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The Acts of Robertson Davies
The death of Robertson Davies on December 2nd caught the entire Canadian literary scene very much by surprise. Though he had entered his eighty-third year and though his wife Brenda travelled with him and kept a close watch over his health, he seemed to be flourishing. In interviews he talked of his many interests with characteristic gusto and expressed his eagerness to begin a new novel by the new year. When he discussed his work before a packed auditorium at Princeton University on a sunny October afternoon, I doubt that anyone there could have imagined or predicted his death six weeks later. Indeed, since he occasionally expressed the view that an individual sensitive to his personal destiny would have something germane to say about his own death, some of us may have been lulled into thinking that he would somehow stage-manage his departure in a dramatic way-not quite like Mrs. Bridgetower in Leaven of Malice, but somehow. What surprised us was the surprise, the shock itself. Pneumonia swiftly developed into double pneumonia and led to a lethal stroke; it was a sharp reminder that death deprives with a grim finality. The greatest Canadian writer of his generation was suddenly gone; there would be no new novels to look forward to. We were caught off guard, unprepared, beguiled by apparent good health and high spirits. His is a loss that will require a great deal of adjustment.
In pondering his achievement and legacy I find myself taking stock anew. His death signals a watershed in what has been a spectacular growth in English-Canadian letters and literature over the past fifty years. People outside Canada will not likely recognize this, but those who, like Robertson Davies and George Woodcock, Carl Klinck and Northrop Frye, watched over and played important roles in the changes here over that time will know how much ground has been gained and what hurdles had to be crossed. Many Canadians may have come in recent years to take Davies and his growing reputation somewhat for granted. His strengths were many and he seemed to accomplish so much with ease. Yet as both a cultural critic and a creative writer Davies crossed those hurdles long before Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood (Canadian writers whose fame abroad compares with his). In his early play, "Fortune, My Foe" (1948), Nicholas Hayward described something of what an aspiring young writer faced in Canada of the 1940s. To Franz Szabo, a displaced artist-puppeteer from Europe, he says:
"If you can stay in Canada, I can, too. Everybody says Canada is a hard country to govern, but nobody mentions that for some people it is also a hard country to live in. Still, if we all run away it will never be any better. So let the geniuses of easy virtue go southward; I know what they feel too well to blame them. But for some of us there is no choice; let Canada do what she will with us, we must stay."
The roots of Robertson Davies's career lie in that passage. While he could find little by way of the arts or an arts-supportive community to turn to in Canada during the war and the immediate postwar years, he felt within himself that he had to stay, for better or worse. In staying, he did much to help in the development of a thriving cultural world even as he personally gained a great deal in and through his efforts. In the end he might have said-with somewhat less acerbity and more genuine gratitude than Norman Levine-that "Canada made me." More precisely, Ontario made him. But in many ways he also helped to make Ontario a vibrant and richer literary place.
I have been watching the reaction to his death in the United States and I note that the sense of loss felt here pays scant attention to his Canadianness, let alone his Ontario-ness. To be sure, he was known by most of his readers and reviewers as a Canadian, but what drew sophisticated American readers to him in huge numbers was that he was "a good read". He was a highly literate and allusive writer who made the act of reading a distinctive pleasure. News reports of his death tried by means of lists to account for his strengths as a novelist. The Associated Press obituary (which appeared in both the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune) reported that his "best-known novels had a generous mix of greed and murder, adultery and blackmail, heartache and insanity. But he also set a lighthearted, forgiving tone. He understood his characters' fear and confusion, their longing for love and acceptance, their career ambitions, and their problems with self-esteem." The Washington Post called him "one of the era's more recognizable literary figures", an insightful commentator on Canadian-American differences, and a writer fascinated by the problem of aging wisely. "He wrote," said the Post, "of the humorous, the ludicrous and a world caught between heaven and hell and Jungian psychology and sheer magic. Some of his characters commit adultery or murder or are clearly insane." Perhaps the obituary's prose shows here the challenge of trying to contain in short compass the range of what Davies offered to his readers.
