Since his death in 1995, Robertson Davies has fallen off the radar screens of many contemporary readers, even those with a serious interest in modern literary fiction. I can't help feeling that his oft-repeated reputation as the preeminent Canadian novelist of his generation is as much a way of marginalizing as honoring his con- tributions. Do we call Joni Mitchell a great Canadian singer or Alexander Graham Bell a great Canadian inventor?
Davies is too large a talent to be pigeonholed as a regionalist, and his name is not out of place alongside those of his contemporaries Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, Albert Camus and Walker Percy. And like them, he crafted a deep, thought-provoking brand of fiction that wasn't afraid to animate characters and events with a degree of a philosophical, psychological and existential force that one rarely encounters in the current crop of literary novels.
Fifth Business is an ambitious work by any measure—except, perhaps, word count (it clocks it at around 250 pages). How ambitious is it? Davies stops short of Milton’s goal of justifying the "ways of God to men," but not by much. This quirky and intelligent novel aims, at least, at reconciling the real and the miraculous. Certainly others have trod these same steps, but rarely from the point of view of fiction, and almost never with such little deference for metaphysics.
"Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable facts? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real?" So asks Dunstan Ramsay, narrator of Robertson Davies's Fifth Business. Ramsay is a man of many achievements—he is a war hero, a teacher, and a scholar. But above all, he is a connoisseur of the miraculous.
Ramsay feels that his own life has been touched, at several junctures, by uncanny forces. These miracles center on an eccentric local woman, Mary Dempster, the wife of the Baptist parson. When Ramsay's brother Willie succumbs to kidney failure, Dunstan runs to bring Mrs. Dempster to the bedside, where he watches as she revives the boy who, only a short while before, had stopped breathing and shown no pulse. Ramsay is ridiculed by his parents and friends when he tells them he has witnessed a miracle. "Obviously he was not dead," counters the local doctor who arrives on the scene a short while later; "if he had been dead I would not have been talking to him a few minutes ago."
Dunstan's awe in regard to Mary Dempster is tainted by a shameful sense of guilt. Her strange behavior dates back to a winter day in 1908, when she was struck by a snowball that a local bully had thrown at Ramsay. When Dunstan ducked, the projectile instead hit Dempster in the back of the head. The shock caused the parson's wife, then seven months pregnant, to go into early labor. Both the mother and baby, Paul Dempster, survived—thanks in large part to the constant care of Ramsay's mother—but Mary Dempster would act in a wild and unpredictable manner in the aftermath. So much so, that her husband would be driven from the pulpit, and her son eventually run away from home. Ramsay is burdened by his indirect responsibility for these unintended consequences, although Boy Staunton, the youngster who actually threw the snowball, shows no remorse.
This incident, in which Ramsay is at the center of peculiar events he neither causes nor controls, is emblematic of the novel as a whole. Indeed, the title itself makes clear what kind of hero we will encounter in Fifth Business. Davies presents a passage from Danish scholar Tho. Overskou as the epigraph to his novel—later shown to be a literary hoax, since both Overskou and his ostensible work proved to be a fabrication of the novelist—that defines our terms of engagement: "Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies." Many have taken this at face value, and anyone researching "fifth business" on the Internet today, will be reassured by dozens of web sites that it is an old theatrical term. But Davies invented it for his story—not an inappropriate gesture for a work focused on the ways in which myths are created and disseminated.
Ramsay encounters Mary Dempster's miraculous intervention again, but in a very unexpected setting. After Canada enters World War I as a British ally in 1914, Ramsay enlists and soon finds himself in the midst of deadly trench warfare at the front. At the battle of Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest encounters in military history, he earns the Victoria Cross for his bravery in single-handedly taking out a German machine gun nest. But Ramsay is injured severely while trying to return to his unit, and collapses in the mud with his left leg bleeding and unresponsive. Night has fallen, and he crawls to a collapsed stone wall, where he realizes that he will almost certainly bleed to death before help arrives.
"It was then that one of the things happened that make my life strange—one of the experiences that other people have not had or do not admit to," Ramsay explains. An exploding flare allows him to glimpse briefly his surroundings: a demolished church. "As the hissing flame dropped I saw there about ten or twelve feet above me on the opposite wall, in a niche, a statue of the Virgin and Child…. But what hit me worse than the blow of the shrapnel was that the face was Mary Dempster's face."
