The Fantasist Manqué? Robertson Davies and The Deptford Trilogy
Normally, I write here about fantasy (which to me includes science fiction and horror). But some mimetic novels have a lot to say about the fantastic. Or a lot to say about related themes; wonder, for example, or the numinous. Those books are sometimes worth discussing at Black Gate, I think. Which is why I want to write now about Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy — classics of Canadian literature, novels deeply concerned with wonder — and consider whether they should have been even more open to the fantastic than they in fact are.
For there are moments in these books that at least touch on the fantastic. They’re a set of three interrelated bildungsromans, life stories told in different situations to different audiences. Running through them are themes of magic (both stage magic and actual magic), of dreams, of sainthood and miracles. They’re books concerned with the transfiguration of the mundane by the perception of the numinous. That’s risky terrain, something that can easily come off as banal, but Davies avoids the easy romanticisation of the miraculous in favour of a more complex romanticism — a self-aware examination of the joy that comes with Romance, faced with the claims of the soi-disant Real.
The books are also an in-depth investigation of the subconscious, from a primarily Jungian standpoint; one of the novels, in fact, is essentially the record of a man’s therapy with a Jungian analyst. The trilogy seems to suggest that it’s important to dig a recognition of the magic of the world out of the subconscious. To an extent, it anticipates Urusla Le Guin’s idea in her essay “Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” of fantasy as threatening to the North American Puritan mentality, which reacts with censorship and repression. But reading Davies, I found myself wondering, in fact, whether he and his writing had been hindered by that drive to repress the fantastic; whether that repression had been internalised more than Davies and his early critics realised. To explore this, I’ll need to write a bit about Davies and his times and the Canada from whence he came. But it’s best to start with the books themselves.
Fifth Business was first published in 1970. It’s the recollections of Dunstan Ramsay, a writer and schoolteacher from small-town Ontario; the title refers to the character in an opera plot who isn’t the hero or villain or female lead or rival female, but who nevertheless has an important role in moving the plot forward. The book begins with a very young Ramsay dodging a snowball thrown by another boy, so that it strikes a pregnant woman and incites her labour (the snowball hid an egg-shaped stone at the centre). Her premature son, Paul Dempster, is introduced to stage magic by Dunstan and eventually runs away with a travelling carnival; his increasingly simple-minded mother is cherished by Dunstan as a saint, and Dunstan sees to her welfare in her later life. The thrower of the snowball, Boy Staunton, goes on to become a tremendously wealthy man, but dies under mysterious circumstances at the end of the book with the egg-shaped stone in his mouth; this comes after Ramsay’s reconnected with the adult Paul Dempster — now, under the name Magnus Eisengrim, the greatest stage magician in the world. The Manticore, published in 1972, begins right after Fifth Business ends, and follows Staunton’s son, David, as he travels to Switzerland, undergoes therapy, and deals with issues in his life and relationship with his father. 1975’s World of Wonders returns us to Ramsay, recording the conversations of Eisengrim/Dempster as he acts in a film about a 19th-century illusionist and discusses his own life with various members of the film crew.
Widely acclaimed as classics of English-Canadian literature, the books are complex, symbolic and allusive. There is a pure narrative energy to them that keeps the books moving and feeling like unities even without obviously-worked plots or blatant dramatic tensions. Davies has referred to one of his ideals in literature as “shamanstvo:”
It means the enchanter-quality. The word shaman is familiar to everyone. The enchanter quality, the ability to keep people wanting more, is not something that can be taught, and often it is associated with what critics call a “bad literary style,” but it is irresistible.
There is much of that here. The books read a little like G.K. Chesteron went off his head and abandoned his witty paradoxes to try to write like Dostoyevsky: there’s the knowingness of the raconteur, but also the push to examine the extremes of human psychology and the human soul. Which is to say that Davies is concerned with morality, and moral choices.
The books aren’t flawless. Davies has a strong sense of character, but his three leads feel too similar; they express themselves in almost the same way, and tell their stories in similar voices. One can argue that’s because Ramsay not only tells his own story, but also taught David Staunton how to write, and recorded the tale told by Magnus Eisengrim — but these similarities extend beyond style to the way in which incident is recounted, and the way in which memory is evoked. I think also Davies relies too strongly on a Jungian framework, and sometimes generally uses overdetermined symbols, so that the books sometimes develop an obvious or mechanical feel. And while he dextrously manages incident and event to keep things always moving, one can’t help at times be aware of the lack of a coherent plot, or of anything that consistently drives the characters forward. (Though this might be a feature, not a bug, a deliberate attempt to shun contrivance.)