The New York Times gave him considerably more attention and thought. Calling him "one of the first Canadian literary figures to gain an international following", the paper noted that The Cunning Man had made the bestseller lists in the US this year, that he had been "mentioned" for the Nobel Prize, and that he had been the first Canadian to be named to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Under the headline "Chronicler of Moral Battles", the obituary gave attention to each of his novels as well as A Voice from the Attic (1960), The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks (1985), and other collections of his writings. Beyond the need of his characters to "escape from early influences and find their own place in the world," Davies's other concerns were seen to include "evil as an expression of suppressed fears and wishes, the irreversible consequences of actions, and myth, sainthood, ambition, love, vengeance, and death." Attention was also paid to his ability to modulate narrative: "With disarming ease he could fuse a comedy of manners with Gothic melodrama, blend realism with illusions, and juxtapose low humour and lofty abstractions. Satirizing bourgeois Canadian provincialism was one of his favourite sports." The obituary also quoted Michiko Kakutani, who in 1985 had written that Davies "has created a rich oeuvre of densely plotted, highly symbolic novels that not only function as superbly funny entertainments but also give the reader, in his character's words, a deeper kind of pleasure-delight, awe, religious intimations, `a fine sense of the past, and of the boundless depth and variety of life.' "
I suspect that Davies would have liked that summary very much. It captures his variousness, his narrative skills, his humour, and his effectiveness as "a story teller concerned with moral conflicts". And, as the obituary writer and Kakutani both say, he was never so solemn as to be boring. When I asked Professor T. P. Roche, a Shakespearean in Princeton's English department why he liked him as a novelist, he told me that he made reading an act of joy. He was "smart, bizarre, sophisticated, and funny." He attracted the curious generalist, providing story and interesting information in affective harmony, so that once you read a Davies novel you wanted more and "became addicted." Given Fifth Business in the early 1970s by a Canadian student, he did not pick it up for several years, but when he finally read it he became an immediate convert; in fact he soon found that several friends on campus were also enthusiasts and they began to share responses to each new work as it appeared. On hearing the news of Davies's death, one of them commented, "Whatever shall we do without him?" Jean Aroeste, a rare books librarian at Princeton's Firestone Library, is so keen on Davies that she often finds herself giving his current novel to friend with the advice, "Try this; you will love it." Though she had read Leaven of Malice when it came out, it was Fifth Business that caught her attention; she calls it "one of the most fascinating novels of the twentieth century." "Why?" I asked. Her answer included many facets of Davies's vision: the love of the theatre and of England, the search for the miraculous and the capacity to envision the magical in everyday life, the interest in psychology, the religious seriousness, and the attention to vulgarity and grotesqueness in experience. Moreover, as someone who was raised in the northern Midwest (Wisconsin), she felt she could detect in Davies a feeling for life that she herself knew by experience. Something in his cadences and outlook reminded her of listening to CBC radio on winter nights. When I asked her if there was an American writer she would compare to Davies, her reply surprised me: "Do you know Sara Orne Jewett and The Country of the Pointed Firs?" I did, I told her, and filed the idea away, thinking of how Jewett makes her coastal and island people come alive, how she undercuts and recharges the notion of the provincial, and how she locates the magical and the uncanny in apparently ordinary lives. I will go back to Jewett and her Maine sketches with renewed interest, thinking of that connection.
