Posts Tagged ‘Elisabeth Sifton’

Canadian novelist Robertson Davies: “Sin is the creation of meaning or intent where none was planned.”

Thursday, September 24th, 2020

I recently came across The Paris Review 1989 interview with the Canadian novelist and man of letters Robertson Davies. The interview took place in front of an audience at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City three years earlier. No surprise it was a sold-out appearance – Davies, who died in 1995, was always a popular reader, lecturer, and interview subject. As the interviewer Elisabeth Sifton noted, “The robust presence of this ‘wizard of the North’ … came as no surprise: a filled-out broad chested figure, clad in slightly old-fashioned clothes (that evening he wore his signature leather waistcoat, all the better looking for age, beneath a well-cut jacket), with an easy erect carriage, a deep, skillfully modulated voice, fine straight nose, luxuriant white beard and hair.” 

A couple excerpts: 

You once wrote, “All the critics in this town are the bastard children of Scotch parents.”

Yes, critics have this nanny quality, but they vary enormously. Some are friendly and kindly, and are interested in your work and take it seriously, but the ones who get under my skin are the academic critics whose whole training is to detect faults. They call them “flaws.” I call them “flawyers,” which they do not like. I one time nailed one of these people and said, “Tell me of a novel that you know that is free from flaw. Now how about War and Peace?” “Oh, infinitely flawed.” “What about Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s great novel?” “Oh, a mass of flaws.” I think it would be splendid if we could get a committee of these wonderful people to write a flawless novel, but they won’t do it and I question whether it would reach publication. The opposite. Sin is the creation of meaning or intent where none was planned. A Ph.D. candidate wrote of World of Wonders that its hero was christened Paul, and that his life story exactly paralleled that of Saint Paul! I said mildly that this had not occurred to me. He replied, with an indulgent smile, that many things appear to the critical reader of a book which have eluded the attention of the author, and that this gave the book “resonance” – for me, the resonance of a dull thud. It is extremely disagreeable to be treated as a sort of idiot savant who must be explained to himself and to his readers.


Many of your readers and reviewers are dazzled by how much you know about everything, by how much they can learn about so many things in your novels – some of it quite arcane and special, some of it information that perhaps we should all know but don’t. Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said. Do you like the idea of instructing your readers on all that lore about gypsies or cellos or art forgery or Houdini, to name a few subjects quite randomly.

Well, you see, the actual fact is that I don’t. I saw a few things, I provide a few details, but if I may be permitted to say so, I work on the Shakespearean plan. Everybody says, ‘Oh, Shakespeare must have been a sailor. Do you notice how in the beginning of The Tempest people cry, ‘Man the bowsprit,’ or ‘Split the binnacle,’ or whatever it is. He must have been a sailor.” Others say, “No, no, he must have been a lawyer. Remember in The Merchant of Venice he has a scene in a law court that is quite like a law court.” “No, no, no, Shakespeare must have been a soldier because he has a place where Henry V cries, ‘Follow your spirits and upon this charge,/Cry God, for Harry, England and Saint George.” It’s all hooey. Shakespeare had a few telling details which he injected into his plays that made them seem realistic, and I have the same in my novels. I don’t know a very great deal about anything. Indeed, the areas of my ignorance are fantastic in their scope. But you know, I have one remembrance which has a bearing on this. When I wrote Fifth Business, there were some scenes in it which took place in the First World War, the experiences of a Canadian soldier. I say virtually nothing about the war except that there was a great deal of mud, that there were a lot of horses who might panic, and that most of the time it was infinitely boring. That is all. But you know, one man said to me, “Where were you during the war?” and I said, “Well, frankly, after I got here I was in the cradle.” But he had fought in France and he said that it was just like that. He asked, “How did you know it was like that?” If you have the kind of imagination a novelist needs, you have a notion of why it was like that. You do not need to write endlessly about what kind of sidearms somebody takes when he goes on a night raid and that kind of thing. That creates boredom.

Read the whole thing here.

Robertson Davies goes postal on his 100th birthday!

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

birthday cakeOh dear, oh dear, oh dear!  How could we have almost overlooked that today is the centenary of Robertson Davies, an author who has given us so much wisdom and laughter?

Whew!  Fortunately we’re just in time for the day.  Happy birthday, Robertson!  And we’ve baked you a little cake to celebrate!

How could we forget the man who said:

“A happy childhood has spoiled many a promising life.”

“I do not ‘get’ ideas; ideas get me.”

“The dog is a yes-animal. Very popular with people who can’t afford a yes man.”

“Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons.”

robertson2“Do not suppose, however, that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best.”

“Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”

“Inactivity and deprivation of all accustomed stimulus is not rest; it is a preparation for the tomb”

“Fanaticism is overcompensation for doubt.”

Fortunately, fortunately, the Canadian post is on top of things, which makes a nice change.  They’re issuing a commemorative stamp.  (Canadian readers, can you send me one?)

Here’s how Canada’s National Post summarized his career:

Born in 1913 in Thamesville, Ontario, Davies had a long and distinguished literary career, not only as a novelist, but also as a playwright, journalist, and critic.

Davies’ career spanned six decades and numerous genres. In 1940, he became the literary editor of Saturday Night magazine. He was also a longtime editor for the Peterborough Examiner.

davies3A lover of theatre, Davies wrote more than dozen plays during his lengthy career, and would help launch Canada’s Stratford Festival in 1953, where he served on its board of governors.

Davies was also the founding master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College, in 1963, where students jumped at the chance to hear him tell ghost stories each Christmas.

The author’s greatest success came from the 11 novels he published during his lifetime. The most famous of those, The Fifth Business (1970), was on the Toronto Star bestseller list for 42 weeks, and would form one part of The Deptford Trilogy.

Davies won many awards, including a Booker Prize, a Governor General’s Literary Award (for The Manticore), and the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour (for Leaven of Malice).

Towards the end of his life, Davies himself responded to such introductions this way: “The introducer has approached me by what may be called the biographical path. He begins by telling that I was born, and when, and where. As soon as he mentions the date of my birth I can see the audience doing a little sum in their heads, after which they look at me with renewed interest to see how I am carrying the burden of my years. He is all kindness; he romps through the public details of my life, but under the circumstances I cannot laugh or weep.”

RobertsonDaviesThat’s from the 1989 Paris Review interview with Elisabeth Sifton.  I was happy to read that Davies confirms my own prejudice about writing by hand.  No surprise, perhaps.  Like me, he began in the daily wipes:


Now, the requisite Paris Review question: How do you write your novels? In your instance, this is a more interesting question than usual because you have an extraordinarily beautiful italic hand. Do you write the first draft of your novel longhand or do you type?


daviesI type because writing by hand I find to be a very great betrayer. If you write carefully and try to write legibly, as I do, you finish a page and think, That’s a handsome page. This is absolutely wrong. Also, you can only write so long with a pen before your hand becomes tired, and then your invention begins to tire. If you type, which I do because I had my earliest training as a newspaperman and learned to use the typewriter readily, you have what you’ve written there before you cold and bare. Then you can go over it, and it is as though someone else had written it and you can edit it with great severity. I am a terrible fidget about form, and the first typed draft is often pitifully ragged and messy. But then after it goes to my secretary, who makes a clean copy, I revise extensively. The heavy work is done, but I like revising. As for editing, though I try to be stringent, you will recall that I resist your editorlike zeal for total clarity—all the lights blazing and not a dark corner to be found. I am a writer much given to light and shade, and I firmly believe that to know all is to despise all.

Read the rest here, and pop open a bottle of champers for “The Man.”

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

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

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.