A fascinating, larger-than-life character, Davies left a treasure trove of stories about him when he died in 1995 — expertly arranged here into a revealing portrait.
From his student days onward, Robertson Davies made a huge impression on those around him. He was so clearly bound for a glorious future that some young friends even carefully preserved his letters. And everyone remembered their encounters with him.
Later in life, as a world-famous writer, perhaps Canada’s pre-eminent man of letters (who “looked like Jehovah”), he attracted people eager to meet him, who also vividly remembered their meetings. So when Val Ross set out in search of people’s memories, she was faced with a wonderful embarrassment of riches.
The one hundred or so contributors here range very widely. There are family memories, of course, and memories from colleagues in the academic world who knew him as a professor and the founding master of Massey College at the University of Toronto.
Predictably, there are other major writers like Margaret Atwood and John Irving. Less predictably, there are people from the world of Hollywood, such as Norman Jewison and David Cronenberg (who remembers Davies on-set, peering through a camera lens as he researched his newest novel). And we even hear from his barber, and from his gardener, Theo Henkenhaf.
Some speakers contribute just a lively paragraph; others several pages. Yet all of them, through the magic of Val Ross’s art, help to create an intriguing, full-colour portrait of a complex man beloved by millions of readers around the world.
From the Hardcover edition.
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About the Author
This is her long-awaited first adult book.
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
RD and Brenda were in Scandinavia in September 1986 when they heard that his name was on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize in Literature. And not for the first time; they were also informed that Anthony Burgess, among others, had been lobbying for a Davies Nobel for at least two years. This was followed by more good news.
FELICITY BRYAN (London literary agent)
I was an agent at Curtis Brown, this would be about twenty years ago. Rob was repped by Curtis Brown. . . . I took the Deptford trilogy with me on a holiday to France. I read it, and I was bowled over. When I came back from France I was spouting over about this tremendous writer.
Then I read What’s Bred in the Bone. I sat down and I wrote a long fan letter to Rob. And then What’s Bred in the Bone was coming out in England . . . I’ve never worked so hard on getting reviews. We had wonderful reviews for it. And then it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize! I phoned him while he was on tour in Sweden, to tell him about his being shortlisted. We had not yet met at that point. But over the phone he was very funny and very pleased!
JOHN SAUMAREZ SMITH
At the time, I had two sons at Winchester School, and they told me that the head of the English faculty, a Mr. Wyke, was a great admirer of Robertson Davies. I said to Mr. Wyke, “I gather that you’re a fan of Robertson Davies. Would you like me to arrange for Mr. Davies to come down and talk to the boys?” He said, “That would be sensational.”
The Tuesday before we were to go down, Felicity Bryan rang me up and said, “John, you and I should be very proud: Robertson Davies is on the Booker Prize shortlist.” So I rang up Rob and said, “Congratulations! But will it still be all right for Tuesday?” Rob said, “John, I won’t let you down. And as you drive us down to Winchester School you can tell me about the Booker.”
I said [with] the Booker list . . . there was always an agenda that was not always going to produce the best sort of decisions. . . . That day was one of those magical days. Even as Rob and Brenda walked from the college to the cathedral, the cathedral choir was practising. And it was so beautiful it brought tears to their eyes . . .
Just before the talk, Rob stood before some of the boys. He took out an envelope and said to one of them, “It will appear quite soon that I have given one or two lectures, but I want you to have some pleasure in this. So I will speak for twenty minutes and then I want you to ask questions. I know from experience that this often means there is a horrible pause. But this time there won’t be — because here are six questions, and I am very good at answering these questions.” A brilliant trick! Then he spoke. He was very informal and he made them laugh. Afterwards, the boys asked questions for an hour and a half. And they never asked his six questions.
Being shortlisted for the Booker Prize — on top of hearing that he was being considered for a Nobel! . . . But RD was a great worrier and he realized that winning these prizes would have meant a whole lot more time away from his work. . . . He never believed he deserved to win. Too much of a Presbyterian background.