His editor at Viking Penguin, Al Silverman, who has overseen the last two novels, told me that when Davies read at the 92nd Street Y in New York this past spring the nine hundred seats were filled and four hundred paying customers had to be turned away. It was the second time in a row he had sold out the Y. The Cunning Man in fact has proved to be the biggest hard-cover success Viking (now Viking Penguin) has had with a Davies book. Hard-cover sales of his novels had been steadily on the rise since Fifth Business, which sold something over 20,000. What's Bred in the Bone (1985) sold 40,000 hard-cover copies and Lyre of Orpheus (1988) 50,000. There was a falling off with Murther and Walking Spirits (1991) but with the paperback about to come out in January 1996, The Cunning Man has sold nearly all of its 80,000 printing. Meanwhile his earlier novels in paperback, both separately and as trilogic packages, are mostly in the six-figure sales range, making it clear that well over one million books by Davies-perhaps closer to two million-have been sold in the United States since 1970. Word of mouth and reading clubs all over the country help to promote sales but so do the front-page reviews and profiles that Davies has often received in the New York Times book review section and in the Washington Post book page. "Many Americans now see Davies as a must-read," Silverman reports. Perhaps not surprisingly, given his respect and admiration for this "very formal gentleman", Viking Penguin took out a large in memoriam space in the New York Times, listing his eleven novels under his picture and appending the phrase "Longtime friend and beloved author". The more one talks to Americans for whom reading is a serious pleasure the more one feels an almost palpable affection for him.

The novelist John Irving, who knew Davies for some time, has called him "the greatest comic novelist in the English language since Charles Dickens". Such praise, which only time can justify, is staggering in itself but it is also directive. The Davies Americans have come to admire so much was above all a comic novelist with a peculiarly English quality about him. He loved comic vision in others and greatly admired a range of approaches: the lightheartedness of P. G. Wodehouse, the satiric vigour of Thackeray, Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, and H. L. Mencken, the profusions of Dickens and Ben Jonson, and the understated "feasts" of Stephen Leacock and James Thurber. But though Canadian born and bred and a North American all his life, his literary sympathies were largely English. Such was the pattern of reading in the home he grew up in, regardless of the Ontario town in which the Davies family were living. Such too was his parents' enthusiasm for theatre that he was not long in immersing himself passionately in the English stage, particularly that unlikely part of its history, the nineteenth century, which most scholars dismissed as moribund with melodrama and fatally undercut by the star system. He loved the theatre, and every demanding aspect of it, and he was prepared to dedicate himself to it as fully as was required. He wanted above all to be a successful playwright, and in particular on the London stage. Slowly, out of these powerful aspirations, he evolved a persona for himself, one that owed much to the image of a cultivated Englishman and the life of the theatre. As many friends and acquaintances of his have observed over his lifetime, he had in public and private the air of a performer about him; he dressed for the daily performance, he modulated his speech and his phrases for each occasion (as if he had rehearsed the encounter in advance and knew exactly how and when best to deliver his insights and bon mots), and he had the bearings of someone who knew the script, knew what it contained and how it should unfold (he especially liked surprises of his own authoring). His biographer Judith Skelton Grant has observed that by the time he got to Oxford in 1935-that is, after twenty-two years in Ontario-"his performance was by now much larger than life." The Canadian kid, the colonial, could outdo the English at their own game. He succeeded in making himself prominent among the Oxford graduate students of his day, with "that culture [and] brilliance which make such figures worth noticing." In the student-run Isis, an Oxford contemporary provided this glimpse of him:
"Any day you may see the form of Robertson Davies, almost Chestertonian in its greatness, proceeding with stately gait up the Broad, with a genial nod and a smile to chance acquaintances, and a deep but dignified bow for the more favoured few. If you are fortunate, this important-looking figure will halt to exchange a joke with you, and when he laughs, he will shake all over, and the roar will reverberate from the Broad to the High. Dignity, however, will remain....Yes `presence', that's the word that sums him up best of all, I think."
That presence was both its own source of delight and a mask for containing Davies's fears and countering his shyness. The mask he had needed to develop in Canada was protection and assertion: protection from a world too preoccupied with the practical, material, and low-minded to value his kind of aspirations, and assertion of his strong sense of difference and specialness. To read Grant's biography is to learn the personal price he paid while living as a young boy and newcomer in Renfrew, Ontario (see Francis Cornish's upbringing in What's Bred in the Bone); it is also to learn that he delighted in being different, no doubt appearing snobbish and insufferable to many of his contemporaries in the North Ward schoolyards of his youth. Like Dunstan Ramsay he despised sports and aspired to be a polymath, to know more than anyone else, and he read with a passion those books and magazines that aroused his considerable curiosity. Like his parents, he disdained the riff-raff of lower, commonplace interests. He was out of place in his place.
