Friday, May 22, 2009

Fifth Business

Can I really write of my boyhood? Or will that disgusting self-love which so often attaches itself to a man's idea of his youth creep in and falsify the story? I can but try. (p. 19)

One always learns one's mystery at the price of one's innocence. (p. 263)

I first read Robertson Davies more than twenty years ago and was impressed with the characters and action in his novel, What's Bred in the Bone. It was a story of an artist born to a patrician family whose life becomes entangled in mystery.
The prime thing I remember from that reading was my enjoyment of Davies story-telling ability. It has taken a couple of decades, but I finally read another of his novels, perhaps his best, and find that same story-telling ability still impresses me. Fifth Business is the first installment of the Deptford Trilogy by Davies and it is the story of the life of the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay. The entire story is told in the form of a letter written by Ramsay on his retirement from teaching at Colborne College, addressed to the school Headmaster. The book's title was explained by the author as a theatrical term, a character essential to the action but not a principal actor. This is made explicit in the focus of much the action on others, including Percy Boyd 'Boy' Staunton and his wife Leola, and Mrs. Dempster and her son Paul; all of whom influence and are influenced by the life of the narrator.

Davies discusses several themes in the novel, including the difference between materialism and spirituality. He has also created a sort of bildungsroman in the narrative of Dunstable 'Dunstan' Ramsay, who lives a life dedicated to teaching (history in a boys' school) and studying the lives of saints, becoming a hagiographer of some note. Significantly, Davies, then being an avid student of Carl Jung's ideas, deploys them in Fifth Business. Characters are clear examples of Jungian archetypes and events demonstrate Jung's idea of synchronicity. The stone thrown at Ramsay when he was a child reappears decades later in a scandalous suicide or murder. This along with the impetus in Ramsay's life of three "miracles" become the mainstays of the plot line. Finally, it is all held together by Davies attention to detail, his characterization and above all his ability to tell a good story. I expect to return to finish the Deptford Trilogy sooner rather than later.

Fifth Business in The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. Penguin Books. 1977 (1970)
What's Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies. Viking Press, New York. 1985.

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