The Deptford Trilogy, Robertson Davies

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The Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders, Robertson Davies, King Penguin, 1987 (c1970), ISBN 0-14-006500-8, $10.95

I had read some Robertson Davies in the past–Murther and Walking Spirits and The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks–and thought him a fine curmudgeon and a fine Canadian writer, but I had not given him much thought beyond this. I find this to my detriment now, for I remember friends who always had a copy of one or other of his novels about, and I faintly recall many recommendations in the past. So, what made me finally pick up one of these and read it? The recommendation, passed to me second-hand, by my favorite writer, Jonathan Carroll, given as one of his influences for conceiving novels with interlinking characters.

Fifth Business is a marvelous book, and while it doesn’t have quite the same mystery or horror of Carroll, it does have an excellent style, and there is indeed a twist or two along the way to keep most any reader sated. Basically the autobiography of Dunstable Ramsay, born around the turn of the century in the small Canadian town of Deptford, Fifth Business details not only Ramsay’s life, but also the life of his oldest friend, Percy “Boy” Staunton. What makes this novel so remarkable is how realistic the portrayal is, without bogging down in pages of mundane description. Over the course of the novel, one’s understanding for Dunstable grows, both in positive and negative turns, and by the end, he is as an old friend of one’s own.

Based on some of the cover blurbs, I had expected a little more magic realism, or at least an edge of the fantastic, to this book, and while it may be there, it is consistently down-played. Normally I am not one to go in for fiction without at least a feeling of the extraordinary, but Davies’ writing style kept me glued to the page, reading longer into the night than I would ordinarily wish during the work week. And I learned many things, including what the term hagiography refers to, and some feeling for Canada and their strange ties to Britain and the world.

But it is the aspect of Fifth Business itself where this book receives full credit for its recommendation. “Fifth Business” refers to, as related in the novel:

“You don’t know what this is? Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep up in Europe you must have a prima donna–always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something; and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.So far, so good. But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death if that is part of the plot.”

Dunstable is indeed Fifth Business, for he does know the secret of the hero’s birth, and does come to the assistance of the heroine, and keeps a woman in her cell, and may even be the cause of Boy Staunton’s murder. The trick is discovering who exactly is the hero, and the assistance only lasts for a short time, and being locked in a cell is not always advantageous, and who exactly did murder Boy Staunton? These and more questions are brought up in Fifth Business, some of which are answered.

The Manticore picks up almost where Fifth Business lets off, but quickly reverts to flashback to tell some of the same story from the point of view of Boy Staunton’s son, David. David’s recollection of some of the events as told by Ramsay are colored by his own life, including the fear introduced by his sister that David is not actually Boy’s son, but Ramsay’s. Whereas Ramsey was fifth business to Boy Staunton, David is a star in his own story, which is told by a journal that he writes to discuss with his psychotherapist.

It sounds dull, and at times it slows due to the conceit, but Davies has a way of interjecting interest right as you are about to put away the novel. Two-thirds into the novel and it breaks away from the psychotherapy, returns to the “present” of the trilogy, and reunites us with Ramsay and some of the other characters from Fifth Business. The problem with The Manticore is that it is the middle novel, without the refreshing newness of the opening and lacking the rush towards the climax of the concluding novel.

And what a rush World of Wonders is–once again, it covers some of the same ground of the two previous novels, filling in detail about magician Magnus Eisingrim (nee Paul Dempster of Deptford) that also provides additional insight into Ramsey and, in the end, Boy Staunton. Of the three novels, World of Wonders is closest to Carroll. Rather than tell the story from Magnus viewpoint, Davies switches back to Ramsay. However, the story Ramsay tells is of the biographical confessions of Magnus. This way Davies can tell the story from a new viewpoint while retaining the mysterious nature of Magnus (who is the closest to the unreliable narrator used by Carroll) to keep the secret of Boy Staunton’s death until the closing minutes. Magnus’ history isn’t pretty, and the World of Wonders is as a carnival sideshow, full of flash but hiding a seedy underbelly. However, Magnus is not unhappy with his lot, looking back over his life, which is one of the aspects of the story that haunts Ramsay, who feels somewhat responsible (along with Staunton) for Paul Dempster’s early life. The philosophical aspect of this is interesting–Davies implies that, while taking responsibility of one’s actions is important, there is a statute of limitations on guilt.

The Deptford Trilogy is a strong suite of novels, cunningly wrought and well worth your time. I regret that I had waited this long to discover them.

[Finished December 1996]

Postscript 5 November 2014: It seems that Robertson Davies, and Fifth Business, is a favorite assignment for Canadian English teachers, for over the next 10-15 years after initially sharing this commentary, I would get comments from students about how much this book sucked. Most of their issues revolved around Dustan and his passivity, not to mention load of guilt, for his part in the injury to Mary Dempster. Just because he was only an accessory doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t feel guilt, especially as he didn’t take the opportunity presented to tell the truth about the incident. It’s not hard at all to believe that something so innocuous would haunt Dunstan; stranger things have been the impetus for many people (the boy who saw a man’s finger accidentally cut off in a meat market decides to become a doctor, etc.). In fact, just because it might not be in your character to feel guilt about the things that Dunstan berates himself with does not diminish it as a possibility for the character. The question, instead, should be, “Does it work (is it believable) in the context of the novel and the world the author’s created?” In this case, it does.

I also felt that many of the commentators missed the “point” of the novel (of which there is actually more than one, but let’s just mention the main), and that is the title, “Fifth Business.” Dunstan’s character is one of guilt and inaction because his role is that of the traditional fifth person in an opera: the commentator on the action, rather than a main actor in the play. Once you connect that to this world, you then realize that you must identify who, then, make up the four main parts (the soprano, tenor, alto, and bass). And once you make that connection, you start to understand that Davies is making a statement on life–how not everyone is a hero or a villain or support to those, but sometimes there is a third option, the one Dunstan takes.

As a former student myself, I understand why they have trouble–because they read this book as an English assignment, not out of their own interest, so it’s no wonder they didn’t care for it. I rarely liked the things I was forced to read (or watch, or experience), either. But one shouldn’t let your personal issues or inexperience with the form blind you to the skill of Davies and the cleverness of this novel.

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