This week's Friday book is...actually I can't believe it's Friday already. It feels as if I have just stopped writing the post from Monday...and people keep reminding me that in two weeks it will be Xmas...HELP!!
Anyway, the Friday book, yes...this week it is by an author who I think is not at all as well known as he should be. Which of you has heard of Robertson Davies??
Well, you should all just run straight out to yout local bookstore and order something by him because he is brilliant!!
The book which jumped down from the shelf is "Fifth Business". It is ostensibly the life story of Dunstan Ramsey and the characters with whom his life is intertwined but it ranges all over the place from Canada where Ramsey grows up in the dour village of Deptford to the France of the First World War and other parts of Europe; it unites myth and hagiography, magic and psychoanalysis and is just indescribably good.
Here is Dunstan being caught out by his mother for stealing an egg. He has been inspired by a book on magic he finds in the library and now has the perhaps somewhat over-ambitious aim to become a prestidigateur. He takes an egg from the kitchen at home to practise a particularly deft bit of manipulation which ends in him putting his thumb through it in his back pocket:
Ha ha. Every boy has experiences of this kind, and they are usually thought to be funny and childlike. But that egg led to a dreadful row with my mother. She had missed the egg - it never occurred to me that anybody counted eggs - and accused me of taking it. I lied. Then she caught me trying to wash out my pocket... She exposed my lie and demanded to know what I wanted with an egg. Now, how can a boy of thirteen tell a Scotswoman widely admired for her practicality that he intends to become the world's foremost prestidigateur? I took refuge in mute insolence. She stormed. She demanded to know if I thought she was made of eggs.
(Dunstan gives a cheeky reply)
My mother had little sense of humour...and from the kitchen cupboard produced the pony whip.
"Don't you dare touch me," I shouted , and that put her into such a fury as I had never known - she pursued me round the kitchen, slashing me with the whip until she broke me down and I cried. She cried too, hysterically, and beat me harder, storming about my inpudnce, my want of respect for her - until at last her fury was spent, and she ran upstairs in tears and banged the door of her bedroom. I crept off to the woodshed, a criminal and wondered what I should do. Become a tramp perhaps? Hang myself?
(Later Dunstan has to apologise on his knees)
When it came time for me to go to bed my mother beckoned me to her, and kissed me, and whispered, "I know I'll never have another anxious moment with my own dear laddy."
I pondered these words before I went to sleep. How could I reconcile this motherliness with the screeching fury who had pursued me around the kitchen with a whip, flogging me until she was gorged with - what? Vengeance? What was it? Once when I was reading Freud for the first time, I thought I knew. I am not so sure I know now. But what I knew then was that nobody - not even my mother - was to be trusted in a strange world that showed very little of itself on the surface.
The characterisations are stunning, the plot gripping and the background information fascinating. This was the first of his books which I had read and as the end approached I found myself feeling wearily sad because I could not believe that the author would be able to do this again in another book...I feared it would be a one off into which Davies had put his all and which as a result would mean his other works would be thin and disappointing. Well, he had indeed put his all into this book but he did manage it again in the next book I read...and in all the other books I have read of his - each one was quite unique and exasperatingly good but totally different from the others. The only other author I have ever known who kept coming up with top quality was Thomas Hardy and the only writer with such a range of understanding of the human condition was Shakespeare.
After you have read this book you will want to nag your friends until they read it too!
Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. Published in Penguin Books 1977