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A Dictionary on the Dinner Table

Canadian writer and teacher Robertson Davies talks about his lifetime of working with words

I WAS talking with Robertson Davies in his office at Massey College in Toronto, with the ivy crowding around the window outside and the early May sun slanting in, illuminating his white, rather Shavian beard. It struck me that I was in the presence of a nearly perfect literary life: a row of novels on the shelf, renown for their entertainment and wisdom, a sheaf of plays resting next to the novels, some produced professionally, some in glorious amateurism; and collections of reviews and columns and essays, most from the newspaper he edited for 20 years. His most important possession has been his continuing love of words, in their every possible use, a love that is growing, despite his ``official'' retirement. With some trepidation I would call Mr. Davies the Grand Old Man of Canadian Letters, looking over my shoulder in case he objected to the term old, or if other people objected. They might well if they thought I meant he was sitting around on his laurels. After nine novels, a score of plays, literary criticism and essays in great quantity and quality, and innumerable awards and honors over the last 40 years, Davies could rest on those laurels comfortably.

His novels, which are his best-known works, are now read in more than 16 languages, with recent translations into Japanese, Chinese, and Hebrew. They have sold in the millions. He has the enviable position of being able to attract new readers to his engrossing and convoluted tales of academic and artistic Canadians. And having attracted them to his style, he then has plenty of other things for them to read.

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He will admit to being in retirement, but then you must ask from what? He is at work on another novel, and still writes reviews when he can put a reasonable effort to the task. He no longer conducts classes (he retired from being head of Massey in 1981) but is still at his office at the college on the University of Toronto campus once a week. He gets pleasure out of meeting with students, and, more than pleasure, ideas.

Teaching is part of the writing job, helping him think and work. A day a week at the university makes him ``keep in touch with people, young people. The worst thing for a writer is to lock yourself away.'' When he was actively teaching, ``I didn't teach 'em really, saying `know this or learn that.' I tried to coax them to teach themselves and find out what they could discover by research. I was teaching English drama.''

Read not only the great works, he advised students. ``Read a lot of ordinary stuff from each period. You can get the wrong idea skipping from masterpiece to masterpiece. Read the stuff in between the classics. You must read a hunk of very ordinary stuff. Think! Use your loaf!''

And don't rely on the work of critics and analysts. Such as? Robertson Davies? Well, Davies has produced a small mountain of reviews himself over the years, in his own paper and in other Canadian publications such as Saturday Night, the Toronto Star, and MacLean's Magazine. But, he says, ``now, I will only review a book I can review positively.'' He's been on both sides of the process.

``To be reviewed is painful, even when it is favorable,'' he says, ``because you feel you are under scrutiny which is very intense, conditioned by circumstances which are not friendly to a careful consideration of the book.'' Reviewers today must read so fast, usually getting three-fourths of the way through before being forced to write by a deadline.

``I have been reviewed by people who haven't really gotten the hang of the book. But often they are very kind. When I first began writing they were not so kind. Actually the first favorable reviews I got were in the [United] States.

``But not England. It takes a very long time for a Canadian author to make an impression in England. For example, my novel, `What's Bred in the Bone.' The London Times reviewed it favorably, but the reviewer started with: `To speak of a good novel coming from Canada sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but ... !' You know, that's a sweet way to introduce a novel.'' He sighs, ``They're a very difficult people about former colonies.''

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Davies looks for a novel behind every newspaper story. He's fascinated by Salman Rushdie, whose career and fame prompts Davies to think in Faustian terms. ``The Satanic Verses'' has, to date, cost the publisher slightly more for security than the book has made in sales. ``Do you know about the 17 club?'' he asked me, but I hadn't. ``It's a club in England for people who have gotten beyond page 17 in Rushdie's book.'' And with a grin he says, ``A very exclusive club.''

At 77, surrounded by books, many of them his own, he is a man made of words, almost made from words.

``I grew up thinking that everyone wrote. I was amazed to find out that there were people who didn't write easily and readily on demand. There was a dictionary on the dinner table. And if you didn't use a word properly you had to look it up. My mother and father both wrote. I was raised to think that everyone did.''