The Robertson Davies admired by Americans earned his spurs and sowed his literary oats in Ontario. I know of no other Ontario writer whose experience of the province is as diverse: from Thamesville in the southwest, to Renfrew in the northeast, to Kingston and Peterborough in the east, to Toronto, the city he loved to mock in the 1940s as Ontario's Babylon, in the centre. He knew Ontario's agrarian towns and small cities and its metropolis, and he observed the kind of life that characterizes such places; he witnessed and charted the frustratingly slow growth of interest in the things of the mind, at times (especially in the 1940s) letting his exasperation hold sway over his own larger interests. Each of his novels is rooted in an Ontario place: Salterton (Kingston and Peterborough), Deptford (Thamesville), Blairlogie (Renfrew), and Toronto. Though the narrative may move far afield and be subject to world-wide influences, these places remain near the heart of the action. Except for his Oxford years he was seldom been away from Ontario for more than a few months at a time.
Judith Grant tells in her biography about giving Davies a book in 1986 called The Story of Renfrew. Evidently it is a typical local history, comprised in part of personal reminiscences from some of the oldest inhabitants.
"What a compilation," he wrote back. "How revealing of the way in which Renfrew wishes to think of itself! How devoid of any illuminative, characteristic detail, or anything that might suggest a dark thread in the tartan! ....What a lot of pleasure you have given me, and you have made me think again about Renfrew. Was I wrong? Were my parents wrong? There can be no final decision in such matters. But I saw what I saw, and heard what I heard and when my thoughts turn to Renfrew the sun is never shining in the vision. A child's impressions? Of course, but I think some consideration has to be given to the nature of the child. I was a VERY observant child and my intuitions were acute."
For Davies the sun never shone when he thought of Renfrew because he had experienced too many of that place's dark threads. Indeed, it took him a long time to commit those experiences to fiction and, when he did, he found the act of writing harrowing. What he observed in the streets and schoolyards haunted his imagination and provided a welter of powerful images. Thus began what Grant perceptively calls "his long apprenticeship in self-defence and self-definition". His utter failure to master enough mathematics to pass his high school qualifications was but one factor that sorely threatened his self-esteem during these years. Teachers were seldom sensitive to conspicuous inabilities in those days. Whatever successes he had-and there were many at Upper Canada College in Toronto where he excelled as an actor, public speaker, and writer-he had to struggle to master the face he presented outwardly, to groom the manner that would allow him to be self-confidently himself. "It is our egotism which makes life worth living," he wrote in the school's College Times, his youthful exuberance for the moment not revealing what became a lifelong dialogue about the nature of self and the problematics of self-conduct.
First he perfected the self-image with which he was most comfortable. It was, in Grant's phrase, less a matter of costume than of manner, for there was nothing superficial in the underlying ambitiousness and capacity for commitment that characterized him as a young man. Having settled on his goals early on, he pursued them with all the intensity of which he was capable. It is certainly true that he was presented with special opportunities that followed from his father's increasing wealth and influence. Entrance to Queen's University as a Special Student and to Balliol College, Oxford as a graduate student (without a qualifying degree) were the work of Rupert Davies, and they helped to overleap the pit that his conspicuous and protracted failure in mathematics had dug for him. What he achieved in both places-on stage and in his academic and writing life-more than justified the advantages he received. The record of his activities as detailed by Grant are staggering. The business of self-making was very much underway. In the process a nervous breakdown set him back for a time, plunging him into a deep gloom. Typically, however, he was quick to turn the experience into imaginative capital. His London doctor, Robert Gillespie, a "Physician for Psychological Medicine", analysed his condition and told him that what was wrong with him was perfectly obvious: "You have been disastrously badly brought up." Most importantly, he led Davies to think analytically about his inner self even as he convinced him that psychological probing was life-enhancing and exhilarating. "I can say with full conviction," he reported soon after to a friend, "that I am happier now than I have ever been in my life. I seem to have a much better grip on everything." This new confidence carried him through the writing of his thesis (which became his first book) and into a brief career with Tyrone Guthrie's Old Vic company in London.
