The golden autumn of a literary giant

ANN FINLAYSON September 12 1988

The golden autumn of a literary giant

ANN FINLAYSON September 12 1988

The golden autumn of a literary giant


Over his long and enormously prolific career as a humorist, novelist, playwright and scold, Robertson Davies has been accused of many literary sins. Critics have labelled him an anachronism, an old-fashioned moralist and romantic who wandered into Canada from the early 19th century and despised what he saw. Davies’s sartorial splendor—the silk cravats and Edwardian jackets, the walking sticks and large

antique ring—sometimes seems calculated to confirm his detractors’ accusations. But he has persevered, creating worlds of wonders that are uniquely his own. His protean comic imagination, immense erudition and masterful storytelling have won him both scholarly and popular acclaim around the world. As Davies, who turned 75 on Aug. 28, celebrates the publication this week of his ninth novel, The Lyre of Orpheus, he can be confident of his place in the pantheon of modern novelists.

The denizens of Davies’s fictional universe have charmed and intrigued readers in 12 languages, including Hebrew and Finnish. And the paperback editions of his last five novels have sold

more than 580,000 copies in the United States alone. Next spring, Davies’s What ’s Bred in the Bone (1985)—the second book in the trilogy that began with The Rebel Angels (1981) and concludes with his latest novel—will be made into a television mini-series by several private and public partners including the CBC and the BBC.

Critics around the world greet the appearance of a new Davies book as a

major literary event. And it is a measure of his scope that he has been compared to more great literary figures—including Thomas Mann and Charles Dickens—than most other contemporary writers. English novelist Anthony Burgess, a long-standing Davies admirer, recently likened him to 19th-century English novelist Anthony Trollope. “I admire this energy, this panoramic capacity,” Burgess told Maclean’s from his home in Lugano, Switzerland. He added that Davies deserves the Nobel Prize for literature. Other organizations have already recognized the author’s stature: last year, Davies was awarded the prized Medal of Honor for Literature

Davies, who has been both journalist and playwright, actor and scholar, is modest about his ascension to the rank of literary giant. “I believe that many people read me because they are curious about Canada, and fiction isn’t in a terribly active state in many places today, especially in Europe,” he said in a recent interview at his elegant country house in the rolling Caledon Hills, north of Toronto. But he acknowledges that his wide audience is a source of much personal satisfaction. “To my astonishment, I find that I have a great many young readers,” said Davies. “I have been criticized a good deal in Canada for being oldfashioned. The young people, I am pleased to say, don’t seem to find me old-fashioned at all.” Most of Davies’s devotees seem to agree with that assessment. “He infuses his books with wisdom, and that is somewhat alarming to socalled modern critics,” said Toronto publisher Douglas Gibson, who edited several of Davies’s early novels. “The fact ço that he chooses slightly old bottles to pour his 3 wine doesn’t mean the 1 wine should be discountI ed. I think his writing is timeless.”

by New York City’s National Arts Club.

Yet to some critics and readers, Davies’s work—with its preoccupation with high culture, academic life and great moral questions—is out of touch with the 20th century. Among them is Nova Scotian author and critic Janice Kulyk Keefer, who says, “Everything he was doing in What’s Bred in the Bone—all the name-dropping and the high gloss—was so predictable and staged.” Kulyk Keefer added that she finds Davies’s portrayals of women particularly antiquated. “He comes out of a world that believed that if a woman was an intellectual, she also had to be ugly.” Others have faulted Davies for being detached from ordinary lives. “There is a certain elitism in Davies’s work,” said Michael Peterman, an expert on the author at Trent University

in Peterborough, Ont. “I sense that Davies has a rather low opinion of the common man.”

Critics also complain that Davies bestows an overwhelming burden of philosophical and intellectual baggage on his characters. They charge that such typical Davies creations as gypsies camped in downtown Toronto condominiums and malformed infants hidden away in the attics of rural Ontario are too improbable to carry the full weight of his moral vision. But Davies rejects claims that his characters exist only as vehicles for his opinions. “What some people don’t realize,” he said, “is that there are people like that in the real world.”

Still, Davies’s novels are suffused with ideas. He has consistently drawn on the rich literary mine of religious allegory. And his work is deeply influenced by the theories of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who interpreted the unconscious through archetypal images and myths. Many of Davies’s characters are based on those archetypes—such as the intuitive gypsywhile others seek selfknowledge through universal myths and symbols. But Davies’s self-proclaimed dedication to the art of being “knowingly and intentionally and pointedly funny” also pervades his novels.

Exquisite taste in The Lyre of Orpheus is personified by Gunilla Dahl-Soot, a dipsomaniac composer who regularly drinks her dinner companions under the table. “I don’t want to tell man how to live,” Davies said. “I just want to tell him how he’s living right now and I think it is very funny.”

Born in the southwestern Ontario village of Thamesville—on which the narrowly provincial town of Deptford in Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders is based—Davies grew up in a family that took words seriously. His father, Rupert, and his mother, Florence, were both journal^ ists. The Welsh-born Rupert eventually bought the Kingston Whig-Standard and the Peterborough Examiner, later serving in the Senate. Davies recalls that his mother was a “demon grammarian” who gave him little choice but to be a writer.

Davies attended Toronto’s Upper

Canada College, a training ground for the country’s elite. He later studied English at Queen’s University in Kingston. Then, he switched to Balliol College, Oxford, where he received a bachelor’s degree in literature—and discovered the lure of the stage.

After a brief stint playing character parts in provincial English theatres, Davies went to work at London’s Old

Vic as assistant to the now-legendary director Tyrone Guthrie, who was to become the first director of Canada’s Stratford Festival when it opened in 1953. But the curtain fell quickly on Davies’s acting career: in 1939, the war forced the British government to close all theatres indefinitely. The following year, he married Australian-born Brenda Mathews, the Old Vic’s stage manager. The Davieses’ 48-year marriage—and their three daughters—has been a source of strength and joy. Said Davies: “Many people today do not know how much a good marriage can mean to the quality of life.”

Soon after their wedding, the couple moved to Canada, where Davies was swiftly rejected for military service on medical grounds. He went on to serve as the literary editor of Saturday Night magazine for two years, before becoming an editorial writer—and later editor and publisher—of the Peterborough paper owned by his father. There, he also launched his career as a humorist with a cantankerous, sometimes brutally caustic, weekly column, The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks. At the same time, Davies turned his hand to writing for the stage with such works as Overlaid and A Jig for the Gypsy. And with TempestTost, a travesty of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he began to explore the satirical novel.

In 1961, better known as a playwright than a novelist, Davies was appointed master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College. During his 18-year tenure there, Davies’s dedication to Oxford’s academic rituals and pretensions—including academic gowns and fine sherry—was legendary.

Davies’s early novels won him a small band of admirers, but Fifth Business— which appeared in 1970—attracted a larger following. The book describes, in the form of a letter written by schoolmaster Dunstan Ramsey, how a snowball thrown by a small boy in 1908 changed the course of five lives. Since then, his read's? ership has continued to I grow steadily. Now, Davies I can be certain that any z new book he produces will s attract worldwide attention. He is working on a new novel, but says that he is slowing down. “I haven’t got as much energy as I once had; I don’t walk out to dinner anymore,” he noted. “I don’t work 12-hour days.”

Davies says that he is reconciled to his mortality. “You just hope that it’s not going to be too rampant a progress,” he added. “And you try to give your life a shape.” His admirers would say that by crafting so many impressive works, Robertson Davies has already succeeded in shaping a life with splendid contours.

-ANN FINLAYSON with DAVID MacLEAN in Toronto and NOAH RICHLER in London