Thursday, June 21, 2007

i love robertson davies again!

I spent most of this year hating the sight of Bob Davies and wishing I could go back in time and put a giant axe in the back of his skull. The Rebel Angels made me extremely angry because Davies' view of women was so archaic and, frankly, dangerous. Furthermore, his elitism about the academy was maddening and his smug attitude of anti-postmodernity. His disgust with visible minorities, homosexuals, and so on... It was all so sickening and I really thought I would never be able to go back to the time when I loved Davies. Such a time wasn't really so long ago. I remember reading Fifth Business in high school and being mesmerized by his power, and needing to immediately read the rest of the Deptford Trilogy. But Tempest-Tost really rekindled that early love for his work. I still have problems with a lot of what Davies did in The Rebel Angels, but I was pleasantly surprised to find, in this novel, a much more equitable and realistic depiction of women; furthermore, Tempest-Tost is just a fantastically told story, and it's outside of the academy (which Davies is frankly way too close to to be able to write about it effectively). But on with the show!

by Robertson Davies

"They are sacrificing to our Canadian God," said Solly. "We all believe that if we fret and abuse ourselves sufficiently, Providence will take pity and smile upon anything we attempt. A light heart, or a consciousness of desert, attracts ill luck. You have been away from your native land too long. You have forgotten our folkways. Listen to that gang over there; they are scanning the heavens and hoping aloud that it won't rain tomorrow. That is to placate the Mean Old Man in the Sky, and persuade him to be kind to us. We are devil-worshippers, we Canadians, half in love with easeful Death. We flog ourselves endlessly, as a kind of spiritual purification. Now, what about some chow mein?"


"Still, I don't suppose a preacher would know a really valuable book if he saw one. They'll go for the concordances and commentaries of the Gospels. Do you suppose Val would let us look through what's left?"

"Freddy, my innocent poppet, there won't be anything left. They'll strip the shelves. Anything free has an irresistible fascination. Free books to preachers will be like free booze to politicians; they'll scoop the lot, without regard for quality. You mark my words."

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. They want books as it was once thought the Turk wanted concubines -- not to be hastily deflowered, but to be kept at their master's call, and enjoyed more often in thought than in reality. Solly was in a measure a victim of this unscrupulous passion, but Freddy was wholly in the grip of it.

Tempest-Tost is book one of Davies second trilogy, known as the Salterton Trilogy for the name of the town where the action occurs. Salterton is, essentially, a caricature of Kingston, Ontario. It is a town so strangled by its mixed loyalties to the university, the military, and the family compact that it finds itself stagnant and unable to achieve the heights of perfection it imagines itself to have already conquered. For the residents of Salterton, and the students and professors of Waverly (Queen's), there is simply no other place on earth in which to live. Davies does a masterful job of capturing the sense of a town that thinks it's a city -- the snobbish Waverly students who look down on the Townies among them seem to have walked out of the halls of Queen's and into the pages of Tempest-Tost without a second glance, and the town's obsession with rank, social order, and birth belie the preoccupations of any good former stronghold of the family compact. As with anything Davies "satirizes," he really doesn't at all. Davies writes of what he knows and loves, and pokes at it gently before finally giving it his overall seal of approval; Kingston, wrapped in the cloak of Salterton, receives the same treatment that University of Toronto and Davies' own home town receive in others of his novels.

But this is a novel about small town amateur theatrics, and the residents of Salterton come together in this novel to mount a production of The Tempest. The main characters are Freddy Webster, a 14-year-old vintner and collector of antiquarian books; Griselda (or Gristle), her sister and the focus of lust for all the young (and not-so-young) men of Salterton; Solly and Roger, her two main suitors; and Hector, a 40-year-old suicidal math teacher who thinks he has a shot at Griselda. There are many more characters, like Nell, the president of the dramatic society; Val, the big-city director who regrets ever setting foot in Salterton; and Tom, the gardener responsible for the new found theatrical grounds. Altogether, the characters are some of Davies most diverse combination of backgrounds and histories, and while the characters all still have the Davies trademark of thinking and talking like 40-year-old English Professors from the University of Toronto, he has done a much better job here of fleshing out the backgrounds of each of these characters.

On the whole, Tempest-Tost seems to be about image and appropriateness. There are two plotlines in the novel -- the mounting of the play, and the quest for Griselda. In both stories the reader is confronted regularly with characters and individuals who must do battle between what is right and what is appropriate. For example, Hector's love for Griselda is inappropriate; he is more than twice her age and she is a wealthy heiress. The miscasting of this love affair is constantly played up by Davies, who shows Hector moving in increasingly more ridiculous and socially gauche ways to try and gain the love and admiration of Griselda. When he loses all hope and attempts suicide, he fails at that too, and again we are reminded of the incongruousness of his affections and the inappropriateness of his response. Everyone in the novel is governed by propriety. Solly, charged with the care of his mother, is constantly fearful of what she might think of his actions. Tom, the gardener, fears reproach for Freddy's precocious interest in wine. Nell cannot breath for fear that she will do something to insult someone whose help she will need in future productions, and furthermore is constricted by her concerns that the play will not be considered seemly. Davies, in Tempest-Tost, is having a gentle poke at the obsession with propriety and right-thinking that stereotypically characterizes the Eastern Ontario experience; he chortles at a society that still believes itself to be wrapped up in the expectation of the family compact, the demands of which may be changed at any time. The happiest characters in the novel seem to be those, like Freddy and Roger, who don't really care about the contentment of the townsfolks. Interestingly, though Davies allows them to be happy, he denies them their goals -- Freddy's wine bottles are destroyed in Hector's suicide attempt, and Roger is denied the love of Griselda. It is okay, and even necessary, to kick against the norms sometimes, Davies is suggesting, but it is not the path to the goals you seek. For Saltertonians, some level of conformity will always be required.

Something occurred to me as I was reading through Tempest-Tost. All the books I have read so far by the moderns -- and that's four, because I've tackled a very enviable one per day this week -- anyway, every single book features at least one (and sometimes more) character charged with the care of his or her mother. And in every case, the caretaker must sacrifice something of him or her self in order to properly care for the mother figure. Watson's characters gave up freedom, opportunity and love, Laurence's Rachel and Davies' Solly gave up university educations, Davies' Hector and Callaghan's Stephen give up financial security to support the mother they each left behind... And so on and so forth with these massive and shifting sacrifices. This made me wonder what the hell is going on. Such a run of books about mothers demanding massive sacrifices from their children, both male and female. I wonder if maybe the mother figure is representative, then, of something larger. I know this is far-fetched and vaguely retarded... But I wonder if it's not possible that these demanding maternal figures symbolize Canada. For the modernist Canadian writers, they felt a responsibility to Canada because they were writing the identity of an emerging country's literature. There really was no Canadian literature or identity before the work of the modernists. So there's a responsibility to stay at home and write the stories of this emerging nation in lieu of the more exciting temptations from south of the border or across the ocean. Canada, then, becomes the demanding mother figure, ordering sacrifice, threatening to languish and die if abandoned by her children. Without them, she knows, she is of little use -- they are the key to her future, and she holds tight to them. If I'm right here, then there's a resentment in all of these depictions about the expectations of the motherland and the desire to do the right thing even in the face of missed opportunity. Or I could be crazy! But it's something to think about, anyway.

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