Book Review

The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies

groovy 1970s fiction

Last Summer, I had my first experience of reading a Canadian novel by a middle class white man, and – reluctantly, shamefully, redflaggedly – I enjoyed it a lot.

As I wrote in an uncharacteristically focused blog about that novel – Fifth Business, the first part of Robertson DaviesThe Deptford Trilogy – it has all those hallmarks of the classic dead white male novelist: the stakes are low, the sexism is rampant, everyone is rich, most characters beyond the central men are sketches at best and scrawls as standard. All in, a typically middlebrow and relaxingly escapist read, far from the contemporary horrors of COVID-19 and the continuing global rise of the far right (which, let’s be honest, has in no circumstances changed because Joe Biden scraped an election victory in the USA: the curve is a little shallower, rather than reversed).

For the continued need of escape from the Now, I decided to see out freezing January 2021 with the rest of this trilogy. Something fast, something frothy, something I won’t be comparing subconsciously with James Baldwin, something with no pretensions to greatness because its content implies that by discussing “great men” it is inherently “great literature”.

This means, alas, that The Deptford Trilogy is doomed to a peripheral position in the world of letters: it is of a time now gone, and a contemporary reader (at least one with similar politics to me) is unlikely to find much here to laud.

It’s a lot of fun, but it’s of a novelistic type of which there are tens of thousands of solid examples.

If I was a braver progressive reader or willing to reduce my book collection sizeably again (a more painful loss from my annus horribilis (2017) than both the cat (sweet, shy, Diana) and the five figure sum I sunk (pun intended) on a structurally unsound boat), then I’d never read a book like this again.

But I keep coming back to them, from time to time, because they’re reassuring, they’re easy, they’re HOME.

The Manticore

Published in 1972, The Manticore – like Fifth Business – takes a metatextual justification for its structure and, again, allows a privileged, chauvinist man to narrate.

This time, David “Davey” Staunton is the narrator and protagonist, the former pupil of Dunstan Ramsey and the child of sugar magnate Boy Staunton. Following his father’s death and a methodical bit of rapid soul-searching, David has himself flown to Zurich and signs up for analysis and treatment at the Jung Institute, believing that he is likely to be on the cusp of madness. Although, as a respected barrister and famous rich boy and alcoholic (tho very very chaste), he holds psychiatry in contempt, he feels that because he lacks confidence in his ability to maintain his life without some kind of shameful collapse that would necessitate future psychiatric intervention, he may as well take the inevitable shame of psychiatry without the potential shame of crying in court or whatever. 

The structure, then, of this book is David’s notes made following his discussions with his psychiatrist, Dr Johanna von Haller. Yes, a woman, though one who remains distant and underdeveloped due to her relationship to the narrator, tho that is of course a bit of a cop-out.

We revisit events from Fifth Business from an alternate perspective and we also swim through different adventures among the elite of mid-century Toronto.

David’s one experience of sex was when he was a teenager and his shagger father set him up with a glamorous, horny, older woman for a marathon night of Fuck, which was enough to put the younger Staunton off for life. When he sits down to therapy, he is in his early forties, and has remained virginal since.

What this means, tho, is that Davies bars the reader from one of the great pleasures of old male novels: omnipresent, appallingly written, sex scenes.

I’m joking, kinda, but there’s structural playfulness, a sense that the reader and writer are presumed to be cleverer and more worldly (tho also much much poorer, hello!) than the narrator, so perhaps this does evidence some kind of judgement of the textual chauvinism, as Dr von Haller is the reader-foil in the text.

But, still, an absence of sexism in The Manticore is something one must intentionally interpret, rather than read clear. Basically, I’m just trying to convince myself that Davies is stomach-able as I prepare to pick up World of Wonders and continue straight on into another frothy 300 pages of this. 

World of Wonders

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and as I managed to deal with the inevitable weekend existential crisis before 2pm (“what, again, am I doing with my life? Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing lol lmao maybe 2022 will be fun again”), I had plenty of time to lie down, depressed, on the secondhand sofa and read the rest of The Deptford Trilogy while my dog lies, less depressed, on the floor beside me.

To clarify: he chooses the floor, I’m not one of those creepy, creepy scumbags who deny a dog equal furniture rights to a human. His life is of no more value than mine: he’s gaming the system, he never has to work, but that’s just the person that he is. #lovemydog

World of Wonders returns us to the narratorship of Dunstan Ramsey, and in fact Davey Staunton doesn’t appear at all. Whether he returned to his boozy lawyering life, or abandoned that to do the boardroom manoeuvres necessary to gain control of his dead father’s business empire or left his personal and familial legacy behind, we don’t know.

Davies left Davey on a precipice of choice at the end of The Manticore and that is where Davies left him forever. There’s something pleasing about that.

In World of Wonders, we catch up with Ramsey exactly where he ended Fifth Business: the long-term houseguest of Liesl and Magnus Eisengrim/Paul Dempster/Mungo Fetch/Cass Fletcher/Jules LeGrand: the poor boy from Deptford turned celebrity magician.

This book is about him, the magician, and takes the form of Ramsey recounting a serious of “confessional” conversations that occur before, during and after several dinners attended by these three characters as well as the senior production crew of a biopic of Robert-Houdin, a 19th century magician and not – as I just found out – the same person as Houdini.

The celebrity magician is playing the historical magician, and he and his friends and his colleagues discuss his own biography to while away the evenings, as fuel for the hidden subtext of his performance as Robert-Houdin. We relive some of the scenes from Fifth Business, accompanied by lots of additional physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as the child Paul was kidnapped by a circus and trained up as a magician.

The narrative is filtered through many layers – fictional Ramsey is retelling his memories of Paul retelling his memories, which are sometimes augmented by comments from Liesl (his business partner), and Roly, a producer on the film who knew Paul forty years earlier when they were both lowly, junior, members of a famed London theatre troupe that did a long long tour of Canada.

The events here are significantly less naturalistic/realistic than in the first two volumes of this trilogy, but they are much further from being presented as a narrative truth.

There is dispersal and disagreement, there is interpretation and agenda in what is told and what is retold: Robertson Davies creates an impressively metatextual fictional text, here, building on what had come before and emphasising its playfulness thru a lot of expansive, knowing, comments on the structure and construction of literature and biography, eg:

“So few autobiographers have any feeling except a resolute self-protectiveness.”

“It’s the classic problem of autobiography; it’s inevitably life seen and understood backwards. However honest we try to be in our recollections we cannot help falsifying them in terms of later knowledge, and especially in terms of what we have become.”

Though Davies is more articulate and more intelligent in this text, the 1970s-style sexism remains, which is disappointing, though there is some pleasure to be taken from the fact that it doesn’t become any crueller than before.

The Deptford Trilogy remains, then, as it was when I began to think about its value: a text from another age, a traditional middle brow literary novel.

It doesn’t have much to say about real life (or at least the quotidian experience of such), but it is fun, it is playful and tho very much a book of its type, it’s a great example of that type and certainly has far more to redeem than many other novels of that ever-present – tho snobbish, sexist, smug – genre.

Ok, that’s done. It’s wine time.

Written at the end of January 2021

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