No doubt Robertson Davies imagines heaven as a place where the conversation is always good. This would make it a very exclusive place, too, since in an age of mass communications and populist jargon, few people put much effort into talking in an original or entertaining way. In his latest book, Canada’s most stylish novelist continues to defy the ogres of lazy speech. The Cunning Man takes the form of a memoir, but it reads more like an extended monologue by its narrator, Dr. Jonathan Hullah, a Toronto doctor nearing the end of his career. Hullah, like Davies himself, is learned, witty and wise—and never happier than when he can show it. He talks with great charm of his long life, his loves and his friends. And he reports on conversations in which everyone manages to be unflaggingly amusing, tossing around anecdotes and insights with the crisp elegance of pro baseball players warming up.
THE CUNNING MAN
By Robertson Davies (McClelland & Stewart,
475 pages, $29.99)
All this makes for congenial reading since, whatever else he may be, Davies is a good companion. Settling into The Cunning Man is like taking a comfortable chair opposite a favorite uncle who has seen and done everything. Hullah, like so many of Davies’s characters, is to some extent a mask for the writer himself. Like Davies, 81, Hullah stands at the end of a life rich in accomplishment. The “cunning man” of the title, he has made a reputation (and a lot of money) as a doctor who knows as much about the souls of his patients as about their bodies. He is also a lifelong bachelor who lost his youthful love, Nuala Conor, when she married one of his best friends, Brocky Gilmartin (Hullah also got her back, after a fashion, by having a long affair with her). He has enjoyed the friendship of some of Toronto’s most memorable personalities (Davies has based some of them on real citizens of the past). And he has known the horrors of war: during the London Blitz, he was trapped by fallen debris in a bathtub, where he spent several days
Its fluid urbanity suggests a level of civilization considerably above the ordinary. It hints at upper-middle-class life, good schools and the more innocent British-dominated Canada of the past. It connotes an idyllic ease—a world where there is time and inclination to converse and consider.
But those same qualities take too much of the sting from the book’s events. Even murder and the sadness of old age seem diminished by Hullah’s verbal alacrity. The doctor talks too well, gliding effortlessly past the shadows and depths of his own tale. In addition, Davies often undermines Hullah’s credibility by failing to provide the kind of telling detail that makes fiction seem true. When Hullah speaks of his Northern Ontario childhood in Sioux Lookout, the reader gets the impression that Davies has never been near the place: it lacks all hint of individuality or color. Accuracy, too, suffers. Davies makes an important symbol of the Massasauga rattlers in the nearby forest, although in fact the snake’s habitat is hundreds of miles away. And the two characters who influence the boy to take up medicine—a local quack doctor and an old Indian medicine woman—are twodimensional grotesques who seem lifted from Dickens.
Yet, if the novel lacks the originality and dangerous ambiguities of Davies’s masterpiece, the Deptford trilogy from the 1970s, it also offers undeniable pleasures. One is the author’s talent for the penetrating aphorism. He remarks that a school is “a jail with educational opportunities.” And the wide public exposure won by gay activists inspires him to comment that “homosexuality has become, not the love which dares not speak its name, but the love that never knows when to shut up.”
The novel’s most entertaining scene occurs when Hullah, Gilmartin and Nuala get together late in their lives to confess their mutual betrayals. Here, Hullah’s normally civilized manner is tested when he discovers that Gilmartin had hired a private detective to spy on him and Nuala. And his ego is both deflated and inflated when Nuala recalls him “rolling on your condom with satisfaction at filling it so well, you vain ass.” This is Davies at his best: evoking laughter at the irrepressible animality and complexity of the human creature. The Cunning Man spends too little time at that level. Yet, the book offers considerable evidence that the wellspring of Davies’s unique wit is far from exhausted.
Robertson Davies’s physician hero is wonderfully urbane
steeping in his own excrement.
To lend some narrative thrust to Hullah’s tale, Davies starts the novel off with a bang—the sudden death of a priest, Ninian Hobbes, during a 1951 service in a Toronto Anglican church. Hullah—who is recalling the event three decades later—found something suspicious about the death at the time.
His intimations seem to set up The Cunning Man as a mystery story. But the mystery is soon forgotten, and when it surfaces again, more than 300 pages later, it is solved almost as an afterthought. The real subject of the book is Hullah’s life and its myriad events. And The Cunning Man is held together less by narrative tension than by the hypnotic spell of Hullah’s voice.
That voice—in various forms it is common to all Davies’s novels—creates both the appeal and the limitations of The Cunning Man.
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