Most surprising is the fact that the moments of wonder that seem needed to drive the trilogy are not always successful. In Fifth Business Dunstan watches Mrs. Dempster seem to raise the dead, but his astonishment doesn’t strike home. More resonant is his apparent discovery, on a battlefield in the First World War, of a Madonna statue with her face. But consider the following, from the second book, as David Staunton describes one of his dreams to his (female) therapist:
“It was a dream in colour. I found myself in an underground passage, but some light was entering it, because I could see that it was decorated with wall-paintings, in the late Roman manner. The whole atmosphere of the dream was Roman, but the Rome of the decadence; I don’t know how I knew that, but I felt it. I was in modern clothes. I was about to walk down the passage when my attention was taken by the first picture on the left-hand side. These pictures, you understand, were large, almost life-size, and in the warm but not reflective colours of Roman frescoes. The first picture — I couldn’t see any others — was of you, dressed as a sibyl in a white robe with a blue mantle; you were smiling. On a chain you held a lion, which was staring out of the picture. The lion had a man’s face. My face.”
“Any other details?”
“The lion’s tail ended in a kind of spike, or barb.”
“Ah, a manticore!”
“A manticore is a fabulous creature with a lion’s body, a man’s face, and a sting in his tail.”
“I never heard of it.”
“No, they are not common, even in myths.”
“How can I dream about something I’ve never heard of?”
“That is a very involved matter, which really belongs to the second part of your analysis. But it is a good sign that this sort of material is making its way into your dreams already. People very often dream of things they don’t know. They dream of minotaurs without ever having heard of a minotaur. Thoroughly respectable women who have never heard of Pasiphaë dream that they are a queen who is enjoying sexual congress with a bull. It is because great myths are not invented stories but objectivizations of images and situations that lie very deep in the human spirit; a poet may make a great embodiment of a myth, but it is the mass of humanity that knows the myth to be a spiritual truth, and that is why they cherish his poem. These myths, you know, are very widespread; we may hear them as children, dressed in pretty Greek guises, but they are African, Oriental, Red Indian — all sorts of things.”
Dempster demurs, but discusses the dream further with his therapist, who suggests that the manticore represents his feelings — the part of himself that he has suppressed to become a successful lawyer, the part of himself open to fantasy: “a noble creature, but possibly dangerous and only human in part.” I’ve quoted all this because it seems to me to examplify what I want to get at here. I don’t think the passage particularly works. I don’t think the dream is convincing; there’s no strangeness, no sense of emotion. There’s no sense of symbolic power. This is odd, as the manticore not only provides the title of the second book, but makes his appearance in the centre of the novel, and so almost exactly at the centre of the whole trilogy. Why does it seem so stunted? Why is it described so briefly, and so blandly?
Certainly it reflects a theme central to the books. David Staunton needs to accept the manticore, to accept wonder, and finally does in the concluding section of the second novel, in a visit to an ancient cave-shrine. That echoes Ramsay in the first book, who, moved by what he perceives as the sanctity of Mrs. Dempster, studies sainthood and writes about saints while remaining a Protestant: without becoming a believer, he becomes open to a story of the world which includes divine and infernal powers. He literally unites with a diabolic figure by sleeping with a gnome-like woman (and aide to Paul Dempster) named Liesl, who also conducts David to the cave-shrine.
Paul’s own story is a meditation on the conflict of romance and real: as a boy he’s abducted by a homosexual pedophile magician with a carnival called the World of Wonders, and spends seven years in sexual bondage. He goes on to become a stage magician and actor, learning about theatre-craft from an old English actor who specialises in heroic roles out of Sabatini and Stevenson: he observes a conflict between the old actor and a writer fresh from University anxious to introduce new modernist traditions, and so his story is a kind of dialogue between those principles. Dempster, renamed Magnus Eisengrim, could be said to reconcile those perspectives within himself — as Liesl observes, his is the Magian world view: “a sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible world that existed side by side with a hard recognition of the roughness and cruelty and day-to-day demands of the tangible world.”
So, given that this is what the books are striving toward, given that the manticore is an image of this central concern, again, why is that image so bland in its central appearance?
