Fifth Business book review
Why is it so difficult to like Robertson Davies?
I mean like him, as opposed to appreciating his writing, which is exceptional, his insights, which are often brilliant, and his ability to sum up a situation or individual in a few well-chosen words. When it comes to original, memorable epigrams, Davies is right up there with Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker. At a dinner party, I imagine he would be witty, even entertaining – unless you got stuck sitting next to him.
All writers are monsters. Somebody said that, I can’t remember who, but it’s true. Writers are often not lovely people. Readers would do well to remember that writers feed on other people’s misfortunes, tragedies, character flaws. I have a plaque on my wall: “Careful,” it says, “or you’ll end up in my novel.” And it’s true. There are a handful of career choices where “nice” doesn’t come into it: firefighting would be one, plumbing is another. And writing. Nice writers don’t usually write great books.
So it’s not that I want Davies to be nice, or even particularly kind. I just want to not find him so insufferably smug. It may be unfair to say it but you generally can’t read more than a page or two without being reminded that this is a writer who was, as his publisher Douglas Gibson has said, aiming at the role of oracle. He doesn’t just want to tell a good story – although he does, in fact, achieve that; he wants you to sit up and say to your partner, “Jeez, Sheila, this guy is really smart!”
Fifth Business was Davies’ fourth novel and the first in his Deptford trilogy, to be followed by The Manticore and World of Wonders. Its hero, Dunstan Ramsay, is troubled by a childhood quarrel with his best friend and life-long nemesis, Percy Boyd Staunton. His friend threw a snowball at him, containing a stone; Ramsay ducked and the snowball hit Mary Dempster, who was pregnant at the time. Mrs. Dempster immediately went into labour, giving birth to her son, Paul, nine weeks early.
The incident is central to the development of the plot. Mrs. Dempster, already considered a little “simple” by her neighbours, becomes more so, ending up tied to a rope by her husband so she doesn’t go wandering when he’s away. Giving us a very visual image of one who is “at the end of her rope”. Ramsay is consumed by guilt, knowing that had he not ducked it would have been he and not the pregnant woman who would have been hit by the snowball. As for Staunton, who shortens his name to Boy, he takes Ramsay under his wing, not so much to assuage his own guilt but to ensure that his friend keeps mum about the circumstances surrounding the event.
The novel is full of interesting characters; Dunstan Ramsay, however, is not one of them. Dunstan, as Davies explains, is Fifth Business. In opera, he says, there’s always a character who’s the odd man out. He has no opposite of the other sex, and appears to play no essential role. But he – or she – is the keeper of the secrets, or the one who comes to the aid of the heroine, or who does something absolutely essential to the denouement of the story. Dunstan Ramsay, professor, hagiographer, hero of the First World War who lost a leg to the cause – he is this story’s Fifth Business.
This may be the place to point out that, as erudite as the definition of Fifth Business sounds, it may be a load of codswallop. According Gibson, Davies “was not above inventing scholarly origins for his titles, such as Fifth Business, for the pleasure of misdirecting academic researchers”. And that’s part of the problem with Davies, for me, anyway – he was a writer who enjoyed playing cute academic games in a realm too darn arcane for the average reader.
I’m coming across like a Luddite, I know, but Davies brings it out of me. He typifies what used to be called a “man of letters”, a term we abandoned when we began to acknowledge that there were, actually, women who wrote. Davies always claimed to detest the designation but he did everything possible to reinforce it, including adopting a pseudo-English accent and striding the streets of Toronto in an old-fashioned tweed coat, brandishing a cane.
Early on, Dunstan Ramsay decides that Mary Dempster is a saint. She has, in his mind, performed several miracles, although the local Catholic priest suggests she may be a “fool-saint” – someone who is full of holiness and good will but whose virtue is tainted with madness. And poor Mrs. Dempster does spend her final years in a madhouse, supported by Ramsay and, indirectly, Boy Staunton. While Staunton bounces from strength to strength, becoming richer and more successful every year, Ramsay remains an academic, living a quiet, comfortable life with annual forays to Europe in order to further his research. Eventually he becomes an expert in the field of hagiography, writing several books on the history of the lives of Catholic saints.
Davies has deliberately created a protagonist who is pretty unlikeable, when it comes down to it. He teaches history to boys he appears not to care for; he falls in love once but conveniently falls out of it when he needs to; falls in love a second time in late middle age and again gets over it fairly quickly. He admits to not liking most people, preferring his own company and that of the saints he’s researching. As one character describes him, Ramsay is “a man full of secrets – grim-mouthed and buttoned-up and hard-eyed and cruel”. The same character accuses him of watching life from the sidelines. “Life is a spectator sport to you,” she says, hitting the nail on the head. And later: “This is the revenge of the unlived life, Ramsay. Suddenly it makes a fool of you.”
It’s a little facile to observe (but I’ll do it anyway) that Fifth Business is all about saints and sinners. The sinners, like Boy Staunton, may eventually come to a bad end, but at least they live while they’re alive – they have a life. Dunstan Ramsay, preoccupied with saints and enjoying as chaste and cloistered an existence as your average monk, does not.
In the end I’m with Billy Joel on this one: “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints” – the sinners are, quite simply, much more fun.