Attention to detail

1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont

Robertson Davies:
World of Wonders (1975)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin 2011

‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ — From the Letter to the Hebrews

Davies’ Deptford Trilogy is completed by this, World of Wonders, and like the New Testament phrase from the Epistle to the Hebrews, is about the evidence of things not seen. As is reiterated a couple or more times in these pages, “Without attention to detail there is no illusion,” and true to this epigram we focus a great deal of attention on establishing how illusion is created, maintained and, ultimately, dispelled when the eye of faith is put to the test.

Here, after the hiatus of the second volume — in which the focus is on David Staunton — we return to the first volume’s narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, ensconced in Schloss Sorgenfrei in the Swiss Alps near St-Gall. It is the early 1970s and our attention is held by the illusionist Magnus Eisengrim, who’s taking part in a BBC drama documentary about the historical illusionist Robert-Houdin (from whom, incidentally, Houdini took his stage name).

Ramsay is recounting the conversations that took place after filming each day, between Eisengrim, the BBC producer, director and cameraman, plus Eisengrim’s colleagues Dr Liselotte Naegeli and, of course, Ramsay, conversations that later continue in London. Through these prandial and post-pradial chats we hear a lot of history, learn a lot of secrets and discover how illusion can fool the eye of the beholder.

As the theatre of the Great War made the greatest impression in Fifth Business on Ramsay’s thinking, and the theatre of the mind on Staunton in The Manticore, other theatres dominate World of Wonders. These include the desperate life of carnival people in early 20th-century sideshows and vaudeville, the more salubrious life of a theatre company in repertory and on tour, the private shows that the wealthy could create with automata, and domestic entertainments which viewers were able to enjoy through their television sets.

Finally, as most theatre is predicated on narrative, there is the storytelling that occurs when people get together, in which there are players and audience and in which the substance and many of the tellings create illusions which may or may not be true. In carnival parlance Gaff is the element of deception, the Talent are the artistes and a Rube is an innocent member of the public. Who is to say we readers aren’t Rubes when it comes to a gifted spinner of tales like Eisengrim through the mouthpiece that is Davies?

Magnus Eisengrim, with his wolfish grin, is the Talent Extraordinaire of World of Wonders. He goes under many names: Paul Dempster in rural Canada, Cass Fletcher in Wanless’s World of Wonders, Jules or Faustus LeGrand in The Soirée of Illusions, Mungo Fetch in the Tresize Company, and finally Magnus Eisengrim, the world’s greatest illusionist; it can hardly be surprising that the initials of his final incarnation spell ME, symbolic of the egoist that he has learnt to be. Moreover, he plays Abdullah in the carnival sideshow, Robert-Houdin in the TV documentary: as Scaramouche in the theatre he was

“supposed to be imitating a great actor who was imitating an eighteenth-century gentleman who was imitating a Commedia dell’Arte comedian, that’s how simple it was.”

Simple it ain’t. And like the young Merlin who in the legends is privately amused by what others cannot see Eisengrim laughs at all and sundry, particularly the unfortunate BBC producer who realises too late that he is the archetypal Rube.

Conventional theatre, with its proscenium arch, wasn’t experimental but was about the romance of storytelling, of persuading the audience that what they see beyond the fourth wall — stage set, actions, emotions — is in some way real:

“Without the uttermost organisation of detail there was no illusion, and consequently no romance.”

The problem of such illusioning, a kind of bedevilment, is that the boundaries between what are seen as absolute Good and absolute Evil become fluid, less definable; and World of Wonders touches on this. So, over and over again violence begets violence: a stone in a snowball, a war injury, an apparent suicide, a rape — what chain of causation and consequence might there be from a single action?

Some evils may be consciously withheld and their impulse kept hidden:

“But do we not all play, in our minds, with terrible thoughts which we would never dare to put into action? Could we live without some hidden instincts of revolt, of some protest against out fate in life?”

On the other hand, some evils cannot help but erupt into human existence:

“Boredom and stupidity and patriotism, especially when combined, are three of the greatest evils of the world we live in.”

World of Wonders is a deeply ambiguous piece, entertaining us even as it gets us to question our assumptions. The characters are unforgettable; but the story is unsettling, even as it moves the trilogy towards a resolution. The truths it tells may not be overt but they are there nonetheless, under the surface gloss.

Image credit: WordPress Free Photo Library

7/20, No 9 on my 20 Books of Summer list

9 thoughts on “Attention to detail

  1. Pingback: Attention to detail — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. I’ve never read anything by Robertson Davies, but I’m hoping to read Fifth Business for Lory’s reading week – although I’m not sure whether I’ll manage to find time as I’m expecting to be moving house at some point in August. I’m pleased you’re continuing to enjoy his books and I’ll look forward to giving him a try!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do hope your move, whenever it happens, goes well, Helen — but that you can also fit in Fifth Business at some stage if not then as I’m sure you will enjoy it! My partner just finishing the trilogy (she’s a fast reader) and is so enthused by it that she’s not only recommending Davies to friends but planning to order his other trilogies.


  3. Aw, you started with one of my favorite verses! It’s a bit diff in my translation: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” Heb 11: 1 🙂 I couldn’t help but think of the 30s film FREAKS, of those trapped by fate, of evil that hides in beauty, and born of pain and revenge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I used the basic King James version as I like its literary quality, Jean, even if subsequent scholarship has questioned its accuracy on certain aspects of interpretation and translation. ‘The evidence of things not seen’ to me has a certain poetic quality, though that’s not to say that ‘sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ lacks it, on the contrary!

      I’ve only seen the odd clip of Freaks but never watched it in its entirety because it felt like voyeurism or even exhibitionism by the film-makers, but have since thought that if such a work gave some humanity back to those whom the able-bodied either gawped at or pitied then I should really revise my attitude to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hmm. I’m not going to lie–the film certainly carries that sense of voyeurism during its opening act, when we’re just watching these people do what they do to survive. They’re all kind and decent…until a lady (another member of the circus, I think) finds out one of the “freaks” is rich and pretends to fall in love with him so she can get his money. They welcome her to their community, but then she’s…how’d that go…I think she’s drunk and tells them all how repulsive they are…and might actually try to poison her new husband…anyway, that’s what leads us to the iconic silent chase between “normal people” and “freaks” in the rain, leading to that disturbing final scene.

        And yes, the KJV is very poetic! I just had to do all my memory work with the NIV, so I’m a touch biased. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. In response to somebody else’s review of a novel my comment was that great fiction was a superlative melding of stimulating ideas and fleshed-out characters, and that applies I’m sure to film too: from what you say this movie seems to have both aspects, and is a further recommendation for me.

          Liked by 1 person

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