To answer this, I think it’s necessary to look at Davies’ background; the Canada he knew, and the Canada that shaped him. Born in 1913 in small-town Ontario (in Thamesville, said to be the model for Deptford), he studied in Toronto and Oxford, going on to become an actor, journalist, and newspaper editor. He wrote essays, plays, and, starting in 1951, novels. In saying this, it’s important to emphasise the time in which Davies was writing: Canada in the 1950s and even 1960s was not the country it is today, and the English literary scene was nothing like it is now.
In 1965 the great Canadian critic Northrop Frye noted in a famous concluding essay to a critical anthology called the Literary History of Canada that
Had evaluation been [the editors’] guiding principle, this book would, if written at all, have been only a huge debunking project, leaving Canadian literature a poor naked alouette plucked of every feather of decency and dignity. … Canada has produced no author who is a classic in the sense of possessing a vision greater in kind that of his best readers … There is no Canadian writer of whom we can say what we can say of the world’s major writers, that their readers can grow up inside their work without ever being aware of a circumference.
Later he states that:
Culture is born in leisure and an awareness of standards, and pioneer conditions tend to make energetic and uncritical work an end in itself, to preach a gospel of social unconsciousness, which lingers long after the pioneer conditions have disappeared.
In surveying Canadian poetry and fiction, we feel constantly that all the energy had been absorbed in meeting a standard, a self-defeating enterprise because real standards can only be established, not met. Such writing is academic in the pejorative sense of that term, an imitation of a prescribed model, second-rate in conception, not merely in execution
So for Frye in 1965 Canadian attitudes to literature were unsophisticated, and Canadian writing imitative. It’s interesting to compare Frye and Davies — both men were deeply concerned with myth, and some of Frye’s remarks on this essay contrasting realism with romance, and arguing for a special “moral dignity” to realism, seem to alternately harmonise and contrast with Davies’ exploration of realism and romance in The Deptford Trilogy. Specifically, the two men seem to share a common sense of what realism and romance mean, and how both are to be read. There is a standard. A prescribed model.
Frye’s argument is not just that the country was dominated by philistines. It’s that its ideals were imitative. The idea of what good writing was, of what was truly ‘literary,’ came from elsewhere. A general flourishing of “CanLit” is usually held to have taken place in the late 60s and 70s, with Davies’ own works a crucial part. But during the years Davies was growing up, and the years he was publishing his first fiction, publishing and criticism in English Canada was (so far as I have ever been able to see) still biased toward very traditional ideas of what ‘good writing’ was; and specifically toward the kind of literature most easily appreciated by a people emerging from ‘pioneer conditions’ — a people skeptical of the fantastic, or of anything outside their experience. Which is to say, there was a bias toward the “moral dignity” of realism.
It’s worth looking here at some of Davies’ comments about Canadian writing, and how his work was received. You can pick up a certain amount from the way he depicts Deptford in the book: all the characters leave it behind, and all of them were scarred in their early lives by the abuse and bullying and, yes, philistinism of their childhood environment. But you can also see Davies’ opinions clearly elsewhere, in some of his non-fiction. There are two pieces I want to look at from his posthumous collection of essays and speeches The Merry Heart; the first comes from 1988, and is entitled “Literature in a Country Without a Mythology” (a reference to a poem by Douglas LePan). To establish Canada as lacking myth, Davies has to ignore the Natives and dismiss the French, but the subject of his talk is really the English-Canadian literary establishment. And he observes:
My work was not very warmly received in Canada during my early days. I was criticized as being unCanadian. I think now that what bothered critics was that it was simply not Canadian as they conceived Canadianness to be.
He elaborates on this in a 1989 speech on “The Novelist and Magic”:
When I first began to write novels I was often criticised for elements in the plots which seemed to the critics to be inadmissible in any serious work of fiction. This was the first mistake of the critics; being Canadians, they could not conceive that any right-minded fellow-Canadian would write novels that were not meant to be taken in the spirit of serious realism. …
What most annoyed them, however, was my way of introducing things into my novels which hinted at what they called the supernatural — at a life existing at the same time as ours, and influencing ours in a variety of great and small ways, and sometimes intervening in our lives decisively. But I did not mean these things to be supernatural because that is a stupid term. No, my novels were simply psychological, and for a variety of reasons I was strongly aware of these psychological elements, was heedful of them, and could not keep them out of any story I thought worth telling. I was not interested in realism in the ordinary acceptance of the word; my realism was psychological realism and the way in which it manifested itself in my stories could not be accomodated to a narrower conception of reality.