Robertson Davies had a hard time growing up in Ontario. Neither the communities he knew nor the demands his parents made of him eased his upbringing. Little wonder then that he did not particularly relish a return to work to Canada once he was married. But the blackouts in London during the war made a theatre job there very uncertain. After he came back, he forged a career on several fronts, first as a book reviewer, then as editor of his father's paper, the Peterborough Examiner, as the curmudgeonly Samuel Marchbanks in his Examiner columns, and as a tireless playwright-director-actor in the fledgeling drama scene of the province. Again one is struck in the biography by his prodigious energy and his organizational skills; ably, he balanced his journalistic responsibilities (transforming the Examiner into one of the best papers in the country) with his passion for theatre while contributing to the raising of his family in Peterborough. But despite some extraordinary successes with his own plays and others that he directed, there were many disappointments and roadblocks. These were in part the results of rivalry and smallmindedness in 1940s Canada but they also grew out of his own failings as a playwright. The scripts he sent to John Gielgud and Tyrone Guthrie were not attractive enough to draw interest and the plays he wrote to examine Canada's hardness and lack of culture had very limited appeal beyond the country's borders.
Just as William Faulkner had to fail as a poet before he turned to fiction, it seems that Davies needed a long apprenticeship in journalism and playwriting before he was ready to shift to his true metier. There was hardly a wasted moment in that professional apprenticeship, for episode by episode he was simmering and growing. His persona was more than equal to the demands of Peterborough and its closed community. All the while his inner life fed on what he read, experienced, and imagined. Work and curiosity, he later told a later convocation audience, can sustain and enrich a life under most circumstances, and by such means he made his own kind of headway even as he was locked in by provincial limitations. Yet, having by 1950 achieved what Grant calls "a dominant role in Canadian theatre," he was "a profoundly dissatisfied man." He still cherished his need to do something important in writing and he continued to believe that he could do it. He told a friend in 1947 that if he could not manage to have a play produced in London by the time he was forty, he would "turn to novels."

When Davies made the "turn", he was ready. He had learned how to write as a journalist, and when he wrote fiction he did so with a trained newspaperman's deliberateness and clarity. He prepared himself carefully; his typescripts showed little sign of revision. He did not miss a deadline once he had agreed to it. What he wrote came into life on the page, well thought out on all levels. With both accuracy and wryness, he told his editor at Clarke, Irwin, "I seem to function rather like Anthony Trollope." Then he added, "I suppose this is because I am basically a low journalist and not an artist."
Again Canada provided the opportunity for his next stage of development. The first two Salterton novels, perhaps best described here as provincial comedies of manners, were well received in Canada and abroad, though Davies felt somewhat betrayed by his Canadian readership. With A Mixture of Frailties (1958), the first novel in which he tried to go deep in his treatment of character, he sensed, even amongst mixed reviews, that he was making real progress of the kind that his artist's ego urged upon him. In his diary he noted, "I think & hope that at last I may be getting my rightful place in Canadian letters, as the most SERIOUS writer they have & more truly of the country than the `sincere' boys-whose sincerity is perhaps more accurately described as naiveté."
