OBITUARY

THE MAGIC TOUCH A REVERED STORYTELLER

John Irving pays tribute to Robertson Davies

JOHN IRVING December 18 1995
OBITUARY

THE MAGIC TOUCH A REVERED STORYTELLER

John Irving pays tribute to Robertson Davies

JOHN IRVING December 18 1995

THE MAGIC TOUCH A REVERED STORYTELLER

OBITUARY

John Irving pays tribute to Robertson Davies

JOHN IRVING

There was an overflow crowd of500 people at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College Chapel for the funeral last week of Robertson Davies. And at a public celebration of his life at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall, such notables as writers Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findley and Stratford Festival artistic director Richard Monette read from Davies’s works and offered personal reminiscences. Davies, who died in Orangeville, Ont., on Dec. 2, at the age of 82, was born in Thamesville, Ont.; he was educated at Upper Canada College, Queen’s University and Oxford. A former actor and director, he later became editor, then publisher, of the Peterborough Examiner. There, he wrote a syndicated column, The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks, selections of which would become his first book. American novelist John Irving (The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany) was only five when it was published in 1947, but in his adult years he came to know Davies well. He regards The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks as the beginning of a literary voice that would be the most illuminating and original hallmark of Canadian literature for almost 50 years.

He was the greatest comic novelist in the English language since Charles Dickens. Like Dickens, Robertson Davies came to the novel with a theatrical back-

ground; possibly this gave him dramatic expectations. He expected the novel to perform for an audience—to be simultaneously entertaining and instructive; to be intellectually stimulating and emotionally cathartic. Like Dickens, he managed to mix social realism with those elements of storytelling that are basically magical: his portraits of society were lifelike, his caricatures wickedly accurate, but the source of his imagination was closer to myths and fairy tales and ghost stories than to the slice-of-life boredom of newspapers. Like Dickens, he viewed humanity with critical affection and with documentary authenticity; yet, also like Dickens, he was a mischiefmaker and a fantasist.

Like Graham Greene, Davies should have won the Nobel Prize; that he didn’t devalues both the Nobel and the best literature that we call “international.” I think he was too funny for the Nobel committee, who have—at least in the last decade— distinguished themselves by taking literature so seriously that they seem to miss what is most serious about it. (By “seriously,” I mean with such embarrassing political correctness.)

Almost from the beginning—and specifically in Tempest-Tost (1951 ), Leaven of Malice (1954) and A Mixture of Frailties (1958)—Davies recognized that the clash of “culture” with boorishness and provincialism was essentially both serious and comic material. In the first of these books that compose the Salterton Trilogy, a local drama league suffers through a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, to the embarrassment (and hilarious exposure) of all concerned; in the second, which won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, a local newspaper is drawn into the vengeful pranks of the typically small-minded and mean-spirited citizenry; in the third, the tyrannical role that money often plays in the development of the arts is farcically explored—a gospel singer struggles to become a concert artist, and so forth. And, from the beginning, Canada knew better than the Swedish Academy that Davies not only knew whereof he spoke, he also elevated his social observations with wit. Yet his urbane, at times scholarly humor

was always gentle. He was never merely a satirist; his books express an unstinting human kindness, which was always elevating, too.

Ever since I first read him, as a New England prepschool student, Rob Davies was my personal hero. That he later became my friend, and that my wife, Janet Turnbull Irving, became his agent. . . well, it suffices to say that we both feel a terrible loss. I first travelled to Toronto for the sole purpose of meeting him. This was in 1981 or 1982; he had recently reviewed one of my novels (The Hotel New Hampshire) with such understanding and mischief, I was all the more intimidated to be meeting him while wearing a pair of my son’s wrestling shoes—I had a broken toe at the time and these were the only shoes I could wear comfortably. While Rob clearly disapproved of my choice in footwear—this may have marked the only appearance of wrestling shoes at the York Club—he was in every respect a gracious host to me.

