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Dialogues With The Dead: Robertson Davies’s Great Canadian Novels

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Margaret Atwood’s finest novel never won a Booker, and was never even nominated. Yet The Robber Bride remains the most stunning work she’s penned since the start of her illustrious career. Then again, her new novel is also presumably excellent.

She’s one of those writers who never writes a bad book, and the moment you finish one of her exquisitely crafted stories of love, lust and human politics, you feel that if there were a Booker for authors, not individual novels, she would deserve that too.

It’s also fitting that Canadian authors are getting their due. While talent in that frozen chunk of the North American continent has always been more abundant than reindeer in the North Pole, the rest of the world hasn’t always taken note of that talent.

Perhaps because geographically, Canadian authors tend to be overshadowed by their colleagues South of the border in that big, star-spangled nation of super-hype. And perhaps because on the literary map, they’re just a part of that immense Commonwealth of former British colonies.

That might explain why an author as brilliant as Robertson Davies was so often overlooked by the Booker juries. Well, not exactly overlooked. After all, several of his novels did make it to the “long” shortlist, and What’s Bred In The Bone was in the prestigious 6 novel shortlist itself back in 1986.

But he never actually held that fat check in his hands and now he never will. Not because he doesn’t deserve it anymore – he still does, immensely. But he is in the unfortunate circumstance of being slightly dead.

In fact, this is the thing about awards. I love them personally. Not because they help me narrow down the choices amongst all the great novels published every year – although they are a bit of a help in that respect too. But mainly because they keep lauding gifted authors who genuinely deserve the adulation, sometimes belatedly, sometimes for the wrong novel by the right author. Because, as much as juries and PR agencies would have you believe that awards are given for more than just literary reasons.

This is why third world countries are sweeping the Nobels in recent years. And why the Nobel, despite having a specific clause that mandates giving the Literature Prize to a book published in that year, is invariably seen as recognition of an author’s lifetime contribution. (How else do you explain Hemingway winning for The Old Man and The Sea and not his short stories, clearly his greatest work?).

Coming back to Robertson Davies. A Canadian and a colonial through and through, his work tends to fill that interesting space on the shelf of literary fiction unofficially reserved for campus novels. Have you read David Lodge? Frank Kermode? Malcolm Bradbury? Even Angus Wilson, who in an oblique, intellectual-academic kind of way writes this kind of fiction? Surely you’ve read Saul Bellow’s frequent forays onto the flawless Korean grass of American university lives and manners? Or any of a dozen other fine authors whose work tends to revolve around events and persons in an academic setting?

Well, that’s the area that Robertson Davies covers. In fact, in a way, he’s the grandmaster of academic fiction. He somehow manages to make campus life and characters as dramatic and interesting as the people in a very good Noel Coward play. (Don’t tell me you haven’t read Coward yet, you literary coward! Go on and hie you to the bookstore at once!).

In fact, that comparison is more than apt, it’s spot on. Because Davies actually writes comedies of manners. His novels are almost theatrical performances played out on the page. Glance through one of his books at a bookstore. Go on, don’t be shy, the book clerk won’t mind.

Notice all that dialogue on that page, and that one, and that? And so on? In fact, notice that almost every paragraph is set off with double quotes? That’s because Davies tells his stories almost exclusively in dialogue. In fact, he’s the only major novelist I know of who starts virtually every novel with dialogue, and even ends some that way.

Now, this is not always a recipe for great literature. Not only because dialogue has to necessarily reflect the person speaking. If that person happens to be an illiterate grocery store attendant, there’s not likely to be very much fine prose in that conversation. Which is why so many moden novels are filled with reams of trivial talk, and so many bestseller novelists write dialogue that reads like it’s all written by the same person!

But when your characters are scholars of Medieval Literature and Biblical Studies, English History and Rhodes Scholars, that problem conveniently vanishes. You are suddenly blessed with a bunch of people who can all speak extraordinarily well, almost as if they’re all spouting prose fit to be printed and submitted to Booker juries by the next courier despatch.

This is how Davies gets away with it. Just as, in a very different way, P. G. Wodehouse and his literary model Henry Green restricted themselves to elite English aristocracy and so ensured themselves an endless series of mouthpieces through which to display their superb linguistic viruosity.

It’s also the reason why Davies is such a pleasure to read. Take his finest work for instance. The Cornish Trilogy, which consists of three novels as trilogies predictably tend to consist of usually: The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone and The Lyre of Orpheus.

This triptych is set aboard the University of St. John and the Holy Ghost, a campus fraught with all the usual campus intrigues, politicking, backbiting, sexual indiscretions, literary debates, intellectual conflicts and the brouhaha of university existence.

