Posts Tagged ‘Robertson Davies’

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.



My single night as a Girtonian

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Bastion of sanity in late-Victorian Grim

“I give lessons to Amalie, chiefly in history; she reads a lot and we talk. History is my thing. My Cambridge degree is in history. I’m a Girton girl. If I have any spare time I work on my own notes, which might be a book some day.”

So says the governess Ruth Nibsmith about her young charge, as she conspires with art apprentice Francis Cornish, her partner in intelligence work for the British  in the years leading up to World War II.

Ever since reading those lines in Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone, Girton College has retained an certain cachet for me.  So naturally I jumped at poet Gwyneth Lewis’s invitation to attend the Girton’s annual guest night.

They aren’t “Girton girls,” however, the Welsh poet explained.  The phrase she used often in my brief tour was “Girtonian.”  She herself is a Girtonian, and now the Mary Amelia Cummins Harvey Visiting Fellow Commoner at her alma mater.  She’s currently working on a fascinating verse play about the “lost years” of Clytemnestra, and just published a new collection, Sparrow Tree, this year.

Gwyneth (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Girton College is way out on the outskirts of Cambridge and is decidedly not one of the architectural wonders of the city.  It was built in the 1870s in the grim, late Victorian style – rumor has it that the backup arrangement was for the building to house an insane asylum, if the college plans fell through.  This was England’s first residential college for women – but you never know what high-powered edjucation might do to the wimmen.

To that end, of course, it brings up the theme of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, which tackles the prejudices these early women scholars encountered – that novel, however, was based on Somerville College at Oxford.

Gwyneth took me past the Girton room where Virginia Woolf delivered her landmark talk, later published as A Room of One’s Own in October 1928.

We also visited Hermione, a very early woman scholar, in the Lawrence Room – the Roman-period Egyptian mummy (circa 20-40 A.D.) was found in Hawara, in the Fayum, in 1911.  We don’t know much about her.  She apparently died when she was younger than 25, and she’s identified only as Hermionê Grammatikê,  or “Hermione the literary lady” or “Hermione the language teacher.”

Most reminiscent of Gaudy Night was the formal dinner in the grand, high-ceilinged dining room, presided over by Girton’s glamorous Mistress, the geographer Susan Smith.  (I sat next to her husband at the candle-lit table; he’s early-music cornettist Jeremy West, who will be performing in Berkeley next February.)  Sherry to begin, white wine and red wine courses, a cheese course, a chocolate-and-coffee course, and postprandials by the fire.


I have to take that last bit on faith.  Gwyneth whisked me to the station just as everyone was moving to the fire for more conversation – last train at 11.15 p.m.

Too quickly, alas, to meet the most endearing character of Girton:  Buster.  The once-feral tomcat has been not only adopted by the college, but given some sort of endowment guaranteeing lifetime food and medical care.  Gwyneth says he’s still not above swiping those who become overly familiar.

I’ll have to take that on faith, too.  All I saw was a food dish and his comfortable haunts. Bursar Deborah Lowther kindly provided a photo from her iphone.

Postscript on Nov. 13: Gwyneth kindly sent me the words from the note I saw posted in a hallway, from George Eliot to Emily Davies, the founder of Girton College. The letter, supporting women’s education in the proposed college, is dated 20 November, 1867:

My Dear Miss Davies,

We strongly object to the proposal that there should be a beginning made ‘on a small scale’. To spend forces and funds in this way would be a hindrance rather than a furtherance of the great scheme which is pre-eminently worth trying for. Every one concerned should be roused to understand that a great campaign has to be victualled for.

M.E. Lewes (pen name: George Eliot)

(Gwyneth on camera below)

SiCa Presents: Gwyneth Lewis from SiCa on Vimeo.

Why people don’t “get” Czesław Miłosz

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Miłosz: "...the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths."

For a moment, let me return to the Aula in Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum.  (In fact, I must return to it in more than a literary sense in just a few minutes, when I go to meet a leading Miłosz scholar and Jagiellonian professor Aleksander Fiut).

Artur Sebastian Rosman, in a paper on Czesław Miłosz and Hans von Balthasar, recalled his own “first encounter with an honest-to-God, no holds barred, direct American reception of Milosz’s work and its religious dimension”:

It took place at an evening poetry discussion at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.  It was a meeting devoted to [Miłosz’s] Second Space, which had recently appeared in English.  All, and I mean all, of the Americans there were convinced that Miłosz was most likely a postmodern spiritual seeker, probably much like them, possibly fascinated by archetypes, certainly spiritual, and definitely not religious.  Had Miłosz been there he might have recycled the words he hurled at Kisiel in A Year of the Hunter, “[They don’t] take into account a particular, quite fundamental fact: all my intellectual impulses are religious and in that sense my poetry is religious.”  No such luck.  Yet, unbeknownst to me, I had an ally who was in on the joke Miłosz was playing, in absentia, upon this poor but sincere American audience.  This stranger/ally clearly had an Eastern European accent and he kept taking up my cause.  He kept waving the flag of Miłosz as a homo religiosus and, anathema sit, a practicing Catholic!  We  quoted poems from Second Space, made reference to his other work, and cited countless details of his biography.  All to no avail.  I’m convinced the Americans thought we were trying to play an inverse Polack joke on them.

