Thursday, December 3, 2020

Quote of the Day (Robertson Davies, on Re-Reading Great Literature at Different Ages)

"Nobody ever reads the same book twice. People are expected to read [Vanity Fair] during their university years. But you are mistaken if you think you read [William Makepeace] Thackeray's book then; you read a lesser book of your own. It should be read again when you are thirty-six, which is the age of Thackeray when he wrote it. It should be read for the third time when you are fifty-six, sixty-six, seventy-six, in order to see how Thackeray’s irony stands up to your own experience of life. Perhaps you will not read every page in these later years, but you really should take another look at a great book, in order to find out how great it is, or how great it has remained, to you.” —Canadian man of letters Robertson Davies (1913-1995), The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books (1995)

Robertson Davies died 25 years ago yesterday in Orangeville, in the Canadian province of Ontario. I have identified him as a “man of letters” because, during his prolific career, there were few forms of writing in which he did not succeed—journalism, essays, poems, plays, ghost stories, and novels.

Davies’ considerable success in Canada has not extended south of the border, a popularity deficit that might have been overcome had he received the Nobel Prize in Literature he was widely rumored to be in the running for late in life. The Nobel committee could have done worse (and often has) in extending this honor to him.

I first became exposed to him the old-fashioned way: through a former co-worker and fellow book-lover who pressed on me her copy of Fifth Business, part of Davies’ “Deptford Trilogy” revolving around his fascination with magic. 

I became further interested in him when I was lucky enough to hear him speak at Fairleigh Dickinson University (near where I live in Bergen County, NJ), on his promotional tour for The Cunning Man, his last novel. 

His white beard may have predisposed the unknowing to expect a jovial Santa Claus until his still-resonant deep voice and wry wit testified to his early training as an actor. Within a year of his deathat that point, he was surely far more frail than in his prime, but he still knew how to command an audience’s attention.

But my fascination solidified when I saw a 2001 adaptation of Davies’ Tempest-Tost, at Canada’s famous Stratford Festival (an institution he had played a major role in establishing 50 years before, and in which he retained a lively interest until his death). I went on to read the novel itself, as well as its follow-up volumes in his “Salterton Trilogy,” which has, with a great deal of truth, been regarded as a Canadian answer to Anthony Trollope’s “Barchester Chronicles.”

There is much more that can be written about Davies and his career, and in the next year I hope to pursue at least some of those aspects. But today’s quote reminds me of maybe the best way to get an idea of his gifts: through his essays.

When he wasn’t writing, Davies served as professor of English at Massey College and a master of the college until his retirement in 1981. 

But I suspect that he was an old-fashioned professor—scornful of academic jargon and fads, intent on communicating basic truths to listeners—because his essays on literature and the stage convey a vast amount of his erudition without deadening readers’ thrill in discovering and working out the meanings of great books for themselves.

(For a solid, no-nonsense summary of Davies’ career—the kind that he himself might have appreciated—I suggest you read this post by Andrea Koczela on the blog “Books Tell You Why.”)

1 comment:

Angel charls said...

I went on to read the novel itself, as well as its follow-up volumes in his “Salterton Trilogy
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