Wednesday, April 22, 2009

10 Books A Day: #3

The Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business, The Manticore, World of Wonders...Robertson Davies...Penguin

The Cornish Trilogy: The Rebel Angels, What's Bred In The Bone, The Lyre Of Orpheus...Robertson Davies...Penguin

High Spirits...Robertson Davies...Penguin

Murther And Walking Spirits...Robertson Davies...Penguin

The Cunning Man...Robertson Davies...Penguin

The Salterton Trilogy: Tempest-Tost, Leaven Of Malice, A Mixture Of Frailties...Robertson Davies...Penguin

Conversations With Robertson Davies...ed. J. Madison Davis...University Press of Mississippi

Happy Alchemy: On The Pleasures Of Music And The Theatre...Robertson Davies, ed. by Jennifer Sturridge and Brenda Davies...Viking

The Merry Heart: Reflections On Reading, Writing, And The World Of Books...Robertson Davies...Viking

For Your Eye Alone: The Letters Of Robertson Davies...Robertson Davies, ed. Judith Skelton Grant...Viking

The Papers Of Samuel Marchbanks...Robertson Davies...Viking

Robertson Davies: Man Of Myth...Judith Skelton Grant...Viking

I first encountered the work of Robertson Davies quite by accident. My mother bought me The Deptford Trilogy on one of her garage sales expeditions; it looked rather fantastic, and was a trilogy, and as far as she knew it could be my cup of tea. On my first glance it seemed far from it: novels set in Canada, in "modern" times, in a realistic milieu. But to humor her I gave it a chance, dipping in, reading here and there, getting interested, then hooked, and eventually eagerly seeking out anything Davies had written. It turned out to be one of the best gifts my mother ever gave me.

Robertson Davies (1908-1995) was born in Canada, son of a senator and newspaperman. Both his parents were avid readers. He got most of his education in Canada and finished up his college in Oxford, where some of the classes he attended were taught by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (I have to note that as personally interesting to me; I can't say how significant it was to Davies). He majored in Drama, and throughout his life he acted, wrote and studied theatre. He returned to Canada where he got into the newspaper business with his family, and for years he wrote many books while writing and editing the paper, including essays published in the persona of his alter-ego, Samuel Marchbanks.

In 1961 he became the first Master of Massey College, founded largely by members of the Massey family, of whom perhaps Raymond Massey is the most famous. During his tenure he did his best to supply the New World college with the best of the humane traditions of the Old World colleges. It was through these years he wrote his most famous works, the books of The Deptford Trilogy; also in the spirit of fun he wrote one ghost story each year to be read at the college's Christmas revels, as per the old English tradition; these stories were later published as High Spirits.

Davies at his best is a marvelous mix of qualities: the feeling of wonders behind and alongside the work-a-day world, a generous, tender, and forgiving spirit, not unmixed with wry humor at human follies, the appreciation of a serious and unselfish dedication to a worthy craft. If occasionally he comes up with a howler like saying an orangutan has a tail, we can forgive him with the same generosity and humor he extends to his own characters.


AlanDP said...

Never heard of him, but that doesn't surprise me. Sounds like someone worth finding out about.

John said...

He looks like an amalgam of every great classic writer!