Book Reviews

Author: Robertson Davies
Trilogy Titles: The Deptford Trilogy, The Salterton Trilogy, and The Cornish Trilogy
Individual Titles: Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders; Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties; Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus

This Canadian writer (who died in 1995) is something else. The writing is brilliant, the plots are fantastic (if a bit convoluted at times), and just the fact that they take place mostly in Canada sets them apart. I've read tons of books set in the US or England, and a smattering from the Far East, the rest of Europe, and the occasional African (The Poisonwood Bible, anyone?), but except for the infrequent scene set in Toronto or Montreal, Canada seems to have been stinted as a literary backdrop. Too bad, because the country evoked in these trilogies is worth getting to know. Honestly, it makes you really believe that Canada is a completely separate country and not just a big northern extension of the US. Raves aside, there is a warning - these are not novels for casual consumption; in fact, if you don't already know an awful lot about music, art, architecture, history, literature, and even magic tricks, you're going to find yourself saying "Huh?" a lot. Intelligence has little or nothing to do with it, but I'd recommend these only to the highly educated - either that or folks who don't mind looking things up every few lines. References range from Shakespeare to Savonarola, and if you have to look up "chthonic", well, beware. But I love 'em. They're the perfect exercise for my junk-collecting brain. With that having been said, on to details.

The Deptford Trilogy, so called for the hometown of the main characters, focuses on Dunstan (born Dunstable) Ramsay, Boy (born Percy Boyd) Staunton, and the magician Magnus Eisengrim, born Paul Dempster, and born prematurely because a snowball aimed at Ramsay by Staunton missed and hit his mother instead. With that as a starting point, their interwoven lives (and death, in the case of Staunton) roam over most of Canada and considerable portions of Europe, where all sorts of bizarre things come to light. As an aside, the names in all of these are fantastic - witness one Liselotte Vitzliputzli. Okay, it's a stage name, but it's still great. The focus of the first of the set is on Ramsay, the second on Staunton's son David, and the third on Eisengrim. Ramsay and Staunton Jr. also show up in minor roles in the Cornish - I always love when authors work characters from one novel into another; gives it a bit of verisimilitude, plus a hint of "inside joke".

On to Salterton, where "Anglican clergymen go to die". Or perhaps not. Most of the first novel, Tempest-Tost, focuses unsurprisingly on an amateur production of Shakespeare's The Tempest and the interpersonal chaos that ensues when too many guys go after one girl. In the second, two more-or-less minor characters from the first come into relief, as a practical joke played as an act of revenge gets far crazier responses than ever imagined, while the third puts those characters in the periphery while focusing on the training of a young soprano sent to live and study in England as the benificiary of a decidedly weird trust. There's a marvelous passage in Tempest-Tost that I'm going to put in here in case my parents stumble across this when they're on my case about how many books I buy:
"Freddy recognized the truth of what he said. She herself was a victim of that lust for books which rages in the breast like a demon, and which cannot be stilled save by the frequent and plentiful acquisition of books. This passion is more common, and more powerful, than most people suppose. Book lovers are thought by unbookish people to be gentle and unworldly, and perhaps a few of them are so. But there are others who will lie and scheme and steal to get books as wildly and unconscionably as the dope-taker in pursuit of his drug. They may not want the books to read immediately, or at all; they want them to possess, to range on their shelves, to have at command." p. 168
So really, am I all that bad? Well, yeah, probably. The characteristic oddball names abound here too - the sisters Griselda and Fredegonde Webster, to name a pair. The things people put on their children, even imaginary ones.

And now, last and by far my favorite, the Cornish Trilogy. This is the longest and most complicated of the bunch, and though the Salterton is definitely the comic one, anything with an old gypsy lady and a bunch of university professors is going to have its lighter moments. I'm tempted not to describe this one at all and just let you find out for yourself - suffice to say that if you're not up on art, music, and European history you're going to be a little swamped. Other than that, go for it, because this one is an adventure - several, really - more than worth tagging along for. Oh, and as a last example of monikers from hell - how about Hulda Schnakenburg? Yikes!

I've tracked these down in Penguin 3-in-1 editions, where each Trilogy is bound in one volume - makes them a bit cumbersome to carry around, but at least you don't have to worry about not having the next one with you if you're stuck in, say, a waiting room, even longer than you thought. They run about $20 each and are a total bargain as far as I'm concerned - for the same price as a videotape that might give you a couple of hours of entertainment, you get a few days' worth of brain food and conversation fodder for ages. This marvelous author was brought to my (belated) attention by Michael - merci mille fois, mon ami.

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