“Who is Robertson Davies? It’s a fair question.”
This is how Val Ross opens her review in The Globe & Mail on September 28, 1991. “After all, she continues, “Davies begins most of his novels with a question or a mystery, including the latest, his 10th, Murther and Walking Spirits, whose narrator is murdered on page 1. Besides, Davies himself is a puzzle, a former actor who has been playing roles all his life.”
Ross’ conversation with Davies unfolds in his publisher’s offices and contains a good bit of gossip. (It’s also referred to in the oral history she edited, published posthumously in 2008, Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic.)
It seems such a chatty session, intended to be primarily about his latest novel, but also veering into the author’s plans for his own funeral, 19th-century theologians, romanticism, talk of his “bad eye”, his view of himself as an ugly duckling, and national politics.
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.”
In Murther, while Gil inhabits the Bardo, he has the opportunity to observe some of his ancestors. Here, too, there are universal themes: “He is trapped in his modernity; she in a feudal world. She strove to speak English, but it was not the comfortable clothing of her mind, or her link with her God. So he rushed into the future and she remained in the past.”
(In Ross’ article, Davies observes that this is “the book I feel most concerned about in writing” because a “great deal of it is drawn from family recollections on both sides”.)
Which is not to say that the characters’ experiences are elevated or symbolic: these are flawed and credible characters. For instance: “Truly, David is a great disappointment. He has learned the fine points of the tailoring in London, and he is a good cutter, but he spoils a lot of fine cloth because he is never entirely sober.”
Some of the scenes depict clever conversations playing out in newspaper offices and private gatherings. But there’s room, too, for the murk of everyday life: “Outside Trinity Church on a Sunday morning the pavement was filthy with quids the worshippers had spat out before going in to service. It was through this filth that many of the ladies trailed their long skirts.”
Of course it is a book about death. “Is this what happens to people when they are dead? I cannot tell. I only know that it is happening to me, and the Gages and the red-haired Gilmartins, whom I had known only as names and whom I had dismissed as long dead, seem to have life; and indeed seem to have done much that I may be proud of – I, who had never thought about ancestors, or expected to be proud of ancestors, while I was living.”
But Davies’ astute observations of manners and human nature add a layer of light beneath the darker material. Like this: “Bankers never talk. Of course, being human, they may murmur something to their wives, who may say something under the seal of strict confidence to a friend.”
Even his way of addressing the fact that this is the first of his books to carry a dedication has a note of wit to it. Telling Val Ross about this decision, he notes: “I don’t throw these things around wildly, but I wanted to recognize my wife [of 51 years, at the time of writing], the most sustaining influence in my life.”
Finally, as you might have guessed, there are always some bookish bits. Like this:
“Bed, to the innkeeping trade, is a place for fortification or for sleep. This is why people like Brochwel develop a contortionist’s talent that enables them to read in extraordinary positions, in light which, by the time it reaches the page, is not more than twenty-five watts in strength. With his head where his feet should be, with his book held high and askew, Brochwel settles himself to read.”
This is a short scene, inconsequential against the backdrop of many, so I hope you will agree that it’s more a nod of recognition than a spoiler for me to confide that Brochwel falls asleep with his book, which tumbles onto his face. Yes, we can find ourselves in these stories: yes, indeed.
So, if you ever are looking for a dark-but-not-spooky story to curl up with on dark autumn evenings, Murther & Walking Spirits would be a fine choice.