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Mythological Realism in Fifth Business
Spellbinding like his creation Magnus Eisengrim, Robertson Davies is a wizard of the English language. Who says that Canadian literature is bland and unappealing? New York Times applauded Fifth Business – the first of the Deptford triptych – as “a marvelously enigmatic novel, elegantly written and driven by irresistible narrative force.” How true this is. Dunstable Ramsay – later renamed Dunstan after St. Dunstan – may be a retired schoolteacher, but what an engaging narrator he is! Shaped by Davies’s colourful writing, Ramsay masterfully relays the story of his role as “fifth business,” the unobtrusive yet vital character in life’s drama.
Fifth Business, told in the form of a letter to the schoolmaster, begins with a snowball that young Percy Boyd Staunton throws at Ramsay. The stone-in-a-snowball misses Ramsay but hits Mary Dempster, causing the premature birth of Paul Dempster. Paul grows up to be Magnus Eisengrim, a mysterious and graceful magician. Tormented by his guilt of avoiding the snowball, Ramsay makes Mary his personal saint and is weighed down by his conscience until Mary’s eventual death in an asylum. On the eve of becoming the lieutenant governor of Ontario, “Boy” Staunton is found dead in the Toronto harbour with the fateful stone in his mouth.
Though the adventures that Dunstan embarks on in Fifth Business are that of the spiritual nature, make no mistake: this is not a occult novel that attempts to lure one into a religion, but a magnificently told tale of maturation. It is a story of revenge, of redemption, of becoming. Told from the perspective of being nearly completed, the novel follows Ramsay in his search for balance in his life – and balance he does find when the grotesque yet intelligent Liesl seduces him.
With depth and breadth of knowledge in Jungian concepts, Robertson Davies draws us fathoms beneath the surface of thehuman personality. The audience is not left grasping for breath, but is enraptured by the rich dualism in this fantastical world of Dunstan Ramsay. Good and evil; illusion and reality; history and myth – the shadows and lights of the world are exposed and explored.
These juxtaposing elements are never revealed under a glaring light, however. Davies uses prose that is nothing short of elegant, and weaves a mythical tale that is imbued with much realism. Real-life incidents are transfused with many amazing “coincidences,” paving the path to surrealism. How can Ramsay run into Paul in Europe and Central America within the short timeframes of his stays on the two continents? Does Mary Dempster truly bring Dunstan’s brother back to life? Perhaps it is the vivid details and unforgettably real characters that make this implausible, semi-magical world seem real. Or is it perhaps the logic of symbolism and synchronicity that make this story probable?
Surprisingly, although it is interspersed with devils and saints, there is little theology in Fifth Business. Ramsay’s fascination for myth and for magic does not make the story dull, but enlivens it. With its strong psychological framework, this novel is reminiscent of Jostein Gaardner’s Sophie’s World, in which one can’t help but love what the main character loves – no matter how shallow our knowledge of the character’s hobby may be!
Robertson Davies has made Ramsay memorable, not only as fifth business in the life-dramas of others, but also as a principal actor in his own. His journey into the state of wholeness fascinates and entertains. Yes, it definitely entertains.
Loaded with humour and witticism, Fifth Business is a relentless drama of fast-paced action. It is a Canadian novel, but Ramsay’s “big spiritual adventures” also take us to Europe and Central America. The colourful characters whose lives intermingle with Ramsay’s are endearing and they can be quite exotic. One cannot but take Padre Blazon into our hearts and be amused at what he has to say. Le Solitaire des forêts and the beautiful Faustina, though they both play somewhat minor roles, are crucial to the tone and the plot of the story. Davies’s work is well polished, for there is not a single unneeded character or description to be found!
Davies’s descriptions of the war from the front lines are especially vivid. Sticking to the Bollandist tradition of seeing the light as well as the shadows, Davies does not mince the horrific details of trench warfare. The pain and confusion that Ramsay feels are real, and so are the shocked reactions of the soldiers when they discover that the Bible-reading Ramsay can tell dirty jokes as well! Interestingly, Davies was confident in weaving the crucial plot of the Bollandists into the story, even though he had never before come into formal contact with Bollandists. On the other hand, Davies had spent much of his life understanding the works of Freud and C. G. Jung, but he makes this formidable knowledge accessible to people with little background on psychology.
Davies has much to tell us about life and about how we view people, yet Fifth Business never takes on a lecturing undertone. Like the theme of the story, the novel is a refined work of dualism: it teaches, yet it does not sound like an overbearing schoolmaster. It is about myths and saints, yet there is little theology to be found. It wholly shatters the myth of the dryness of Canadian literature, for Fifth Business is about Canadians, yet it is not dull.
Fifth Business stands above many works of mythological realism, for it is filled with substantial themes, authentic characters, and original storylines. As John Moss commented in A Reader’s Guide to the Canadian Novel: “Davies’s theatricality, harnessed to a vision deep into the heart and source of things where magic and mystery hold sway, becomes profound drama, moving us towards wonder rather than enlightenment, towards passion, enthusiasm, eccentricity, and away from ordinary conceptions of reality.” For readers like me who do not want to put down the novel – and there will be many who will not – the good news is that Fifth Business is only the first book in the Deptford trilogy. The fantastical realms of The Manticore and The World of Wonders await.