There’s plenty to say about his new (in 1991) novel, however. And Davies “gently chides The Globe and Mail reviewer who suggested that in Murther the author ‘made up’ the references to ‘the Bardo state’ a kind of Buddhist purgatory. ‘I was astonished,’ says Davies, ‘He’d never read The Tibetan Book of the Dead.’”
Which takes us straight away to what most impressed me about Davies when I discovered him in my teens: it seemed as though he had read absolutely everything.
To the extent that he had forgotten that not everyone else spent so much time with books. So that he could be “astonished” that a Canadian reviewer would not have read The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
(Yes, this is pre-public-accessible internet, but if I’d been reviewing Robertson Davies, I would have sat myself in the Toronto Reference Library for a few days, before taking the cover off my typewriter.)
Thanks to Davies’ wealth of experience as a voracious reader and critical thinker, his stories are filled with brief excerpts from poems and narrative texts and a plethora of allusions. Even with a search engine at my side, I must be missing references, as there are echoes and homages – in names, word choice, syntax – peppering every page of his prose.
But if that’s all there was to it, his readership would be limited: he also tells a great story. In one moment, you are thinking about reaching for your dictionary — “Who are these tatterdemalions who have opened his gate and are coming toward him?” — but, in the next, you are too concerned with who they are to figure out precisely what they are (and the context is almost as good as a dictionary).
There’s plenty of evidence of Davies’ intelligence and bookish experience in Murther. Also of his ongoing interest in archetypes (I think there are entire books about the Jungian connections in his Deptford trilogy). “So tell us of this Welsh traveler, and be warned that we expect a good story.”