Ted Gioia’s “Year of Magical Reading” looks at Robertson Davies


Jazz baby

Jazz scholar (and lit critic)  Ted Gioia has been celebrating “A Year of Magical Reading” – ranging from Salman Rushdie‘s Midnight’s Children to Lewis Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland.  Until today, I hadn’t read a word of it.  I’m not terrifically fond of magic realism, as a genre – but I am terribly fond of Robertson Davies (in fact, we had a blog birthday card for him here).

Today, Ted is discussing Davies’s Fifth Business.  The author himself discussed the book in 1989 with Elisabeth Sifton during his  Paris Review interview. He described  the book’s genesis this way:

I did not write Fifth Business until ten years had passed since I first became aware of the idea that lay behind it: it was simply a scene that kept occurring in my mind, which was of two boys on a village street on a winter night—I knew from the look of the atmosphere that it must be just around Christmastime—and one boy threw a snowball at the other boy. Well, that was all there was to it, but it came so often and was so insistent that I had to ask myself, Why is that boy doing that and what is behind this and what is going on? Then the story emerged quite rapidly. …

Well, you see, I hesitate to talk about this, because it sounds mystical and perhaps rather absurd, but I assure you it is not: the minute I recognized that the picture meant something I should pay attention to, the whole thing began to come to life, and I knew who the boys were and I knew what the situation was and I quickly became aware of what lay behind it. Some of it had to be invented, some of it had to be fetched up and rejected—a great deal is rejected in the course of such work—but it was all there as soon as I began to work. And when I began writing, I wrote from the beginning to the end as I always do. I know that many writers—Joyce Cary for instance—compose the principal scenes of a novel before putting the connective work around it; other people work backward and do all sort of interesting things, but I don’t. I just go from start to finish, and that’s the first draft.

Ted laments the recent neglect of the Davies, who died in 1995 at age 82, and attributes it in part to the tendency to pigeonhole him as a Canadian writer: “Davies is too large a talent to be pigeonholed as a regionalist, and his name is not out of place alongside those of his contemporaries Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, Albert Camus and Walker Percy.”  Interestingly, then, Bellow’s name is one of the names that comes up in the Paris Review interview.

Sifton asked: “Saul Bellow once said—and was roundly criticized for it— that American writers, presumably excepting himself, fail to grapple with what he called the central human enterprise. Grappling with the essential human enterprise may be a numbing matter, but what—in the end—is the aim of the novelist?”  Davies, apparently, did not think much of American lit – at least the variety he read in the New Yorker: “I admire their subtlety—but I get so sick of it. I wish they would deal with larger themes.”

I grew up in the only part of the continental U.S. where you have to go south to get into Canada, and am a quarter Canadian – yet Davies’s description of the Canadian psyche hit me with a jolt of immediate recognition:  The problem is, he wrote, we view Canada as a queer mix midway between the U.S. and Canada.  Its mindset is instead closer to the Nordic countries – it is a nation shaped by its northernness, and by winter.

Something I didn’t know, however, until Ted told me: Davies’s epigraph from the novel, attributed to  Danish scholar Tho. Overskou, is a literary hoax, and so is the epigraph that provides a thematic through-line for the novel’s protagonist:  “Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies.”

It fooled me, and it fooled many.  Ted writes:  “Many have taken this at face value, and anyone researching ‘fifth business’ on the Internet today, will be reassured by dozens of web sites that it is an old theatrical term.  But Davies invented it for his story—not an inappropriate gesture for a work focused on the ways in which myths are created and disseminated.” And not a surprising gesture for a well-known literary prankster.

By the way, Ted’s brand new book,The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoireis already getting a lot of buzz.



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