love, loss, family, and circumstance are explored. Other interesting elements of this book include the study of hagiology and magic. This book is a must read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 28, 2009
I haven't read all of the trilogy but found this while searching for works dealing with World War I. Surprisingly, it combined a story of a retired school master with that of a WWI vet. If you like school-teacher-stories -- To Serve Them All My Days and the like, this will satisfy you. If you are looking for World War I material, this is a little light in content as it covers the man's entire life. Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves is a better WWI read. BUT, that said, it is an interesting and easy way to pass a few hours on a summer afternoon and is filled with interesting characters.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 7, 2001
The protagonist is understandable, likeable and SO smart! He goes all over the place, gets interested in hagiography/the classification of saints and is confidante to one of the richest, most powerful men in the Dominion of Canada. A great, easy read!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 2, 2001
No one has yet written the Great Canadian Novel, but in Fifth Business, World of Wonders and the Manticore, Robertson Davies may have given us something like the Great Interlinked Canadian Trilogy. I would recommend you buy the paperback Fifth Business/World of Wonders/Manticore trilogy. It only costs a little more than buying Fifth Business by itself, and more than likely you'll want to read the other books once you've finished Fifth Business. Fifth Business is the novel with which to start. The book's central figure is schoolteacher Dunstan Ramsay, who grew up in the tiny village of Deptford in the sugar-beet growing district of Southwestern Ontario. The town's pretty boy-slash-bully Percy Boyd Staunton hits the minister's wife with a snowball containing a rock, which causes her to go into premature labor and give birth to the underweight Paul Dempster. (This is an early 20th Century level of obstetrics, you understand.) The rest of the book is a fascinating weave of Canadian social and political history from the 1910s thru the 1960s as Dunstan, Paul and Percy Boyd (now the raffish 'Boy') Staunton are pushed together by the whims of fate. Boy and Paul become world famous in very different ways. Not bad for two kids from the sticks and Dunstan, the humble schoolteacher, has reason to envy them. Or does he? A 'fifth business' is theater talk for a leavener, a kind of enzyme agent that, while not significant in itself, makes other things happen. In the telling, both the reader and Dunstan himself come to appreciate the life he has led.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 29, 2000
Posted February 5, 2000
And best of all, it's the first of a triology! Magical, mysterious, it is about the strange murder of Boy Staunton. Compelling, from the beginning to the end.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 17, 1999
I thought that Fifth Business was one of the most amazing, original novels I have ever read! Davies gets right to the point. I love the fact that the event most important to the story happens within the fist page of the novel. The characters are original, and the story is pure brilliance!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 18, 2009
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Posted December 1, 2008
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Posted January 25, 2009
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