Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Back in the day when I was shelving Literature for Borders I used to look at Robertson Davies books all the time and consider buying them. Here I am 16 years later finishing my first Davies novel, and preparing to enthuse about it.

Fifth Business
refers to characters in operas or dramas who have no counterpart of the opposite sex, but who somehow hold the outcome of the plot in hand. Typically there's a hero and a heroine and a foil or temptation for each, and then the other dude in a largely background role who perhaps kidnaps or holds hostage or snitches or otherwise interferes in the plot to significant effect. That character is called fifth business, and the term fits Dunstan Ramsey, this novel's central consciousness, to a T.

Dunstan is a Jamesian sort of lead: he's leading a rich life in some respects but in many ways he's observed life rather than participated in it. That's not to say he's done nothing: he's a war hero, an educator and author of note, and he's met and interacted with some rich and famous folks. He's largely self-made, but seems to have drifted through life rather than having forged his own glorious destiny. But unlike a similar Jamesian hero, he's not regretful about it. He's content to have fumbled his way. He may be unmarried and lonely, but he's got his curious passions for saints and illusions and his work and he doesn't have any particular damning revelation that life has passed him by without being lived fully.

I'm going to avoid saying anything concrete about the plot because it's hard to manage without spoilers, and you may indeed want to read this. Let's just say that Dunstan witnesses an appalling deed when he's a child and that far in the future that appalling deed still weighs on his conscience. He never imagines, however, that this knowledge will dramatically influence others late in his life.

Dunstan's fascination with saints and guilt and abstention and medieval churches has a lot to say about his inner turmoil. I'll leave it to you to put the pieces together. I'd rate Davies' book with other clever and dense metaphysical mysteries that read breezily--say, those by Iris Murdoch.


Steven Hart said...

Loved "Fifth Business" -- it set me off tracking down every scrap of Robertson Davies writing I could find. His fiction was usually grouped into trilogies, and usually two of the books would be captivating while the third would be an ungodly bore. I'll be curious to hear which of the Deptford books you consider a bore, though given your interest in things Jungian you may disagree with me on which one it is.

Nyarlathotep said...

Funny--I'm digging the second volume quite a bit (though I'm barely a fourth of the way in). I'll have to assume that's your low point of the trilogy!