Robertson Davies: A Farewell

All mortals are replaceable, runs the modern mantra, betraying the ethic of programmed obsolescence that has come to dominate our culture. But there are exceptions, and one of them - Robertson Davies - died last week, leaving a gap in the Canadian conscience that can never be filled.

All mortals are replaceable, runs the modern mantra, betraying the ethic of programmed obsolescence that has come to dominate our culture. But there are exceptions, and one of them - Robertson Davies - died last week, leaving a gap in the Canadian conscience that can never be filled.

A society can afford to lose only so many voices of civility before it feels cut loose from its spiritual moorings. In the past decade, that list of departed Canadian beacons of enlightenment has included Morley Callaghan, Marian Engel, Barbara Frum, Northrop Frye, Margaret Laurence, Roger Lemelin, Arthur Lower, Hugh MacLennan and Sandy Ross. Perhaps the greatest of them was Davies, and it seems entirely appropriate to pay tribute to the man and his work in this Maclean's Honor Roll issue, which salutes Canadians who have contributed most actively to their home country. (Davies was a member of the 1988 honor roll.)

"Rob," as he was known to his friends, cast himself as a relic of 19th-century thought and sentiment, the champion of civilized eccentricity and the most reluctant of patriots, finding Canada hard to endure, yet impossible to flee. "God, how I have tried to love this country," one of the characters in his play, Fortune My Foe, exclaims. "I have given all I have to Canada - my love, my hate, and now my bitter indifference. But this raw, frostbitten place has worn me out and its raw, frostbitten people have numbed my heart."

In less lofty language, he once explained to me that while he had many chances to live elsewhere, he just couldn't bring himself to leave. "I belong here," he told me. "To divorce yourself from your roots is spiritual suicide. I just am a Canadian. It's not a thing you can escape from. It's like having blue eyes."

Well, not quite. The life Davies chose for himself hardly qualified him as one of your McKenzie Brothers, run-of-the-brew Canadians. After graduating from Upper Canada College and Oxford's Balliol College, he eventually created an intellectual haven for himself, as founding master of the University of Toronto's Massey College. Inside its elegant, very un-Canadian walls, he moved among his Fellows in their gowned splendor, looking quite magnificent in his necromancer's beard, living in the Master's Lodge, presiding at High Table, sniffing snuff out of Aram's horn, sipping claret, and responding with supreme indifference to charges that the institution he headed was snobbish, sexist, anachronistic, and maybe even a little absurd. The place reflected perfectly his view of life and his genius for civilized eccentricity that was captured so brilliantly in his novels.

All the while he presided over Massey College, stressing tradition over practicality, the master was playing a splendid joke on his detractors. In 1970, after writing 21 novels, plays and works of theatrical criticism that brought him mild approval at home and virtually no notice abroad, Davies published Fifth Business to universal international acclaim. Saul Bellow and John Fowles, then the English-speaking world's best fiction writers, were loud in their praises, as was The New York Times, and just about every other review. Davies had finally found his place at the pinnacle of literary acclaim, where he'd always dwelt in spirit. That success was repeated with The Manticore and his 10 subsequent novels.

I spent much of an afternoon chatting with Davies in 1973 while he presided over Massey College, later attending one of his High Table dinners, and it is from those occasions that the quotes in this column are taken. Despite his theatrical appearance and deliberate, dated manner, Davies hated nothing worse than what he called "young fogies" - those pretenders who look young and everlastingly harp on the fact that they are young, but think and act with a degree of caution that would be excessive in their grandfathers. "They are the curse of the world," he thundered, "their very conservatism is secondhand, and they don't know what they are conserving."

While he had great respect for his craft, Davies categorized himself as a storyteller. "I think of an author as somebody who goes into the marketplace and puts down his rug and says, 'I will tell you a story,' and then passes the hat. And when he's taken up his collection, he tells his story, and just before the denouement he passes the hat again. If it's worth anything, fine. If not, he ceases to be an author."

In our conversation, he kept coming back to why he felt so alienated yet obsessed with being Canadian. "Canada demands a great deal from people," he pronounced, each syllable emphasized, like a preacher mouthing a benediction, "and is not, as some countries are, quick to offer in return a pleasant atmosphere or easy kind of life. I mean, France demands an awful lot from her people too, but France also offers gifts in the way of a genial, pleasant sort of life and many amenities. Canada is not really a place where you are encouraged to have large spiritual adventures."

And he lamented: "A lot of people complain that my novels aren't about Canada. I think they are, because I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker. This makes for tension, and tension is the very stuff of art, plays, novels, the whole lot."

Like his novels, Davies's conversation was peppered with the supernatural. "I am very interested in the condition of sainthood," he told me. "It is just as interesting as evil. Most saints have been unbearable nuisances in life. Some were reformers, some were sages, some were visionaries, but all were intensely alive, and thus a rebuke to people who were not. So many got martyred because nobody could stand them. Society hates exceptional people because such people make them feel inferior."

Robertson Davies was, if not a saint, certainly a genius, and most assuredly a sage and a visionary. It was to his credit and to our gain that he was also such a magnificent storyteller.

Maclean's December 18, 1995


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