That’s fair enough as far as it goes, but I wonder whether he internalised that criticism more than he realised, and whether his desire for “psychological realism” was itself a kind of evasion of an instinct for the fantastic. He goes on to speak about how some of his stories were inspired by visions, saying:
It is here that I have to tell you one or two things which I have not spoken of in public, because I thought they would be misunderstood. But I have now come to a time of life when I really don’t care very much whether people understand me, because I have spent my life trying with my best efforts to understand myself.
Among the visions he describes is the seed for The Manticore. Contrast David Staunton’s dry description of his dream with the following:
One day, after lunch, as I was sitting in the open air, in that condition of abated consciousness which often follows lunch — no, I wasn’t asleep, and I do not suggest that lunch is a key to the visionary world — I saw two figures approaching me. One was a beautiful young woman, dressed in classical garb, with flowing hair and an air of confidence about her which was immediately arresting. On a golden chain she was leading an animal; it had the body and head of a lion, the clawed feet of a dragon, a tail which was barbed as the tails of scorpions are barbed in ancient art, and it had the anguished face of a man. What on earth was it? As the vision faded I scraped about in my mind for a name for that curious creature, and after consulting a dictionary of mythology I had it. The creature was a manticore, a thing composed of a man helplessly trapped in the attributes of beings that were less than human.
This seems to me to be a tremendous improvement on the original. It’s more dramatic from the beginning: instead of appearing in a picture, the woman and manticore are actual figures approaching, moving through the world. The woman has more character, through the mention of her “air of confidence.” But the manticore above all is much more present; its tail “barbed as the tails of scorpions are barbed in ancient art,” its face “anguished,” seeming to be “a man helplessly trapped” among animal parts. To me this is stunning, vivid and potent in a way that the dry description of the novel is not.
It is true that the quote from the novel comes from a relatively unimaginative character. But there are two characters in that dialogue, and the therapist is not meant to be unimaginative. It`s also true that the version in the speech was written several years after the novel; it’s possible Davies may have decided to try to improve upon it, but he seems to have been suspicious of rewriting: “when you have once finished your book,” he has said, “you have finished it for all time. You cannot go back and redo or alter it, because you wrote it in the first instance as your instinct told you it should be. If you tinker with it afterward, the chances are very great that you will make a mess of it, because second thoughts in these matters are rarely best.” At any rate, the second passage doesn’t read to me like he sat down to polish the first. It reads, I think, as though he feels freer to talk about the dream-material in the speech than he did in the novel: as he said, having come to a time of life when he doesn’t care if he’s understood.
I don’t mean that Davies was consciously restraining himself when he wrote the scene in the novel, though he probably did have to make certain decisions about how to pitch that scene to reach his intended audience. More than that, though, I suspect that small-town skepticism affected him at a deep level. I think he himself, whether he knew it or not, had the same kind of unconscious barriers to “the Magian world view” that David Staunton did. In that speech on “The Novelist and Magic” he describes audiences for popular sf as “illiterate,” seeking magic without being aware of it. I think Davies had internalised a certain contempt for magic and wonder, and allowed himself to bring it out in his fiction only with some imaginative difficulty. Compare The Deptford Trilogy to something like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, or even Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil — both books that deal with stage magic in the early twentieth century, both books concerned with the conflict of romance and realism, both harbouring similar literary ambitions to The Deptford Trilogy, though not necessarily as successful. Both books seem to me to deal with the imaginative world with greater freedom than the Deptford novels. They explore their images more thoroughly, and allow the sense of magic more lassitude.
To me Davies’ writing about the importance of the Magian world view is somewhat belied by the way he uses his magical or mythic imagery. He tends to the reductive. The book’s ascription of his real-life vision of the manticore to the need for a sense of feeling or enchantment is an example: the image is furnished with a simple and direct explanation. Something, perhaps, that he can defend against critics (external or internal). Rather than allow the image to develop into a fully-fledged symbol, ambiguous, filled with more meaning than can be enunciated, he focuses it into something explicable. I think that’s a general weakness in the novels as a whole, a tendency to allegory, but is most obvious in the fantastic imagery. Perhaps my point here is summed up briefly by Davies in his 1979 piece “A Chapter on Autobiography”: “imagination,” he says, “is not dream-spinning, but insight.” It seems to me that it’s both these things, and more besides. To demand specific insight of imagination is not to find meaning, but to remove it — to remove the possibility of multiple meanings, which inform and interact with each other.
