Unhallowed eve

Robertson Davies

Leaven of Malice
by Robertson Davies,
in the Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books 2011 (1954).

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November…

Salterton, Ontario, 31st October 1949. An apparently innocuous announcement of an engagement appears in the Salterton paper The Bellman, but it will function like yeast in dough: once the fermentation process starts the components cannot be separated out. It turns out that ferment indeed is the purpose of the notice, the leaven that instigates the action, but whose is the malice that lies behind it, what is their motivation, and do they truly know how far the mixture will rise?

The second of Robertson Davies’s instalments in his Salterton Trilogy brings in some of the characters from the first, but it works equally well in isolation. We are given a picture of the bourgeoisie of a fictional provincial Canadian Town, one blessed with university, cathedral and an independent press, with most of the cast of characters acquainted with each other by name or in person. In such a seething cauldron the chances of submerged rivalries and hurt egos bubbling to the surface are infinite, and so it proves.

Despite the character list approaching (as I estimate) fifty individuals the main actors in Leaven of Malice are easy to distinguish, and what soon emerges as a comedy of manners manages also to be crime fiction without a murder, a courtroom drama without a court, a romance where dislike doesn’t run smooth, and a Halloween tale where some ghosts are eventually laid to rest.

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Shadow play

Claud-Joseph Vernet, Genoa Lighthouse and the Temple of Minerva Medica (Bristol Museum): https://wp.me/p2oNj1-4bm

Tempest-Tost
by Robertson Davies,
in The Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books 2011 (1951)

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.
All’s Well that Ends Well

The first volume in Robertson Davies’ Salterton Trilogy is a provincial Canadian comedy of manners with a universal appeal, in which despite errors being compounded all’s well that ends well, which is as we like it.

From this corny introduction you’ll have gathered Tempest-Tost is a novel with a Shakespearean theme, and so it is. In the middle of the 20th century The Little Theatre company, an amateur group, is attempting to put on an open air pastoral of The Tempest, unaware that they are as much the dramatis personae in a real-life play as the characters they are hoping to portray. Except, as I hope to argue, the fictional parts they play in the comedy are not those they live during the course of the novel.

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Time is. Time was. Time is past.

Medieval manticore

“… 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?

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Vaults of heart and brain

Manticore, Edward Topsell (1607)

Robertson Davies: The Manticore (1972)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin 2011 (1983)

To live is to battle with trolls
in the vaults of heart and brain.
To write: that is to sit
in judgement over one’s self.
— Henrik Ibsen, extract from a letter, quoted twice in the novel

David Staunton is a criminal lawyer, trained to operate in logical fashion; in a moment of crisis he acts on impulse to seek help, only to find himself plunged into a world in which he has to access parts of himself, parts where rationality has no part to play.

Among so many other things The Manticore turns out to be an exploration of two different ways of apprehending reality: the Platonic modes of Reasoning and Understanding or, as the protagonist comes to know them, the Jungian concepts of Thinking and Feeling.

This novel follows on immediately where Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business left off, in the aftermath of a magic show in a Toronto theatre. In a drunken outburst from the auditorium David publicly demands to know who killed his father, ‘Boy’ Staunton. The enigmatic answer leads him to an analyst in Switzerland: here he delves into the labyrinths of his mind and the caverns of the Alps; here he observes the Comedy Company of the Psyche and examines the figures in the Cabinet of Archetypes, all in a bid to reach the understanding that has eluded him so far.

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Marvels that defy

Our Lady of Guadeloupe

Robertson Davies: Fifth Business (1970)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin Books 2011 (1983)

This is a saga of three boys — the narrator Dunstable Ramsay, his contemporary Percy Boyd Staunton, and Paul Dempster, ten years their junior — told over the space of half a century from their origins in a small town in Ontario across two continents and on to a final chapter in the Canadian capital, Ottawa.

Yet, of course, it is more than that: this is a tale of love gained and lost, of magic and miracles, of action in a theatre of war to that of the theatre of illusions. We are presented with evidence both of abilities and disabilities; amongst all the fun and games there is, nevertheless, an underlying sense of futility. Rabelais is reported to have said on his deathbed, “Tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée”; but for us the show hasn’t ended, for happily this is just the start of a trilogy.

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