Robertson Davies is the witty, occasionally terrifying, stunningly erudite uncle you wish you had. (Or maybe you had one; I had Uncle Archie, the lady's man, whom we all knew to stay away from, and Uncle Jack, a crook with brilliantined hair and hard eyes).
I have read all of the Davies' trilogies (The Deptford, The Cornish and The Salterton) and I can recommend two — The Cornish and the Salterton — to David Lodge and even P.G. Wodehouse fans. But I recommend The Deptford Trilogy — composed of Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders — to everyone who can read English.
The first novel opens with two little boys: Dunstable "Dunny" Ramsay (the smart, scrawny one) and Boy Staunton (the clever, brutish one). They are friends of a kind, and rivals, in a small town in Ontario, Canada in the early 20th century. There is a sad, distressing couple in this town, the Dempsters. He a Christian minister, she his downtrodden, pregnant wife. Boy, annoyed that Dunny has beaten him in a sled race, throws a snowball — with a rock concealed within it — at Dunny.
It misses him. It hits poor Mary Dempster. She goes into early labor, delivers baby Paul and goes mad (or becomes a saint, or both, in the course of a long, mystical and mystifying life).
At nearly 10, after a life of misery and neglect, little Paul runs off and joins the circus, where far worse things happen to him. Dunny fights in World War I, loses a limb and a girlfriend and becomes a schoolteacher. Boy becomes a successful philanthropist and marries the girl who dumped Dunny.
These three men are locked together, often kicking and biting, for three rambunctiously plotted, elegantly written and funny novels, in which the terrible rock-within-a-snowball and the inevitable lie-revealed-within-a-truth occur with just often enough. Fifth Business is not only the title of the first book in the trilogy, it is the theme of Dunny's life. It is the theme of every life.
In opera, fifth business is the character who is not the prima donna, not the tenor, her lover, not the contralto, her rival. He is the odd man out, the player who is necessary but rarely the star. Dunny's close friend, an impresario, tells Dunny that, like the rest of us, he must understand his life, in order to live it; that he must face up to being fifth business. In the last book, Dunny's life comes into focus for him and he becomes the storyteller and the fulcrum for the lives of the other two.
Robertson Davies did not skimp on plot, on character, on big ideas and straightforward language, on general wackiness, on everyday saints or on a deep, rueful compassion for his characters. He was a joyful, erudite, passionate storyteller who knew how to let the sails in and out. A favorite line of mine, in which Davies summarizes a man's life — with wit and unexpected sincerity:
"He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, first of all; by the woman he knew; by the woman he did not know; by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was the keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone."
It's all in the telling, folks.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.