THE MASTER'S VOICE

Peter C. Newman September 1 1972

THE MASTER'S VOICE

Peter C. Newman September 1 1972

THE MASTER'S VOICE

PETER C. NEWMAN

The table talk of Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies, Master of Massey College, once wrote a play called Fortune My Foe. In it, one of his leading characters exclaims, “God, how I have tried to love this country ... I have given all I have to Canada - my love, then my hate and now my bitter indifference. But this raw, frostbitten place has worn me out and its raw frostbitten people have numbed my heart.”

Whether or not this cry comes from the heart of the author himself is hard to tell, but there are those close to him who believe that Robertson Davies, like so many artists bred here, has always found Canada hard to endure if impossible to flee. Still, because of his background and education (he was bom into the Upper Canadian upper class, the son of a family of newspaper owners and Liberal Senators and educated at Upper Canada College and Oxford’s Balliol), his enormous, intensive and varied talents as a writer and his genius for civilized eccentricity, he has been able to respond to his alienation from country in a manner that’s uniquely his own.

In effect, he has (along with the 20 other board members) created a kind of non-Canada within our chilly boundaries, making out of Massey College at the University of Toronto an intellectual haven for himself and a clutch of postgraduate scholars who come there to pursue their serious ends. Inside its elegant walls he moves among his Junior Fellows in their gowns, looking quite magnificent in a necromancer’s beard, living in the Master’s Lodge, presiding once a month at High Table, sniffing snuff out of Aram’s horn, sipping claret, responding with superb indifference to all charges that the college is snobbish, anachronistic, sexist and maybe even absurd. (There are no souls on ice at Massey College.)

If these trappings were all he was master of, the media and the masses of students beyond the college’s quad (Massey has 84 fellows, the university that shelters it has 19,526) might be justified in making mock of Davies’ mannerisms. But the Master has played a splendid joke on his detractors. In the past two years — after writing 21 novels, plays and works of theatrical criticism which brought him mild approval at home and little notice abroad — he has made an international reputation for himself as a writer that places him beyond Canada, if still of it, beyond the radical rage of student newspaper editors, beyond angry feminists, high on the pinnacle where he’s always dwelt in spirit.

When his novel, Fifth Business, was published in 1970 it was accorded an international critical response that boggled Davies’ acquaintances. (“My God,” said a fellow professor, “it’s fulfilling Rob’s sanest dreams.”) The New York Times called it “a marvelous enigmatic novel, driven by an irresistible force,” The New Yorker said it was elegant, Esquire saw it as being “as masterfully executed as anything in the history of the novel.” Saul Bellow claimed it had taught him much, John Fowles looked on with admiration and the Toronto Star said it was bored.

When I repeated these comments to the Master in his study one afternoon not long ago, he merely looked mildly pleased, though he was willing to allow that his new novel, The Manticore, which will be published next month, was also “quite all right” according to his English, American and Canadian publishers as well as the Literary Guild and the Book-of-the-Month Club. He then went on to talk with a spirit, style and erudition that were entirely expected and with a generosity and a certain sweet self-mockery that were not. What follows are excerpts from our conversation:

If Britain had never been invaded by the Normans, it is quite likely that the position of women would be splendid now, and would have been splendid for the last 1,500 years. The Normans brought to England the Roman law and the attitude of the Roman Catholic church toward women, which tended to downgrade them

in one way while exalting them through the figure of the Virgin in another way. But under the old Celtic law that had prevailed in Britain and under old Saxon law, women inherited equally from their fathers. They could have divorce upon showing good reason, and good reason was cruelty, madness, sexual incapacity. They could, when they were divorced, take their property back from the marriage, and they could marry again without any difficulty whatever, and they had a well-recognized and honorable place in society. But as soon as they came under the dominance of Roman law and the Catholic church, women had an awful time, that continued right up to 1882, when the Married Women’s Property Act was passed. I have a very high regard for women. I am very fond of women. I admire them, and think they have extraordinary qualities which are not at all like the predominant male qualities.

The world Is burdened with young fogies. Old men with ossified minds are easily dealt with. But men who look young, act young and everlastingly harp on the fact that they are young, but who nevertheless think and act with a degree of caution that would be excessive in their grandfathers, are the curse of the world. Their very conservatism is secondhand, and they don’t know what they are conserving.