Ramsay passes out, and when he regains consciousness, months later, he is in a British hospital. Here he learns that he lost his leg in the battle, but acquired a medal, and is now a celebrated war hero. When he returns to Canada, he tracks down Mary Dempster, whose mental derangement has grown more severe in the intervening years. Ramsay is torn between pitying her as a mad woman or honoring her as a saint. He even consults a Catholic priest—a humbling step since Dunstan is a Presbyterian, and an ambivalent one at that, but forced to take that step, since only the Church of Rome takes seriously the concept of modern-day sainthood. He wants to find some way of proving, if only to himself, that the woman, who magically appeared to him on a battlefield half a world away, is worthy of canonization. But the priest discourages Ramsay's obsession.
"Look Mr. Ramsay, I'll tell it to you plain as it comes: there's a lot of very good people in the world, and a lot of queer things happen that we don't see the explanation of, but there's only one Church that undertakes to cut right down to the bone and say what's a miracle and what isn't and who's a saint and who isn't, and you, and this poor soul you speak of, are outside it. You can't set up some kind of a bootleg saint, so take my advice and cut it out. Be content with the facts you have, or think you have, and don't push anything too far— or you might get a little bit strange yourself."
Ramsay abandons his quest for official recognition of Mary Dempster's miracles, but he persists in his own obsession with the miraculous. He develops an expertise in saints and shrines and writes several scholarly and popular books on the subject. Yet Ramsay is no credulous believer, and his delight in miracles is hardly undermined even when they are shown to be contrived illusions. In time, he nurtures a second, related passion for carnivals and the stage shows of conjurers, and learns behind-the-scenes secrets about the dodges and sleights of hand employed by professional magicians.
This interest leads him into chance encounters with Paul Dempster, Mary's son who had run away with a carnival group years before and has now developed into a polished magician. Ramsay also maintains an uneasy friendship with Boy Staunton, the childhood bully who has now grown to be a very crass and successful businessman. The uneasy relationship between this odd trio will eventually set in motion the strange events that will conclude Davies’s novel—an ending that, in fitting form, presents another miracle. The reader can decide whether it is a real one or merely another Houdini-like conjuring trick.
You might think that a novel so fixated on hagiography could hardly have relevance for our skeptical modern lives. Without a doubt, we find ourselves in an age that prides itself on practicalities and hard- headed realism. But our era also defines its deepest hopes and aspirations in terms of myths and creeds, perhaps no less than did previous generations. This tendency is not exclusively—or even primarily—a matter of religion nowadays, but rather a core part of our shared culture, realized in movies, books, games, music, even politics and business. Many contemporary novelists have played along with this obsession, seeing their own vocation as akin to freelance myth- making—embracing a rather Nietzschean concept of the place of fiction in the modern day.
In the midst of all this, Davies takes on the more difficult role of iconoclast, a word that in its original meaning signifies the bold person who dares to handle and sometimes even shatter a prevailing myth. In truth, a few myths actually seem to survive the rough handling here, but not for lack of scrutiny and examination on Davies's part. This is a rare kind of fiction, and Fifth Business exemplifies an uncharacteristic approach to the modern novel, but one perhaps all the more therapeutic the less we initially grasp its applicability to our own situation.
Welcome to my year of magical reading. Each week during the course of 2012, I will explore an important work of fiction that incorporates elements of magic, fantasy or the surreal. My choices will cross conventional boundary lines of genre, style and historical period—indeed, one of my intentions in this project is to show how the conventional labels applied to these works have become constraining, deadening and misleading.
In its earliest days, storytelling almost always partook of the magical. Only in recent years have we segregated works arising from this venerable tradition into publishing industry categories such as "magical realism" or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some other 'genre' pigeonhole. These labels are not without their value, but too often they have blinded us to the rich and multidimensional heritage beyond category that these works share.
This larger heritage is mimicked in our individual lives: most of us first experienced the joys of narrative fiction through stories of myth and magic, the fanciful and phantasmagorical; but only a very few retain into adulthood this sense of the kind of enchantment possible only through storytelling. As such, revisiting this stream of fiction from a mature, literate perspective both broadens our horizons and allows us to recapture some of that magic in our imaginative lives.