Davies writes from first-hand experience, having been Professor of Engish at the University of Toronto, then Master of the University’s Massey College, and receiving honororary doctorates from no less than twenty-six universities in the UK, the USA and Canada.

His characters are all academic to a fault, intellectually as muscled as mental Arnold Schwarzeneggers, obsessed with Art and History, Music and English. They drink too much, talk far too much even when not drinking, fornicate between arguments as it were, and generally deal with the usual round of professorial duties, lecturing being the least of them

They even get up to a fair amount of mischief. From trying to unseat one another in the selection of Professors and Masters, to seducing one another’s star pupils, to vying for the attention of a lavishly generous patron, there’s a lot of dramaturgy going on.

In fact, from the very first sentence to the last, the story proceeds briskly at nonstop pace. There are no flabby passages of description extolling the arcihtecture of the 11 century medieval cathedral or laying the setting for a grand assembly of the University Board. Davies just gets right to work from Page 1 and never lets up.

Again, in this respect, he’s so strongly remniscent of Wodehouse, not only because of his richly ironic English humour (excuse me, Canada!) but because he never gives you a dull or needless scene to wade through.

This is what’s amazing about his novels. You can read one from start to finish in a few sittings and never feel you’ve read a great literary novel. This is an experience rare in contemporary literary fiction where authors seem to believe it’s essential for the readers to suffer almost as much as their characters. There comes a time when even the most heavenly lyrical prose tends to tire. Davies comes as a refreshing balm.

But that isn’t to say that he’s trashy. Don’t get me wrong here. Despite my comparisons to Wodehouse, this is no Wooster saga you’re reading here. There’s meat on these bones, rich, prime meat. Full of the flavour and juices of intellectual life. Expect arguments that will test your literary knowledge, discussions of authors you may not have even heard of, let alone read. Mind-twisting matters of interest only to people to whom the outside world exists mainly as a theoretical mathematical construct essentially irrelevant to the pursuit of intellectual nirvana.

Yet, given this steeped-in-steeples-and-symbolism material, there’s much to entertain. You just have to have the desire to swim for a while in the luminescent, candle-lit corridors of Anglican academia, often without the option of coming for air, mentally speaking.

If that’s the challenge you seek, you won’t find many authors of this calibre. J. K. Galbraith and Malcolm Bradbury, among numerous other critics, fellow writers and academics, praised him highly, even calling him “one of the great modern novelists” and the creator of “the best works of this century”. That kind of praise isn’t won cheaply, Booker prize or no Booker.

But in the end, after you’ve gotten through those endless literary references, the Biblical allusions and theological symbolism, even the great Good-Evil battle that all his plots are based on ultimately (believe it or not!), the greatest thing about Roberston Davies is his ability to make it all live vividly through the words of his characters.

Apparently, while studying at Oxford in the late 1930′s, Davies grew interested in theatre and became an actor and a playwright, penning several plays. That shows in his work. And turns what could have been turgid, massive tomes of academic intellectual narrative into boisterous, massively entertaining debates between jealous, conflicting, horny, drunk, greedy human beings.

This is what elevates his three major trilogies, The Salterton Trilogy, the Deptford Trilogy, and the last and finest, The Cornish Trilogy and makes them not just great literature, but great entertainment too. Intellectual, true, but entertainment nevertheless.

Robertson Davies died in 1995. His novels speak on for him, continuing the eternal dialogue that great authors engage in even from beyond the grave.

About The Banker

  • gypsyman


    It’s alway nice for a Canadian to hear someone from another country praise the work of one of our writers, but I have to admit that I’ve always found Robertson Davies a little too rich for my blood.

    Maybe it’s because the Sunday roast beef thing is such a British traditions, and Davies’ books always had that slight taste of the Empire to them. They were great fun to read, trying to catch the allusions to art and literature was always a challange. But there was always the feeling of reading a book for another era or age. It would always come as something of a surprise to find the books set in Canada.

    Saying all that I have to admit that the Canadian landscape became a lot duller when he died. No more seeing him stroll throught the streets of Toronto in a wide brimmed black fedora and cape, silver toped walking stick in hand and proceeded everywhere by his long silver beard.

    I think he will always be remembered as the first grand master of Canadian literature, and I think that would have pleased him.


  • futuregodparent

    Considering you know much about Robertson Davies I was wondering if you could help me find a passage in one of his books. Do you know in which book he writes about the responsibility of being a godparent?
    Thanks very much.

  • Ashok K. Banker

    Hi Godparent, yes, I do recall the passage you’re referring to. The problem is, I’m in the process of a lengthy, laborious house-move and my Robertson Davies books are all packed away. Without being able to refer back to them, I can’t help you, sorry. Much as I like his work, I don’t have it down to memory. Good luck finding the passage though and if you haven’t located it by the time I’ve located my new house, then I’ll be glad to look it up.