His diary shows that he was tortured by hope.
RD (diary, September 26, 1986)
The Nobel and Booker have stuffed my pillow with thorns . . . no Stoic, I.
RD (diary, October 20, 1986)
I have a fit of the Black Dog and am downcast all day, wholly irrationally. I feel I have been weighed on the balance and emerged 15 ounces to the pound.
The winner of the 1986 Booker was to be announced on October 22, at a
gala dinner in London.
That evening, the Booker evening, I picked them up in a taxi at Pont Street. There is a photo at the flat . . . Rob is in black tie and smoking a cigar. He is wearing his big black ring, and is looking right at the camera. Here’s another photo from that evening, of Rob wearing a black bow tie and a burgundy velvet waistcoat, looking very smart. Brenda is in a sequined dress, navy or a dark teal blue, with a red scarf at the neck. . . . Gosh, she’s an elegant woman.
RD (diary, October 22, 1986)
The evening of the Booker. Fatigue has gone beyond the point when a night’s rest can do much to dispel it. . . . A man from the Toronto Star affects a familiarity I do not understand for I know nothing of him. . . . Win or lose it means little, but it consumes a great deal of energy and spirit. A great throng and two policemen keeping a wide swath to a great car. We dress and Brenda looks very elegant. Felicity calls for us and we drive to Guild Hall, to the crypt for champagne and meet celebrities. . . . Denis Healey. . . . Talk with Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson. . . .
Atwood was shortlisted for The Handmaid’s Tale and RD was shortlisted
for What’s Bred in the Bone.
He gave good interviews. This was the first time two Canadians had been on the shortlist, and he talked about how the English were all saying, “How curious! How odd! Two Canadians!” And he said, “The English are just a little late in discovering what the rest of the world has known for some time.”
That year, alas, the judges gave the Booker to Kingsley Amis for services rendered.
As predicted, Amis. . . . He speaks ungraciously, thanks no one. . . . Clearly pretty well boozed up. . . . Dora Herbert-Jones used to rave about Amis and what a handsome young man he was. Now a swollen wine-skin.
I was furious, of course. But I believe that year was the first time in history that the judges announced the runner-up.
I was runner-up. Mrs. Healy told me afterwards one of the judges weakened. A lot of cheering and I had many supporters. Another interview with Margaret Atwood, and we had a jolly indiscreet time.
On Booker night, when we both lost, we did not commiserate. Self-pity is not appropriate at these things. How very Canadian of us! “We were both pleased to be there and it was very nice to be on the shortlist.” If it mattered deeply to him, it didn’t show. In 2000, when I won the Booker, I thanked him, which was a very Canadian thing to do: to thank All Those Who Had Gone Before.
From the Hardcover edition.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Meeting the Swan 1
Walking Spirits 3
Thamesville to Deptford 12
The Land That God Gave Cain 18
Kingston/Salterton: "Twice a City" 28
An Elegant Seat of Learning 34
Queen's and the "Special Student" 43
First Loves 49
A Lost Oxford Year 57
In Love and War 67
Cheated by Canada 77
Just a Pinch Better Than Peterborough 84
The Children of the Man with the Beard 93
"Tonight We are Actors" 104
Tempest in Wales 115
Family Games on Park Street 122
Bearding the Beard 132
Leaven of Malice 137
Theatre Dreams 144
In Search of a Second Wind 151
A Mixture of Frailties 158
Love and Libel 162
Return to the Ivory Tower 168
Master of Massey 177
Two Deaths 190
Inside the Master's Lodging 194
Fifth Business 204
Deptford Produces a Trilogy 215
The False God of the Theatre 226
Among Writers 249
Retirement, the Life of a Dog 260
The Cornish Trilogy 271
An Ambassador Abroad 280
The Gay Question 290
The Reluctant Biographee 293
Film Flam 308
Honours and Grandchildren 321
Just a Canadian 332
The Ninth Decade 342
December 2, 1995 354
Publisher's Note 371