“… a continual reminder of the consequences that can follow a single action.”
The Deptford Trilogy is my first — but not my last – foray into the world of Robertson Davies. How have I not been aware of his work up to now? Like many another convert to his writing I’m recommending him to anyone who will listen, and our household has now invested in two further trilogies of his. Yet how to explain his appeal in a few paragraphs when every page, sometimes every paragraph, offers some new delight?
The basic premise is easily told. This series introduces us to the lives of three men from rural Ontario over some seven decades, through the first world war, the interwar years and on into a Europe at peace. Fifth Business is recounted by one of the author’s alter egos, Dunstan Ramsay, who sees his life through the prism of a childhood incident when a woman gives premature birth because she has been hit by a stone inside a snowball. The Manticore, another first person account, narrates the story of the son of the boy who threw the snowball, as told to a Swiss psychoanalyst. With World of Wonders we’re back with Ramsay, who now reports the conversations which Paul Dempster – the boy born prematurely sixty years before but now, as Magnus Eisengrim, a world-famous illusionist – has with BBC personnel making a drama documentary, in which he plays the role of another great illusionist from history.
The problem the reader has is deciding when a narrator is being unreliable, which could well be most of the time. Reported speech is given in great detail which, if these were genuine memoirs, would require prodigious feats of memory. Nevertheless, such is the author’s skill and stylistic legerdemain we mostly buy into what is being spun, this despite the fact that Davies gives so many untrustworthy clues. In The Manticore David Staunton describes Ramsay’s creed: “history is the mass of observable or recorded fact, but myth is the abstract or essence of it.” This encourages us to doubt Ramsay’s account in Fifth Business, for how can we innocent readers distinguish between what is historical and what is mythical in what Ramsay tells us?
Further, the myriad dissembling themes in the trilogy are nearly all signposts to the spell being cast over us: Ramsay’s cack-handed attempts at sleight of hand, and Dempster’s mastery of conjuring; the roles soldiers must play in the theatre of war, and the assumption of stage names in travelling shows and in repertory; the masks and make-up that hide our true selves from the audience, and the personas we assume and the symbols we acquire to play the parts we wish to present. Such is ‘fifth business’, the fictional term the author endows on the figure who is the catalyst to an action; such too is the manticore, a composite animal of myth which was reputed to devour humans, and also Eisengrim, the wolf of medieval fable; while the World of Wonders in the third novel refers to the North American carnivals which in the early 20th century displayed freak shows and acts — not all of them genuine — from bearded ladies and sword-swallowers to strongmen and conjurors.
If the Deptford Trilogy was only about playing around with themes and symbols and words it would still be a fine creation. But it is of course more than that. It concerns itself with big themes that humans have struggled with for eons, themes such as conscience, guilt, culpability, courage, love and obsession. Was Ramsay, who ducked when his friend ‘Boy’ Staunton threw the snowball, responsible for Paul Dempster’s early birth and the descent of Paul’s mother into a kind of half-life? Was Ramsay’s award for bravery on the battlefield due to courage or the madness that comes out of war? Does David Staunton deserve more love from his father than his father is able to give? And do Paul Dempster’s undoubted skills and talents, obsessively learnt and perfected, compensate for the dubious part he plays in the deaths of the men whom he regards as having abused him?
The three novels focus almost entirely on four men, three who are near contemporaries plus the son of one of them, and the author explores their personalities and psychologies in great depth. But though women appear to play rather secondary roles it is they who, as catalysts or as matrices, effect change. In the first book we are presented with several women who figure in Ramsay’s life. His mother dominates his early years but he is drawn more and more to the ‘holy fool’ who is Paul’s mother. Then there is his first love Leola, whom he loses to his boyhood rival but with whom he will continue being in touch to the end of her life; and Diana, who becomes his nurse, lover and friend but not a wife. In the middle instalment David Staunton never quite connects with his mother and despises his stepmother, but does experience transference with his psychoanalyst Johanna. In the final book we hear more of Liesl, business partner (and more) to Eisengrim; but the female figures now are more transitory, background to the egoists that are the conjuror and to the narrator Ramsay. In fact, the final word is just that: egoist!
Though said with considerable humour it is Liesl who declares it, and as a comment it is both insightful and fitting that it should be a woman. She it is who is the voice behind the Brazen Head act that delivers the shocking statement that follows ‘Boy’ Staunton’s death in Fifth Business, she it is who may or may not be the woman in David’s dream that ends The Manticore, and she alone who delivers the judgement at the conclusion of World of Wonders.
Friar Bacon’s Brazen Head originally pronounced the dread words ‘Time is. Time was. Time is past.’ Perhaps significantly, it’s a trilogy in miniature.