For many people, it was an event to hear Robertson Davies speak in public. His well-trained voiced sought out and wooed its audience, exercising a fine sense of comic timing and projecting a seriousness of purpose that left little doubt that what was amusing was never trivial or irrelevant. As the years went by and Davies's reputation as a novelist grew, audiences felt an increasing sense of privilege. And when he gave a public reading from The Cunning Man
in New York, organizers had to turn away nearly as many would-be listeners as they had places for.
Since his death in December 1995, two collections of Davies's speeches and occasional writings have appeared in Canada. The Merry Heart: Selections 1980-1995 and Happy Alchemy: Writing on the Theatre and Other Lively Arts are the joint endeavour of family (Brenda Davies and daughter Jennifer Surridge) and publisher Douglas Gibson. While the emphases differ, each presents what Gibson calls "the distinctive voice of Robertson Davies". In his preface to The Merry Heart, he writes: "Now that voice, mourned across the world at the time of his passing, rings out unmistakably from every piece in the book, loud and clear."
Sincere though the sentiment may be, the overall effect of the two collections is rather less impressive. The more one reads of the essays, the more one shifts from interest to restlessness, from an appreciation (again in Gibson's admiring phrase) of "Robertson Davies's well-stocked mind" to a growing awareness of its blind spots and evident limits. The paradox of a man of many interests who was ruled by narrow preoccupations loomed increasingly as I read on.
The collections of Davies's writings published in the late 1970s and early 1980s are One Half of Robertson Davies (1977), The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (1979), and The Well-Tempered Critic: One Man's View of the Theatre and Letters in Canada (1981). The latter two are edited by Davies's future biographer, Judith Skelton Grant. These works allowed his readers to gauge Davies's range of enthusiasms and the way they informed his novels. The new volumes seem at best to offer more of the same, but that sameness is now more noticeable and restrictive. There is important material here for those who are willing to sort patiently through the pieces or who are looking for Davies's views on a particular subject. Several essays provide glimpses of "the secrets of [his] workshop" and insights into certain of his novels. We learn of the high value he placed upon narrative and language, that he had little interest in angst, engaged writing or "excessive research", that when he introduced sex into his fiction he had to do it with "style and magic", and that in critical terms "the Jungian candle is the only one I have".
Regrettably, however, there is little that is new or particularly compelling in these two volumes. Read together, they make a rather disappointing experience. While this kind of concentration is unfair in that such occasional pieces were never intended to be read as a group, one is nonetheless aware that the bulk of the material comes from the author's last decade, a period when he was much in demand internationally, but settled in his views. Those settled views are finally what is most unsettling.
No matter what the subject-the novel, literacy, Canadian public policy, Jung, technology, opera, Christmas, old age or even Mavis Gallant-he was always most concerned with two things: himself and his sense of himself as a writer. While this was the predictable recourse of a man who knew that his novels had earned him wide acclaim and a large readership, what one sees here from essay to essay is a repeated pattern that seems more static than alive, and how the process of individuation turns into prickly self-absorption and mannered response.
While there is much effective rhetoric, few of the essays rise above the competent average. We might have expected more from the fully mature and capable man of letters, more evidence beyond the novels of stirring insight and critical acumen. Certainly, he saw himself as having arrived at the height of his powers. Age was no barrier for him, as "A View in Winter: Creativity in Old Age" reveals. In these essays, he provides plenty of well-turned phrases, but the "wit and wisdom" promised on the dust jacket of Happy Alchemy are in limited supply.
A look at the first of the paired speeches, "Reading" and "Writing", in The Merry Heart provides a window on these later writings. Both were delivered at Yale in 1990 as the Tanner Lectures and subsequently published by the University of Utah Press as Reading and Writing. "Reading" moves from an attack on the practice of speed-reading and the narrow outlook of university students who, in their choice of reading, blindly stick to course syllabi, to a wholesale blast against democracy as a failure of vision and human understanding. The essay's aim, it becomes apparent, is to critique egalitarian principles and "modern education" on the one hand, and to defend Davies's commitment to elitist values on the other because, (a) only the elite are capable of understanding the importance of reading well, (b) only the elite are capable of taking pride in "intellect", and (c) only the elite are capable of recognizing "the immensely important business of personal exploration through personal pleasure". This rather flat and predictable justification of "the clerisy" is simply a rehash of what Davies had promoted more effectively in a book written thirty years earlier, A Voice from the Attic (1960).
One must learn to "read slowly, eloquently", Davies asserts. Such reading awakens the intellect, which he identifies not with thought but with the realm of feeling and sympathy. While locating himself in that sphere of feeling and intuition, he nevertheless insists he can work capably with the commonplace, the ordinary, the vulgar.
Having struggled with the speech's logic and coherence to this point, the reader may well be more than a little uneasy. Indeed, without the "voice" to lead and charm and persuade, the words and ideas are left to stand on their own-and at times they seem cranky and reductive. Hence, when Davies suggests that the well-trained and sensitive reader will intuitively know how to separate the wheat from the chaff in anything he reads-"The trick of argument or the falsity of emphasis will declare itself to your ear"-the reader may be inclined to apply the distinction to the author himself.
One may begin to look for Davies's own tricks of argument and the false emphases he insists on. The result, I would suggest, is not a convincing and clever argument; rather, it is a doggedly cheerful, rather heavy-handed justification of personal taste. It leads to predictable catalogues of authors and books Davies likes and dislikes. He then takes us through one of his often-used descriptions of the novel-a tale to some, a parable to others, and at its most important level "a direct revelation of reality". Finally, he concludes by providing a list of some of his favourite, and usually neglected, books.
What emerges as new or worthwhile here? At least in this speech, Davies does not indulge in one of his many intemperate blasts against "critics" (he saves that for "Writing") or fall back heavily on Nabokov (like Joyce, one of his venerable favourites) for the image of the novelist as enchanter. Beyond elaborating on his enthusiasm for reading and particular books, and beyond suggesting that "real education looks backward", he takes us nowhere in a leisurely, drifting fashion. Which is fine if one is inclined to see oneself among his privileged elite. However, if one looks for a convincing argument, if one objects to falsities of emphasis, if one looks for a depth of insight that awakens understanding and encourages further thinking, one may well be disappointed. One may in fact be inclined to agree with Davies when, with ingenuous rhetorical sweep, he says to his Yale audience, "How dull he is being, you may think, as I draw to my conclusion."
"Reading" is mostly old stuff pleasantly recycled and it is representative of many of the speeches one finds in these two collections. It hardly bears close analysis except as a revelation of the predictability of Davies's mind in operation, doing his best to deliver old wine in new bottles, but often lacking inspiration or refreshing insight. Useful as these collections are, they add little to Robertson Davies's reputation.
Michael Peterman is Chair of the English Department at Trent University.