Davies's father's business was writing and printing, and Davies became fascinated from early youth with publishing and newspapering. His father came with his family to Canada from North Wales at age 15 and began work as a printer's devil (apprentice) in Brantford, Ontario.

``They didn't have any money, but they had a lot of brains. At Christmas they produced a Yuletide magazine, for which everyone had to write a piece and then read it.'' His father could see that there was never going to be a lot of money in working as a printer, so as soon as he could he bought a small weekly, then another, and finally he owned the Peterborough Examiner and the larger Kingston Whig-Standard.

``I grew up in the newspaper business. I did my first reporting when I was 11 years old.'' Davies agrees that writing for newspapers, which used to be the honored way of training yourself to be a writer of longer material, is still the best. His love of myth and madness and magic, discovered among the commonplace, comes from years of seeing the extraordinary clothed in the ordinary. And so his novels read.

In several of Davies's novels, there is a point from which the entire plot takes flight, a small twist in the lives of the central characters. For example, in ``Fifth Business'' (my favorite), a boy throws a snowball at a friend who ducks. The snowball sails on and hits someone else, and the plot begins. In ``Leaven of Malice'' someone puts a mischievous betrothal announcement in the paper and a passionate lawsuit is joined. The stuff of local news.

Early in life, Davies, like his parents, was active in local theater. He wanted to act, to direct, to be in the theater in any role. His chance came with his admission, after three years at Queens College, to Oxford University in England. There he began acting, directing, and writing, finally working in the Old Vic.

But theater is a field not only for the talented but also for the patient, and it's the product of many people's efforts, sometimes acting together smoothly, sometimes not. In 1942, Davies had to return to Peterborough, to the family newspaper, where he began writing editorials and columns. And where he continued writing plays, one of which, ``Love and Libel,'' was about, of course, a newspaper. The play was well received and lauded in the Canadian and American productions, but when it reached New York, it closed after four days. Davies believed in the story, so he went home and rewrote it as the aforementioned ``Leaven of Malice.''

For more than 20 years, readers of the Peterborough Examiner had the pleasure of reading Davies's notes and comments on the editorial page every evening. To give himself a more irascible nature than he actually possessed, he invented the arch-curmudgeon Samuel Marchbanks, with whom he had conversations, arguments, and endless complaints about the rigors of Canadian life in a small town. The playwriting didn't stop, but the novel, a form that gives the writer almost absolute control, became his primary milieu. And in the '60s, his books began to get favorable reviews in various countries, especially the United States.

For a Canadian writer, acceptance in the US is a dangerous thing, at best a mixed blessing. Some Canadian authors have left the cold and lonely scenes that prompted them to write so they could try to please a more general audience, even readjusting or simplifying the subtleties of Canadian life, making them more understandable south of the border. Davies has resisted this. Maybe the New York theater debacle was responsible. He remains resolutely Canadian, and at the same time a writer for the world, still reveling in the details of life and love in a cold climate; civility and urbanity in the face of howling blizzards; and enthusiastic enjoyment of the awkward, restrictive conventions of town life in Ontario. His books sell throughout the world, but nowhere as much as in Latin America, a fact he marvels at. ``Perhaps they are interested in seeing how we here maintain ourselves as a neighbor of the US. They are curious about what's on the other side.''

If he tells you anything in his novels, it is of the Upper Canada (a general term for Ontario) cultural and spiritual world, a place subtly different, not only from the US but also from the rest of Canada. Toronto is now the pulsing business center of the country, a place of traffic jams and skyscrapers, whose real-estate prices remind one of southern California in boom times. But behind this almost American money madness is the Scottish and Welsh heritage, which has its roots in the towns Davies has written about.

Davies's novels are arranged in trilogies, although the distinction is not as strong in the last three. This means the book he is working on will upset the symmetry, unless he is determined to add two more. As we await this, we have his new book, ``The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies,'' (N.Y.: Viking, $19.95) to enjoy, a collection of essays and literary digressions in Davies distinctive conversational style.

The force behind ``Enthusiasms'' is Judith Skelton Grant, his official biographer. During her researches at the University of Toronto, Ms. Grant hatched the notion that she should put together the best of his literary pieces. The pieces are instructive, something akin to what it must have been like to have Davies as your English prof. I can't think of anything I would have enjoyed more.

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