I think of an author as somebody who goes into the marketplace and puts down his rug and says, “I will tell you a story” and then he passes the hat. And when he’s taken up his collection, he tells his story, and just before the denouement he passes the hat again. If it’s worth anything, fine. If not, he ceases to be an author. He does not apply for a Canada Council grant.

Because I am a Canadian, I couldn’t really live anywhere else. I have had chances to do so and have never given it serious consideration. I belong here. To divorce yourself from your roots is spiritual suicide. The expatriate, unless he is really a rather special kind of person, is very unhappy. I just am a Canadian. It is not a thing which you can escape from. It is like having blue eyes.

I tell my class of graduate students, “Keep your ears open to the promptings of your destiny and don’t worry too much if you and your destiny do not agree about what you should have, and when you should have it. Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness. ”

I’m always urging architects to bring a whisper of magnificence, a shade of lightheartedness and a savor of drama into the setting of our daily lives. How long is it since any Canadian architect has included a secret passage in a new house? The building inspector would no doubt insist that it be equipped with electric light, drainage and an airchanging system.

I feel that people will eventually have to come back to getting their serious information from print. When you see TV and film, you’re seeing what is primarily a work of art. It is calculated to catch and hold your attention by the arts of theatre. Now when you are reading a report or anything like that, you can stop, you can consider, you can contradict. You can check your information and you can make notes. You can’t do any of these things with the theatrical arts and it’s wrong to be hoodwinked into taking them as information. They are entertainment.

I don’t think I would ever write a book with what anybody would call pornography in it, because I feel that pornography is a cheat. It is an attempt to provide sexual experience by secondhand means. Now sex is a thing which has to be experienced first hand, if you are really going to understand it, and pornography is rather like trying to find out about a Beethoven symphony by having somebody tell you about it and perhaps hum a few bars. It's not the same thing. Sex is primarily a question of relationships. Pornography is a do-ityourself kit — a twenty-second best.

I am very interested in the condition of sainthood. It is just as interesting as evil. What makes a saint? You look at the lives of some of the very great saints and you find that they were fascinating people. Just as fascinating as great criminals or great conquerors. Most saints have been almost unbearable nuisances in life. Some were reformers, some were sages, some were visionaries, but all were intensely alive, and thus a living rebuke to people who were not. So many got martyred because nobody could stand them. Society hates exceptional people because such people make them feel inferior.

The English influence in Canada has not, I think, in general been a happy one. We have been patronized by the English and they have taken us for granted. No people in the world can make you feel so small as the English and they have, I think without ever being conscious of it, made many of their dominions feel small. We are the good daughter who stayed at home to help mother. We did it in 1776. We did it in 1812. The good daughter who stays home ends up by being taken for granted by mother and that is what happened to us. My background is not English, it is Welsh and Dutch, and I look at the English with a fairly cold eye.

I am fascinated by them, because I want to see what makes them tick, but I am fascinated by them as a Spaniard in the third century might have been fascinated by Rome. England is on the slides and I want to see what happens.

The American influence on Canada is again a strange and ambiguous one, but the Americans are much more influenced by England than they pretend. I don’t believe in historical parallels, but when Rome was at its pinnacle the most prestige-lending possession a Roman could have was a Greek secretary. At this moment the most prestige-lending thing you can have in New York is an English secretary. Britain has reached the secretarial level of decline. You look at American magazines and their booze and their classic clothes and their shoes and all those things are still advertised in English terms; when they really want to build something up there is a saddle, or Anne Hathaway’s cottage, or a Guardsman plastered on it, to give it prestige. This is fascinating. But it is the sign of a country that is becoming a symbol of the past.

Canada demands a great deal from people and is not, as some countries are, quick to offer in return a pleasant atmosphere or easy kind of life. I mean, France demands an awful lot from her people, too, but France also offers gifts in the way of a genial, pleasant sort of life and many amenities that we don’t regard as important here and have done little to create. Canada is not really a place where you are encouraged to have large spiritual adventures.

I don’t think we’re particularly eager to look for the Canadian identity, because many people are afraid of what they may find. They fear it will not be a very flattering picture. You have got to get rid of a lot of the Shadow side of your nature before you come to the reality of it. The Shadow is the inferior side, the unacknowledged evil. And Canada is scared of her Shadow.

A lot of people complain that my novels aren’t about Canada. I think they are, because I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker. This makes for tension. Tension is the very stuff of art. Plays, novels — the whole lot. ■