His comments meshed quite nicely with my own reflections from An Invisible Rope. I cited one of my contributors, Natalie Gerber, Miłosz’s former assistant in Berkeley, now an associate professor at SUNY-Fredonia, where she teaches the poetry of Miłosz, among others:

The students come from a range of majors and, not infrequently, are intimidated by or resistant to reading poetry. Few have much experience with verse, and almost none have read poetry that overtly wrestles with conscience and historical circumstance, as does Miłosz’s, or, for that matter, poetry that requires its reader to work as hard as his does to understand both its literal meaning and its ethical import. … used to a culture that conditions all of us to read carelessly—they misread it and mistake its core lessons, its vital distinctions, at who knows what cost. … [they] don’t presume that the morally complex and personally engaged stances taken by the speakers in Miłosz’s poems are even possible.

Artur's not laughing

It alarms me that we are increasingly unable as a society to meet an authors on their own terms, in their own times.  We make them “like us” and therefore fail to mark, learn, and inwardly digest from earlier modes of thinking, of being.  We need not live wholly in our own era and subscribe to all its follies and fashions – we have an historical and international palette to choose from.  These thoughts always return me to Robertson DaviesWhat’s Bred in the Bone, where the protagonist, a Canadian painter, cannot relate to the modern era and instead creates new masterpieces of the early Renaissance, which only after his death are revealed to be “fakes” – but are they? An extreme and admittedly arguable case, but Miłosz argued more simply for the world of Thomistic esse. As he said to me in 2000 on Grizzly Peak:

“We are in an era of flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.”“In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Post-modernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.”

No violence, please.

At the end of his talk, Artur said:  “Milosz is almost universally recognized as a poet of wartime atrocities, the problem of evil and the ugliness of modernity, however, we should not make the mistake of identifying his frequent references to these 20th century phenomena as a preference for them. Just like René Girard is not an aficionado of violence.”

Of course, I thought he was joking, and we both laughed about it afterward.  Except him.  No, it’s not a joke, he said.  After such books as Violence and the SacredRené Girard told a colleague that enthusiastic readers were sending him slasher films, because they thought the mild-mannered and highly civilized Académie Française scholar would enjoy them.

I rest my case.

Robertson Davies: “I do not ‘get’ ideas; ideas get me.”

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

A quick birthday card to one of my favorite contemporary novelists.  It’s Robertson Davies’s 97th birthday today — or rather, it would have been, had he not died 15 years ago.  (I suppose some will argue that that fact makes him not “contemporary.”)

Davies (1913-95) is not one of my favorites because he’s the most profound, but because he’s a kick and provides me with the most amusement — and an enormous wealth of common sense, to boot.  As he himself said, “The great book for you is the book that has the most to say to you at the moment when you are reading. I do not mean the book that is most instructive, but the book that feeds your spirit. And that depends on your age, your experience, your psychological and spiritual need.”

Davies’s career is a reminder that journalists can have a future beyond newsprint — his father was a newspaperman, and Davies himself became the editor of the Peterborough Examiner in Ontario. “Canada is not really a place where you are encouraged to have large spiritual adventures,” he said —  but he had them anyway, apparently, and wrote novels, plays, libretti, and essays.

Alas, my own annotated copies of his novels have been loaned out to friends — but here are a few gleanings:

“Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.”

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

“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.”

“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.” (Perhaps my most frequently quoted line from him — and a very good rule of thumb.)

“The world is burdened with young fogies. Old men with ossified minds are easily dealt with. But men who look young, act young and everlastingly harp on the fact that they are young, but who nevertheless think and act with a degree of caution that would be excessive in their grandfathers, are the curse of the world. Their very conservatism is secondhand, and they don’t know what they are conserving.”

“Pessimism is a very easy way out when you’re considering what life really is, because pessimism is a short view of life – If you take a long view, I do not see how you can be pessimistic about the future of man or the future of the world.”

“The people of the United States, perhaps more than any other nation in history, love to abase themselves and proclaim their unworthiness, and seem to find refreshment in doing so… That is a dark frivolity, but still frivolity.”

“I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker.”

“We mistrust anything that too strongly challenges our ideal of mediocrity.”

“What we call luck is the inner man externalized. We make things happen to us.”

“The love that dare not speak its name has become the love that won’t shut up.”

“The love of truth lies at the root of much humor.”

“Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge. You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.”

“All mothers think their children are oaks, but the world never lacks for cabbages.”

“I object to being told that I am saving daylight when my reason tells me that I am doing nothing of the kind… At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme, I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy, and wise in spite of themselves.”