Robertson Davies, Canadian novelist, on commemorative stamp, showing name and dates, 1913-1995

Robertson Davies, Fifth Business

by james w thomas

“Who are you? Where do you fit into poetry and myth?” demands the character Liesl, a magician’s assistant and lover of the fictional Dunstan Ramsay. And who is Robertson Davies, the creator of these people in his novel The Fifth Business, as he projects himself into his own work? Reducing an author’s writing to his own psyche is too simple but Davies himself was open about his personal sources in an autobiographical fiction that transformed his past into entertaining and often silly and fantastical plots.

“Do you know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business,” criticizes Liesl. Or is it Davies challenging himself? The Canadian author’s fascination with Jungian psychology brought “a dark and distinctively introspective vision” to “rippingly good” yarns, thought Diane Cole when she reviewed Judith Skelton Grant’s biography Robertson Davies: Man of Myth. He “used his personal myths and archetypes to probe the possibilities of human good and evil, but always with a wickedly humorous wink.” Davies would then expand on this with his own epigrammatic style of writing.

“But you cannot make a plot work,” continues Liesl, comparing this odd man out to opera, “without another man, and he is usually a baritone…called…Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret…or may even be the cause of somebody’s death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work.”

Robertson Davies managed a good line of work as a best-selling novelist who, in his long career, was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize in 1986, which the Englishman Kingsley Amis won, and might have, some have speculated, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 if he had been British – Davies was Canadian – and the laurel went to the well-deserving American Toni Morrison. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters but, as a Canadian, only as an Honorary Member.

“Those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices. Are you Fifth Business? You had better find out.” Well, altogether over fifty years, Davies wrote plays, novels, and essays, edited magazines and newspapers, and taught literature at the University of Toronto. And 1970’s Fifth Business was ranked as 40 on the Reader’s List of the American Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. His last, 1994’s The Cunning Man, was 99 – just ahead of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

William Robertson Davies, born 28 August 1913 in Thamesville, Ontario, was the son of William Rupert Davies, a newspaperman from Welshpool, Montgomeryshire (now Powys), and later a Canadian Senator, and Florence McKay. She was a descendant of New York Loyalists from the American Revolution. After leaving Canada for England and Balliol College, Oxford, in 1938 Davies published Shakespeare’s Boy Actors, and tried acting himself, but did better as a literary manager at the Old Vic in London.

Davies returned to Canada in 1940 with his wife Brenda Mathews, a former stage manager, and joined the family business. He left Saturday Night magazine to edit and publish the Davies-owned Peterborough Examiner from 1942 to 1965. He kept writing plays, helping found the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1952, and that led to his success in fiction. His first novel, the 1951 romantic satire Tempest-Tost, originally a play, centers on the small-town antics of the amateur cast of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

In Fifth Business, Dunstan Ramsay ducks a fictional snowball thrown in 1908 by his “lifelong friend and enemy” Percy ‘Boy’ Staunton that defines the arc of five people’s lives through war, peace, and show business. As Staunton says later to Ramsay, “If you don’t hurry up and let life know what you want, life will damned soon show you what you’ll get.” Dunstan Ramsay gets a fictional life as a teacher; Robertson Davies got a fifth business as one of Canada’s most well-known authors and “men of letters.”