Written May 19th, 2020
Having been in Canada for almost eighteen months now, I’ve read quite a few Canadian books, however – I realised a few pages into Robertson Davies’ 1970 novel Fifth Business – none of them have been by middle class white men. Finally, with this – the first part of a trilogy – I have dropped myself into the comforting squall of a middlebrow middle class white male novel, a novel all about white men with [varying amounts of] lots of money doing international travel, cheating on their wives, keeping secrets, writing books, making connections in high places and worrying about trite, meaningless, things.
Though, yes, this is a style of book (acclaimed novel by someone from my own [over-represented] demographic) that I tend to eschew these days, I thoroughly enjoyed Fifth Business and am semi-secretly looking forward to ploughing through the rest of this trilogy over the Summer as there is something far more comforting (to me) in an escapist text like this, rather than an escapist text like Tehanu, in this time of mass global pandemic.
The title of Fifth Business is explained twice in the book – once in an epigraph and, again, in a conversation towards the end of the novel.
Dunstan Ramsey, the narrator and protagonist, is “fifth business”, a character trope associated (apparently) with opera: not the hero, not the heroine, not the confidante, not the villain, but the other person – any other person – needed to make the world around these four important figures function.
Ramsey grows up in a small, southwestern Ontario town called Deptford (a fictionalisation of the worse-named Thamesville) at the start of the 20th century, where aged about 10 he and his friend/rival “Boy Staunton” accidentally hit a pregnant woman (Mrs Dempster) with a snowball which causes her to fall, give birth prematurely and then, forever, be insane. Ramsey from that point onwards feels that this woman is his responsibility (even though it was “Boy Staunton” who threw the stone-packed snowball), and when her “insanity” causes reputational destruction and the end of her marriage, it is Ramsey who helps Mrs Dempster’s maiden aunt keep the “insane” woman safe outside of – and then safely inside of – psychiatric institutions.
Mrs Dempster’s prematurely born son, Paul, runs off with the circus aged ten, where (in exchange for very-casually discussed sexual favours) he learns how to become a master magician/illusionist. He reappears in the narrative of Ramsey’s life many decades later.
Ramsey becomes convinced that Mrs Dempster is some kind of secular saint, ascribing to her three miracles. The first is when she has sex with a homeless man who then becomes the manager of a successful homeless charity, the second is when she holds a hand and “causes” the recovery from pneumonia of Ramsey’s elder brother (who then dies almost immediately afterwards in the trenches of World War One), and the third is when – after being shot during his own time at war – he sees a vision of her face just before passing out from bloodloss then regaining consciousness months later in a hospital being looked after by a sexy nurse (who obviously he shags – it’s that kinda novel).
Boy Staunton becomes a sugar magnate with political aspirations, Ramsey becomes an expert on saints with numerous bestsellers to his name, while also remaining a teacher at a prestigious private school, while Paul Dempster becomes the greatest magician/showman in the world.
The stakes are – because everyone is successful and comfortable and seems to be adequately sexed – very low, which I suppose is what makes this comforting. The Wall Street Crash is weathered by Ramsey due to key advice from Boy Staunton, and his sideline writing career means he is a very affluent man by the novel (and his career’s) end.
Strangely, the premise of the entire text is that Ramsey is writing a book-length rebuttal to the headteacher of the school he taught at in response to a brief, unflattering, bio of him that appeared in the recent school newsletter on the occasion of his retirement. There is lots of casual sexism which is hard to know (it’s 1970!) if this is meant to be read as a damning character flaw in the protagonist/narrator, or if instead it’s just Robertson Davies being himself.
Nothing matters, really: no one is hungry, no one is too horny, and the only people who appear as unhappy are the peripheral female characters who aren’t really given particularly rounded personalities.
Because it was fun and easy and bounced along well, I’ll read the other two books in the trilogy, but if Davies fails to create a more grounded female character when he no longer has the distancing excuse of Dunstan Ramsey’s narration, then I’ll maybe be a bit meaner in my comments about the next volume.
Enjoyable, middle of the road, 20th century male fiction. Only it’s Canadian, not British, so I have an excuse to read it.