I’ve talked elsewhere here about how one of the things that people want out of a book is knowledge. People want to learn things – it’s the only way to explain the popularity of somebody like Arthur Hailey.
Let’s push this a bit further. I think lurking at the heart of this is the notion, deep in the reader’s soul, that the writer has wisdom. (The way that there’s a deep, almost unacknowledged sense that the musician or, to a lesser extent, the artist has passion). Now, of course a moment’s sober reflection is enough to bring to mind countless foolish or silly writers. Yet the notion continues. I think deep in Western civilization’s soul lies this idea that the writer, if not exactly a better person than the common Joe or Jane, is at least a different sort of person, set apart in some kind of fundamental way.
Thus the higher end version of somebody like Arthur Hailey, who tries to teach you how an airport works, is somebody like Robertson Davies, who tries to teach you how to live.
Davies was once well-known – so well-known that he was seriously bandied about for the Nobel Prize. Nowadays – not so much. Although a cult-like following persists, and I rather expect some of his books, most notably Fifth Business, will survive.
Davies was an Anglophile, and like a lot of these sorts – John Dickson Carr leaps to mind – he was more British than British. Although theoretically taking place in Canada, you could change the place names to English ones and it wouldn’t make much difference. For all of his fussing about Canada and what it is and what its people are like, none of his books feel exceptionally Canadian to me. Of course, considering I’ve actually never been to Canada, don’t know any Canadians, and have not even really thought all that much about Canada, you might fairly ask what I think “authentically Canadian” really is. And honestly, I don’t have an idea.
But I know this ain’t it.
Davies’s reputation is based on three trilogies. He started out with the very cautious Salterton trilogy: Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties. These are small city comedies in what I suspect was intended to be the Trollope mold: that is, while they have their humorous moments, they’re mainly meant to be gentle meditations on life. There’s a happy ending, but you’ll get some painful moments too – that kind of thing.
They’re basically early efforts, Davies learning his voice and craft. Tempest-Tost centers around a small-town production of, um, The Tempest. A lot of interesting details of how one puts together this kind of production, and some good pictures of the local townsfolk, but it doesn’t have much by way of a story. Leaven of Malice actually has a plot – it even ends with a marriage (or at least an announcement of one) – but it’s not a particularly interesting plot, and it’s not hard for the reader to detect the locus of authorial interest and energy in the accounts of a smallish newspaper, sort of the sideshow of the thing.
The most interesting of the three is A Mixture of Frailties, which is the first appearance of the “biography of the artist seen as a spiritual exploration”, a kind of thing Davies would tackle again (What’s Bred in the Bone, most interestingly in World of Wonders). I think Davies is pretty good as this notoriously hard-to-manage kind of thing, and I think the secret is that he focuses on the performing arts (magic, acting, singing, interestingly, connoisseurship). This enables him to dramatize the kind of things that, for an artist, are usually pretty internal. And, more basically, these kinds of people just generally get out and do more interesting things, inherently.
I don’t think Frailties is a great book, it still feels hesitant to me (like this whole series, actually) and female characters are not Davies strong suit, but it’s the best of the Salterton Trilogy and would most clearly show Davies’s path.
End of Part One.