Sunday, June 18, 2017

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

My friend Red gave me The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies almost a year ago, but work got it in the way so I've only just read the first instalment - Fifth Business, originally published in 1970.

The book is a memoir by an old teacher, Dunstan Ramsay, sent to the headmaster of his school. It's a rather rambling life history, beginning with a snowball fight, then taking in Dunstan's relatively impoverished childhood in a Canadian village, his horrifically conveyed service in the First World War, and his later teaching and academic career, writing books about saints.

Davies is clearly influenced by Jung - the main characters in the book seem to represent Jungian archetypes. There's plenty on memory - one mean act haunts one man for decades and overshadows the life of another, yet is entirely forgotten by the perpertator. As Dunstan details his own experience, we follow the threads of these other, connected lives until very late - on page 244 of 257 - we realise this is less memoir than confession and the threads suddenly tie up.

The effect is that as you're reading it this is an enjoyable amble that wears its intelligence lightly, but it becomes in retrospect something much more affecting. It's not just the plot; there are so many asides and observations that I suspect I'll long be picking over. For example, there's Dunstan's friendship with the maverick Jesuit, Padre Blazon, who had over 100 and in a Viennese hospital, still eagerly courts radical views:
"The Devil knows corners of us all of which Christ himself is ignorant. Indeed, I am sure Christ learned a great deal that was salutary about Himself when He met the Devil in the wilderness. Of course, that was a meeting of brothers; people forget too readily that Satan is Christ's elder brother and has certain advantages in argument that pertain to a senior."
Robertson Davies, Fifth Business (1970) in The Deptford Trilogy, p. 240.

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