A master’s sharp eye

October 19 1987

A master’s sharp eye

October 19 1987

A master’s sharp eye


With his thick snow-white beard and mane of white hair, Robertson Davies is an immediately recognizable figure. One of North America ’s most prominent literary figures, Davies, 74, is also a playwright and until 1981 taught drama at the University of Toronto, where he is still master emeritus of Massey College. But Davies is best known for his novels, including The Deptford Trilogy, which has been published in 12 languages. His most recent novel, What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), is scheduled to become a 1988 Canadian television mini-series. And last February Davies won the New York-based National Arts Club ’s prestigious Medal of Honor for Literature. Maclean’s correspondent Eva Seidner recently interviewed Davies in his Massey College office.

Maclean’s: Do you see your books as belonging to any particular genre? Davies: I regard them as romances, not as realistic tales at all. I think that there is far more truth possible through romance than there is through a sort of gritty, realistic piece, of which we

get a sickening amount nowadays. Maclean’s: Humor is an outstanding feature in your work. Does that reflect the way you see the world?

Davies: Yes, but it was not adopted by me; it was something that I grew up with. I was brought up in an atmosphere of ironic observation. You see, my fam-

Vne of the bugbears of modern life is too much rationalism, too little easy interplay with the world of the unseen ’

ily was a newspaper family, and in newspapers you know a lot about things that you simply couldn’t print. You know what lies behind some apparently inoffensive happenings. Consequently, intelligent newspaper people—and my father was a very intelligent newspaperman—have a very wry attitude toward life and circumstances. They know

that what you can write about is just the icing on a very rich, fruity, nutty and unwholesome cake.

Maclean’s: With your next novel, you will complete your third trilogy. Do you know before you begin that it will take three books to work out a concept? Davies: No, I don’t. I start with one book, and then if that one develops, there appears to be material which would go better in another book. And that happens a third time. I suppose if you were self-indulgent you could just go on ploughing around with the same group of characters for a long time.

Maclean’s: Do the arts of the dramatist and the novelist overlap?

Davies: Inevitably they do. [American turn-of-the-century novelist] Henry James always said, ‘Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize.’ And it is even more important now than it was in Henry James’s day, because the effect of movies and television on the reading public is very great. Now you tend to write leaving out a lot of fat, which you used to put in, in order to get your reader from one place to another.

Maclean’s: Has television, then, had a negative effect on the modern-day novel?

Davies: There is a temptation, which I think has to be resisted, to write your novel with television in view. A very striking example of that was [British

writer] John Mortimer’s last novel, Paradise Postponed. And it was a much better series than it was a novel. Maclean’s: Would you agree with one of the characters in your 1981 novel The Rebel Angels, who recommends looking outside the academic world for wisdom? Davies: You must find wisdom everywhere. If you think you’re going to find knowledge only in the halls of learning, you’re going to have a pretty thin meal on your table. Now, in the university you meet very many learned men, and the thing I say almost at once is, what has your learning made of your life? And sometimes it’s a pitiable result. You find the immensely learned man who lives a sort of rotten, thin, poor, washed-out life. The university can give you a lot of training, which provides another window on the world. But you mustn’t think it’s the only window.

Maclean’s: Do you believe that supernatural beings and occult powers, which abound in your work, have an actual presence in the world?

Davies: They’re palpable on a great many levels. And this is one of the things that education does—it gives you a greater and richer variety of ghosts. Something peculiar happens, and you think, ‘What would [18th-century essayist] Dr. [Samuel] Johnson have said about that?’ Something else happens and you say, ‘Oh, yes, Shakespeare said

this about it.’ And these are ghosts, present in your mind. There are other ghosts—everybody has their personal ghosts. I think that one of the bugbears of modern life is too much rationalism, too little easy interplay with the world of the unconscious and the unseen. Maclean’s: Do you believe that things happen according to a grand design? Davies: I think that there are elements of meaningful coincidence in life, which you can’t avoid unless you’ve very blind. I don’t pretend to have a system, but I am hopeful and watchful and attentive to what goes on, in order to catch any hints that I can of what the scheme might be.

Maclean’s: Can the reading or writing of fiction help to recognize and exploit elements of such a scheme?

Davies: Yes, indeed.

What I try to do, because I feel I write first and foremost for Canadians, is to hint, to a nation that is extremely backward about looking at such things, that these elements exist in life—and it would be a good thing for us as individuals and as a nation to keep an eye on them, because I think that not only people, but coun-

tries, have destinies. It is important to have some idea of what the destiny of your country is and not let it flap along and be, perhaps, devoured by some other country—simply because you have not been aware of what might lie in wait. Maclean’s: Do you think that people in power listen to writers when they describe the importance of national destiny?

Davies: I think that this has happened very markedly in the United States.

There, writers have been very much an element in a recognition, among a large part of the population, of what the country is and what it might do. I was exceedingly flattered in New York earlier this year when Mr. Robert MacNeil, of the MacNeil/ Lehrer NewsHour, was making a speech at an affair where I got [The National Arts Club] award. He said that I was attempting to do what Joyce said that he was trying to do: to forge in the smithy of my work the soul of my country. Well, I don’t make any pretense to that, but it is a thing that a serious writer has to think about. You’re not just writing to amuse— though you must amuse, if you want any-

body to pay any attention to you. Maclean’s: Has your work ever been censored?

Davies: Recently, I got a letter that annoyed me very much from Poland. They had asked to publish the Deptford books and wrote to say that they were bringing out Fifth Business, but that I would find that some considerable passages had been cut because they would be offensive to people of strong religious faith. Well, I wrote back rather sharply to the publisher and said that I was very

sorry for Poland, because it had to put up not only with the censorship of its Soviet masters but with the censorship of the Catholic Church.

Maclean’s: What role does religion and the question of free will play in your fiction?

Davies: I’ve thought all my life a good deal about religion. I was brought up as a Presbyterian. As a child I was curious and wanted to know what they really believed, and so I read the Westminster Confession, which is the 17th-century statement of what Presbyterianism is. Well, it would make your hair stand on end: you haven’t got a chance. Everything is laid out for you, and struggle however you may, your salvation or damnation is predetermined. [But] I do think that there are elements in one’s life—and it’s fashionable now to speak of them as genes—that make it impossible for you to do some things that you might dearly like to do. I might like to be an extraordinarily beautiful woman and the mistress of kings, but I’m not going to be that. You have to put up pretty much with what you get; you can’t do

more than what lies within your actual scope.

Maclean’s: In all your novels, every action has repercussions, even if they appear 300 pages later. Does your art imitate the symmetry of life as you see it? Davies: Yes, I do feel that. I do see chickens coming home to roost and burnt children fearing the fire, and I feel that there is a great deal more shape to life than people in general are prepared to admit. We do not ourselves shape and condition our lives as careful-

ly or as completely as a good many people would like to suppose. I often ponder on that story of the American Indian who told an anthropologist, ‘I think that there is somewhere a dreamer, and he is dreaming us.’ That poetic attitude is not my own. But there is more sense in that than there is in the notion that everybody hacks out their own destiny with whatever life has given them. Maclean’s: Do you use fiction in that way—as therapy or self-analysis? Davies: All fiction is autobiographical, but the process of working out your personal troubles and confronting your own demons is a lifelong thing, and you cannot hope to do it in the course of writing a single book.

Maclean’s: In What’s Bred in the Bone, the protagonist finally attains what you call his 'myth. ’ Does everyone have a personal myth to achieve?

Davies: Yes, they do. It’s a thing that grows, and most of us get to be pretty old before we get any notion of what our myth might be. It’s a long, long struggle.^