The rest of the story, seen from a distance, is one of sustained and extraordinary growth. There continued to be moments of doubt and disappointments, just as in the books themselves the writing is at times uneven (particularly in the latter half of Murther and Walking Spirits). But overall the biography gives a picture of a man deeply excited by life and enthused by the prospects and possibilities of his growth. At the same time he seems to have known when he needed real refreshment. In 1956 he told W.W.R. Robertson, his editor, "I very badly need some new ideas and a thorough overhaul of many of my old ones. I could name dozens of cases-and so could you-of authors who have rushed through life outfitted only with the ideas that they picked up between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, which has not been enough provision for a lifetime." With Jung replacing Freud as his trail guide and with the Alexander Technique (he began to be treated in 1958 and kept up his involvement for the rest of his life) providing him with a deliberate means of pursuing physical relaxation, he did just that: he seized on new ideas and he overhauled what had been his stock in trade to that point. Circumstances (his move to Toronto and his acceptance of the master's position at Massey College) led him through a deceptively fallow period of twelve years before Fifth Business appeared, but when it did, it was not long in drawing excited critical attention and a new level of reader enthusiasm. A friend told me years ago that when he read it, he was forced to revise utterly his view of Davies. He had concluded on the basis of the Salterton novels, some of the plays, and classroom experience of him as teacher that he was at best an important pioneer in Canadian writing, but not a writer one would read for real pleasure. In Dunstan Ramsay's story he was shocked to discover a brilliant novel of spellbinding quality. That reaction can stand, I would venture, for the awakening of Canada to the "new" Robertson Davies. He had managed at last to put all the ingredients he had at hand into a compelling mix. What came out in Fifth Business had already come out in himself. As he had done at several earlier stages in his own life, he consciously "overhauled" his ideas and broadened his reading experience. The effect was rejuvenating. Writing to his old friend Dr. Horace Davenport, he spoke of his new novel as a spiritual autobiography, "a fictional reworking of some things experienced and much rearranged":
"I choose the word `spiritual' with intent, for during the past ten years the things of the spirit have become increasingly important to me. Not in a churchy sense-though as Master of [Massey] College I have to attend chapel and look serious-but in what I must call a Jungian sense. That may make you laugh, or spit, but through C. G. Jung's ever-thickening veils of thought and fantasy I discern something that gives great richness to my life, and helps me to behave rather more decently toward other people than my unaided inspiration can achieve. And that is important to me: the world is so full of self-seekers, crooks and sons of bitches that I am very keen to be a decent man-not a Holy Joe, or a do-gooder, but a man who does not gag every time he looks into the mirror."
The new Davies was of course just as much an Ontario product as the old one. In his probing for the spiritual and his desire to be "a decent man", he insisted on finding new means of expression appropriate to his growth, experience, and maturity. Having learned to rely more on intuition but even more richly aware of the comedy of human experience, he "fe[lt] strongly" that his best work was still to come. Scott Fitzgerald once proclaimed that there are no second acts in American lives. There are second and third acts aplenty in Canadian ones. Davies exuberantly set out to prove that a deeply feeling man, alive to life's fascinations and mysteries, could go cheerfully from strength to strength, moving outward from restrictive provincial roots to taste and admire the glories of the wide, wide world, all the while holding firmly to the tough personal capacity and solid values he had found in those roots. His life is truly an exhilarating story of the way a man and an artist can, out of his inner needs, ambition, and capacity for work, make himself over to meet the world, and do so at different stages of his life, each time with increasing cogency and purpose. Davies saw himself this way and he rejoiced that it should be so. What Simon Darcourt says of Francis Cornish is emblematic of Davies's central story; Francis's life should be seen as "a great artistic adventure. And a very Canadian sort of adventure, what's more."
The story of Robertson Davies's life is compelling, especially to Canadians. With an artist's ego and a sustaining fascination in life and its mysteries, he not only provided a set of warnings about the country's need for a richer cultural life but he showed how a committed vision could minister to those needs. Both commentator and artist, he left a huge legacy. When one adds his practical contributions to the development of the Stratford Festival and the deliberations of the Massey Commission (out of which the Canada Council evolved), one's sense of his importance can only increase. Let me close by warmly recommending the Judith Skelton Grant's recent biography to readers. If, as Emerson wrote, history is the biographies of great men, then Robertson Davies: Man of Myth is very important reading for those interested in Canadian cultural history and literature. With his death there are few left of that generation that contributed so fully to the making of the bountiful cultural and literary life we enjoy in Canada today. Grant provides a rich record, and many new insights into what Davies achieved in his eighty-two years.

Michael Peterman of Trent University is Visiting Senior Fellow at Princeton this year. As well as a former editor of the Journal of Canadian Studies, he is the author of Robertson Davies (G.K. Hall, 1986).


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