That he wrote with such unfaked enthusiasm and affection about so many real people is reflected in his zeal for fictional description—even the most minor characters in his novels are robustly brought to life. Professor Davies, as he was called by many, once confessed to finding George Santayana’s major philosophical works “forbidding . . . they are written in language of such beautiful limpidity.... Santayana knew the taste of wisdom. . . . His life and his belief were all of a piece.” I could say the same for Robertson Davies.

To those who didn’t know him, who only read him, doubtless Davies could seem threatening. If he knew “the taste of wisdom,” he also knew how to condemn. In an essay on the relationship between Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, he wrote, “It is impossible to pour more than a pint into a pint-pot, and it is similarly impossible to love a woman who is merely enchanting as deeply as a woman who is great.” And in a short story called “The Ghost Who Vanished by Degrees,” he wrote, “The wit of a graduate student is like champagne— Canadian champagne. . ..” He must have terrified more than the occasional graduate student, of whom he knew many; he was master of Massey College at the University of Toronto from 1960 until he retired in 1981.

He was best known in the United States for the first novel of his Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business (1970). But his stature there continued to grow. His daughter Jennifer told me that his reading at Princeton University shortly before his death was a great triumph. Soon after, he came down with pneumonia, and later suffered the stroke that killed him.

When my wife and I were married in Toronto, I asked Rob to read from the Bible—at reading aloud, and not only from the Bible, there was no one better. I had only a vague idea of which parts of the Bible might be best for the occasion; vague ideas never suited R. D. (as he was also widely known)—he told me which parts of the Bible were most suitable, and also which translation he preferred. Rob was a King James man, of course; not trusting me or the Bishop Strachan Chapel to provide the correct version of the text, he brought his own Bible with him to my wedding, where my 17-year-old son—upon seeing Robertson Davies for the first time—instantly mistook him for God. Since his death, I’ve said to many friends that I think my son’s first impression wasn’t wrong.

Davies’s storytelling skills have been vastly more consistent than those of two other literary giants and personal favorites of mine—namely, Gabriel García Márquez and Günter Grass (unsurprisingly, also comic novelists from the Dickensian tradition) . It is heartening to his readers that Davies’s last novel, The Cunning Man, was such a success in Canada—and around the world. Yet for all the love and admiration that I feel for his novels, it is something rather small that he gave me once that I find myself thinking of now. It is only 31 pages long, and it is the Robertson Davies libretto for Jezebel, An Oratorio for Chorus, Soloists and Orchestra, with music by Derek Holman. McClelland & Stewart published the libretto “as a tribute to its author,” and my copy is inscribed “for John and Janet, with affectionate good wishes, from Rob.”

Near the end of the libretto, the Narrator says:

Thus hath been told the Golden Tale of Naboth

And his vineyard,

And ofKingAhab and his wicked Queen.

To which the Chorus responds:

Told, yea and finely told,

It shall pierce as an arrow

Into the hearts of men.

That is what Robertson Davies gave to Canada, and to the literature of the world: all his stories, all “finely told”— they all “pierce as an arrow into the hearts of men.” □

From Fifth Business (1970)

‘Walking up the street ahead of me were the Reverend Amasa Dempster and his wife; he had her arm tucked in his and was leaning toward her in the protective way he had. I was familiar with this sight, for they always took a walk at this time, after dark and when most people were at supper, because Mrs. Dempster was going to have a baby, and it was not the custom in our village for pregnant women to show themselves boldly in the streets— not if they had any position to keep up, and of course the Baptist minister’s wife had a position, had been throwing snow-

balls at me, from time to time, and I had ducked them all; I had a boy’s sense of when a snowball was coming, and I knew Percy. I was sure that he would try to land one last, insulting snowball between my shoulders before I ducked into our house. I stepped briskly—not running, but not dawdling—in front of the Dempsters just as Percy threw, and the snowball hit Mrs. Dempster on the back of the head. She gave a cry and, clinging to her husband, slipped to the ground; he might have caught her if he had not turned at once to see who had thrown the snowball.’