The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies

Possibly the secret to Robertson Davies’ ever-growing following is that he is not a 20th-century writer after all. Admittedly, he was born in Ontario in 1913, studied at Oxford and acted Shakespeare in London during the 1930s, edited a small Ontario newspaper for 20 years, and then moved to Toronto, where he still flourishes. But other evidence suggests that he is a late- Victorian, probably a younger contemporary of George Bernard Shaw, whom he admires and resembles (long white beard; merry, mischievous, bluff manner), born, let’s say, about 1868, which would make him a remarkabby vigorous 122- year-old. Consider, for instance, his suspiciously readable novels — among them, World of Wonders, The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone. And consider this delightful, engrossing collection of essays and reviews, beginning with the title, The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies. (What self-respecting late-20th-century writer would admit to having enthusiasms?) What does Davies like? Eccentricity; headstrong personalities; slightly occult, mystical, or otherwise unorthodox religions that convey a whiff of cosmic optimism; passion; adventure; good conversation, food, and drink; ghost stories; Shakespeare, Dickens, and the theatrical in general; Victorian literary curiosities and bric-a-brac. What bores him? Avant-garde experiments, existential angst, brutal realism, literary crashhdiets, and similar newfangled fixations.

Sent an author’s questionnaire asking him to describe his public image, Davies, at a loss, consults a colleague, who tells him ”an exacerbated curmudgeon,” which he duly writes down. But there isn’t much in the way of curmudgeonly exacerbation here. He does suggest that there is something rather anemic about the pessimism that Graham Greene and others have turned into a valuable literary property, but for the most part he is content to appreciate the more robust misfits of the 19th and early-20th centuries — such as the irreverent Reverend Sydney Smith; Walt Whitman; Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell; the half-mad reprobate writer and priest Frederick Rolfe; and the sex pioneer Havelock Ellis, who is Davies’ idea of what a scientist ought to be, more literary than scientific. As are Freud and Davies’ supplier of archetypes and other fictional necessities, Jung.

When he edges into more recent territory, Davies naturally goes for eccentrics: Nabokov, Salinger, Ivy Compton-Burnett, John Cowper Powys, Iris Murdoch, as well as minor writers who took major pains with style, like Max Beerbohm and P. G. Wodehouse.

But this book should not be mistaken for a work of systematic criticism. It is a lot more like having the run of a curious old gentleman’s library with the gentleman there to point out oddities (a Victorian novel by a 9-year-old girl?) and to digress engagingly on Shakespeare, famous actors and music hall performers, turn-of-the-century bathrooms, kings, corsets, the importance of conversation to marriage and of marriage to love, and other matters not likely to be admitted to a seminar on ”Postmodernity and the Death of Writing.” B+

The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies
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