Mostly, The Deptford Trilogy avoids this problem. Generally in the book Davies succeeds in writing symbol: in presenting real-seeming scenes, that upon further reflection have obvious, profound, and varied metaphorical significance. But the further he moves into the world of dream and myth, the more tentative he becomes. The paradox of Davies as a writer, and perhaps the key to his relevance, is that he’s impelled to explore those worlds nevertheless. It’s tempting to wonder what would have happened if he’d explored more fully. If he had written fully non-mimetic scenes, could he have invested them with the potency of dream or myth? Did the narrow-mindedness of mid-twentieth-century English Canada deprive the country of a great fantasist? I don’t know. No-one can know. What we have is The Deptford Trilogy, and the rest of Davies’ oeuvre, and these aren’t negligible achievements. Perhaps it’s simply the case that they aggravate and leave dissatisfied as only great books can.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.
“But some mimetic novels have a lot to say about the fantastic. Or a lot to say about related themes; wonder, for example, or the numinous. Those books are sometimes worth discussing at Black Gate, I think.”
I sure hope so! And I’m glad to see your in-depth consideration of these books here; I haven’t read them yet, but have always been intrigued when I’ve come across them. I’ve never quite been able to tell from the packaging whether they were fantasy (magic-realist fantasy in the vein of John Crowley) or not. I do believe I have an omnibus edition sitting on my shelf at home right now. When I pick it up, eventually, I’ll have a far better idea of what I’m in for!
Fascinating article! – like previous poster, I’ve come across these books time and again over the years, and particularly remember the cover featuring the manticore (manticores fascinate me – remember the descriptions of them in ‘The Worm Ouroboros’?) and wondered what they were about without ever feeling the inclination to read them. This is partially due to a certain prejudice against Canadian authors – or maybe I should just say Canadian literature. I’ve always assumed it to be verbose, earnest and hard to pin down in terms of national identity (ie, not American, not English, so…?). I have the same dubious attitude towards most Australian literature.
Nick: Thanks! Glad to hear this was useful for you!
Aoghus Fallon: Thanks as well! In terms of English CanLit … I think it’s changed a lot over the past few decades. Some of that’s a function of the country itself changing; when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, the question of “who are we?” was a big one, and the search for a Canadian identity was a major pastime for intellectuals. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. To an extent that might be a function of the emergence of major writers — Munro, Atwood, Richler, Ondaatje, and on and on — and of a whole “CanLit” industry in English. (I sometimes wonder if it’s not also a function of increased immigration over the past several decades — in addition to making the country a more varied and interesting place, it perhaps helps make clear that ‘here’ really is different from ‘elsewhere’.) I do think that there still is a lot of overpraised work in Canada, as there is everywhere. But it’s not the situation of 1965 any more, thankfully.
I will say I don’t think “earnest” really fits as a description of Canadian writing. In general it tends toward the ironic and satiric, perhaps too much so — a kind of small-minded smirk, if you know what I mean. But it is probably true that the literature’s reflecting the process of creating a national identity, an identity perhaps itself still in the process of creating and evolving its traditions, as opposed to the relatively established identities of American and English literatures. (And again, it’s very important to note that all of this, and especially the last sentence, refers to English Canada, rather than French or Native traditions.)
Well, I don’t think my prejudices are in any way justified! I also keep meaning to correct them by actually reading some Canadian literature.
I think any english-speaking, post-colonial culture goes through something of an identity crisis (Ireland being another case in point) before it finds its own feet and starts creating work that is generically its own. I think this can be even more problematic if the author/artist is trying to deploy mythological archetypes in his work and has been brought up in a culture in which they are largely absent: the classic plight of the white colonial who has no inherited mythology of his own. What to do? He can draw on the native aboriginal/indigenous culture for inspiration (leaving himself open to charges of appropriating a culture that is not his: another form of imperialism) or he can draw on the culture of his ancestral homeland, a culture which he only understands at one remove and which can seem very remote to him and which – crucially – may not even be relevant to him. Tricky.