The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies

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The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies, ed. by Judith Skelton Grant, Penguin, 1991, ISBN 0-14-012659-7, $9.95, 364pp.

I took a break from Davies fiction this month to read this collection of non-fiction, culled from over thirty years of essays, and grouped into three broad categories: Characters, Books, and Robertson Davies. I say broad because Davies was not thinking of these categories as he wrote these essays. Instead, these were written to fill his column at the Peterborough Examiner (“A Writer’s Diary”) or book reviews for various American publications such as Harper’s, The Washington Post, or The Atlantic Monthly. Characters, however, tends to be about “lives”–either the lives of authors (including P.G. Wodehouse and Sigmund Freud), literary creations (mehitabel), or theater figures (Emma Calve and Melli Nelba). Okay, I’ll admit it–I didn’t know who Calve and Nelba were either, but that’s because I’m a book person, not a theater person. Even so, some of the authors and books covered here do stretch even my prodigious reading (not to mention my memory), partly due to the age of some of these essays (some as early as 1942) and partly due to Davies’ quite eclectic interests. That’s why I like him, however. Eclecticism is the mark of someone not afraid of change.

The Books section is just as varied, covering Robert Graves’ King Jesus and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. What was interesting for me is his comment on the Mervyn Peake’s fantasy classic, “The Gormenghast Trilogy,” which I have tried to read several times and never found it to catch my interest. I must have another go at it sometime in the near future. In this section of book reviews, it is interesting to note the progression (the articles are arranged in chronological order) of how the writer views the writing of his forebears and his peers, especially in the light of the wonderful writer Davies himself was becoming. The essay that hits closest to home is his essay on Joyce Cary’s novels and their inventive method of retelling tales using the same characters, which Davies was to modify for his three trilogies.

Finally, the section entitled Robertson Davies gives you a personal glimpse into the writer at work, as well as the curmudgeon at play. The essay entitled “A Chat with a Great Reader” alone is worth the price of the book. In it, Davies recalls a conversation with a fellow at a party who claims to be a “Great Reader” and is delighted to meet Davies, a “Critic.” The distinctions are quite telling, and an indictment on those who play at the game of knowledge and entertainment. While not everything here is as funny or insightful, these two-to-five page essays are the perfect compliment to your bedstand or reading chair, as bon bons to your main meal of words.

[Finished February 1997]

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