Books

A mastery of subject

ONE HALF OF ROBERTSON DAVIES by Robertson Davies

BARBARA AMIEL October 17 1977
Books

A mastery of subject

ONE HALF OF ROBERTSON DAVIES by Robertson Davies

BARBARA AMIEL October 17 1977

A mastery of subject

Books

ONE HALF OF ROBERTSON DAVIES by Robertson Davies

(Macmillan of Canada, $10.95)

It was two years ago that I first met Robertson Davies. The occasion was a gathering in a fine old Ontario house with thick lawns sloping back to the lake and an 18th-century barn. The evening had the precarious feeling of a tableau vivant—an ambience that only memory would see again. The heavy ticking of mantel clocks seemed to exist only for that evening. It was no surprise several months later when the Ontario government expropriated the estate for one of its hideous expressways.

Among the distinguished guests, it was the persona of Davies that seemed most seductive to me. Not that it was easy to talk with him; he would listen politely to any-

one who tried, but then would return without comment to his own subject. His resonant voice was determined to impart truth to the unenlightened. This was done with much grace and wit. Listening to Davies, I felt about him a little like a civilized agnostic feels about God: if he didn’t exist he would have to be invented in this barbarous age. His new book. One Half Of Robertson Davies.has much of this feeling about it. Erudition, considered thought and wit have always been the best weapons in the Davies literary arsenal. They have produced fine novels {Fifth Business, The Manticore, World Of Wonders) but they are especially suited for the lecture-cumafter-dinner talk which is featured in this collection of speeches, jottings and ghost stories. If the book lacks a certain excitement it is only because Davies uses his writing to tell us what he already knows. This saves him from many pitfalls but somehow causes his work to lack the edge of tension that, say, an Orwell has when he struggles not merely to impart but to discover the truth. Still, as Davies points out. “the familiar and basic things demand constant repetition in an age when familiar and basic things are so often cast aside as if we had outlived them.” His basics are those of all civilized people: excellence in

the arts, precision in language, decency in the conduct of human affairs. His enemies are, well, half the thoughts and emotions current in this century. A sampling:

On social work: “The underprivileged boys and I had no community of interest ... They would not tell me what it was like to be in Reform School—which was what I wanted to know. I refused to tell them about the sexual habits of upper-class women which was what they wanted to know ... It was a deadlock and the underprivileged boys and I parted with mutual ill will.”

On language: “We have all met those excitable exuberant people who assure us

that they just love words ... I would rather listen to somebody who loved meanings better than words themselves . . . People who just love words are all too often the people who talk about ‘meaningful interface,’ and spend a lot of time on ‘marginal variables’ whenever they set out upon an ‘in-depth overview.’”

Davies explodes the clichés of our time with appropriate contempt. Some may argue that he is a prisoner of his own clichés: his emphasis on the work of Carl Jung as a tool of literary criticism reminds one of my post-psychiatric generation of the Columbus fallacy. Columbus discovered a continent but died still convinced it was India.

Freud, Jung and Adler alerted us to the existence of the inner world of the unconscious, but seem to have been wrong in most of its particular geography. Still, it may be more important to have enemies in common with Davies than friends. For me, at least, it is possible to envisage peaceful coexistence with Jung but not with Davies’ foes: plain falsehood, self-pity and inarticulateness masquerading as signposts to a better world. BARBARA AMIEL