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Discoveries: Early Letters, 1938-1975

by Robertson Davies, Selected and edited by Judith Skelton Grant
413 pages,
ISBN: 0771035403


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Indefatigable Man of Letters
by W. J. Keith

Just before Robertson Davies died in 1995, he had agreed in principle (though one suspects with some reluctance) to the publication of a gathering of his letters. Two volumes were eventually planned, but, because his publishers wanted to take advantage of the international attention and interest sparked by his death, the later letters, more easily annotated and prepared for printing, appeared first, as For Your Eye Alone, in 1999. Now we have the second volume (though chronologically the first)űand it is a delight.
Robertson Davies Discoveries begins in the summer of 1938, when Davies was twenty-four, the late date explained by his insistence that earlier letters, mainly of a personal and private nature, were not to be included. Much as we may regret this decision (for scholarly as well as merely nosey reasons), it has a happy effect. It means that the book begins when he has just earned his B.Litt from Oxford and is about to launch out into a literary career. Indeed, a rewritten version of the thesis became his first publication, Shakespeare's Boy Actors (1939). We then follow his fortunes, initially as a small-part actor, then as a journalist and newspaper-editor, then as pioneering playwright in Canada's fledgling dramatic movement. At last he finds his true mTtier as a novelist, and the book ends in 1975 with the publication of World of Wonders, the last volume in the remarkable Deptford Trilogy that had begun with Fifth Business.
We can therefore watch Davies's artistic growth from talented and ambitious young man to a writer at the peak of his powers. Yet what needs to be emphasized is his additional and dazzling achievement as a letter-writer. This is not a genre in which Canadians have excelled, so Davies's eminence here is cause for celebration. For Your Eye Alone showed that he was easily the finest letter-writer among Canadian authors. Discoveries not only confirms but extends this judgment; we can now recognize him as one of the supreme masters of this neglected but delightful genre in the English language.
Coincidentally (though Davies¨devoted Jungian as he was¨did not believe in coincidence and would ascribe the effect to "synchronicity") Davies reports here on his experience of reading the Letters of C. G. Jung, and his comments are amazingly applicable to the book that contains them:
The range of his knowledge and sympathy, patience and restraint under provocation is staggering. He seemed ready to write at length, and with the full weight of his knowledge and seriousness, to almost anyone who sent him a letter¨often a very silly letter. Sometimes he is severe, and then the sparks fly, but usually he does his level best for anybody at all.

Davies's own letters reveal the same range. They can be hilarious at what is almost a slapstick level (a vivid account, for example, of his going into a women's washroom by mistake at an American hotel), but also deeply informative both on his own work and about larger artistic, national, and philosophical issues.
One letter is to an unnamed aspiring dramatist who has asked for advice yet cannot spell "playwright." Davies is definite but not sarcastic about this, and uses the mistake to explain helpfully and at length (though one suspects in vain) that a "wright" is someone "who imposes a form upon raw material." Then there are two letters to a Jesuit priest who complains that he is a Gnostic and suggests that Good can come out of Evil. Davies is polite but firm, frankly discussing his attitudes and puzzlements on such matters, while at the same time bearing witness to a deep if independent religious viewpoint. An extended series of letters shows his preparedness to devote an inordinate amount of time, while extremely busy, to entertaining and encouraging an old friend who was seriously ill; here he provides virtually diary-style accounts of his day-to-day experiences and interests. Moreover, various letters to his wife written when he or she was travelling for extended periods reveal him¨perhaps unexpectedly to casual readers of his novels¨in an engagingly intimate light.
Ultimately, however, the quality of these letters is determined by the fact that he is, as he notes in a letter to H. L. Mencken, "a bit of a crank about language." He admits to being "old-fashioned" in many of his views, but even those who pride themselves on advanced opinions can, if they possess a sense of humour and an ear for good style, revel in his pontificating. A few examples: "... of the Canadians who do read, many are incapable of holding their culture like gentlemen"; "the young ... seem now to fornicate mindlessly at about ten, and can hardly drag themselves out of the sack to get to High School"; "many professors of Eng. Lit. do not care the bounce of a cracker for poetry. It is their 'field' which they laboriously till; not a delight or a Muse they serve"; "People really should not ask the magician how he pulls the rabbit out of the hat; once he has done that he is no magician, but a professor of rabbitology."
Judith Skelton Grant, author of the excellent biography Robertson Davies: Man of Myth as well as compiler of several selections of his non-fiction writings, has edited the book with her usual care and tact¨and her notes are designed for general readers as well as for specialists. My one regret is that, for reasons explained in her preface, she decided to exclude what she calls his "fictional letters." How I thirst for specimens of "the letters to the editor of the Peterborough Examiner signed with such pseudonyms as 'Mother of Three' or 'Indignant Taxpayer,' opposing Davies' own editorial positions in the hope of encouraging other readers to write" or those "attributed to 'Dolly Grey,' whose Examiner column parodied syndicated advice columns"! Material for a subsequent volume of miscellaneous writings? Probably not, alas, but Discoveries leaves all Davies admirers hoping for more. ˛
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