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The Deptford Trilogy
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83 of 83 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2003
If there is a boundary beyond which realistic fiction crosses into the fantastical, it seems to have been explored and even blurred by Robertson Davies in this trio of novels which represent the broadest imaginative range of realistic fiction. The closest contemporary comparison I can make is John Barth, but Davies, possibly by way of being Canadian, establishes his originality by balancing North American folk charm with a British style of sophistication.
The subject is the turbulent and often hilarious lives of three men whose hometown is the rural village of Deptford, Ontario. They are Dunstan Ramsay, a history teacher, hagiographer (somebody who studies saints and sainthood), and decorated World War I veteran; the arrogant but vulnerable Percy Boyd "Boy" Staunton, a wealthy confectionery businessman, politician, and Dunstan's lifelong friend; and the pitiable Paul Dempster, whose premature birth was precipitated by his mother's injury from being hit accidentally by a snowball thrown by Staunton at Ramsay on a fateful winter day in 1908. The event that provides the basis for the trilogy is Staunton's death sixty years later, when his Cadillac mysteriously plunges off a pier into a harbor.
The three novels form a complex story that is structured almost like a murder mystery but has much more psychological depth and detailed characterization and is more studious of the nature of consequences. The first two novels, "Fifth Business" and "The Manticore," discuss the life of Boy Staunton through the respective viewpoints of Ramsay, who tells all in an extensive, sarcastically toned report to the headmaster of the academy from which he is retiring, and Staunton's son David, now a successful criminal lawyer, who recalls his relationship with his father during a series of sessions with a Zurich psychiatrist.
But it is the third novel, "World of Wonders," in which the continuation of the story really takes flight. This novel covers the fascinating life story of a brilliant magician and master illusionist named Magnus Eisengrim who, from humble and sordid beginnings as a carnival underling, has become famous throughout the world for his spectacular stage shows and now lives in a palatial Swiss chalet with his manager and consort, a strange woman named Liesl. That he has enlisted Ramsay as his biographer is not his only connection to Deptford or to the events surrounding Boy Staunton's watery death.
Combining the themes of Ramsay's inquiries into the qualifications for sainthood, David Staunton's chimerical dreams, and Eisengrim's spellbinding but essentially mundane magic, "The Deptford Trilogy" maintains its narrative thrust by a thorough cross-pollination of ideas from reality and mythology. The insight revealed is that every human life, real or imagined, has qualities that are mythical because none of us can personally experience everything that happens to everybody else. This seems like an obvious precept of fiction, but it takes a marvel-minded writer like Davies to illustrate it with so much vivacity and wonder.
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45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 1999
When I lived in London, a friend stongly urged me to read Davies. "Which trilogy? Cornish or Deptford?" I had heard those were his best novels. "Cornish" she replied.
I finished the Cornish trilogy, loved it, and moved into Deptford. I finished World of Wonders last night, and have some thoughts.
I enjoy each of Davies' novels as I read them, but their full impact seems to hit me several days after finishing them. After reading the Cornish trilogy, with it's baroque styles and encyclopedic references, Deptford seemed a little...thin. Almost minimalist in it's scope. ["Minimalist" is a relative term here--we are talking about Robertson Davies, after all.]
But now that I have finished World of Wonders, I find that I prefer its mystery, its sense of what is not said. The sense of myth that runs through the characters' lives. In a word, haunting.
The Cornish trilogy is a wonderful series of yarns. Highly entertaining, as is seems few books are. But Deptford forces the reader to do more work: to think, investigate, contemplate what has happened in the novels.
Both trilogies are stunning achievements, but I prefer doing investigative work rather than being entertained (although what an entertainment!).
Final thought: Unlike the overrated Umberto Eco, who writes fiction like an academic, Davies is able to create erudite, learned characters who are interesting people, rather than mouthpieces that demonstrate their author's wide field of knowledge. Davies' erudition serves the characters, the story and the reader. Eco's expositions only serve his ego.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2003
I had read some Robertson Davies in the past--Murther and Walking Spirits and The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks--and thought him a fine curmudgeon and a fine Canadian writer, but I had not given him much thought beyond this. I find this to my detriment now, for I remember friends who always had a copy of one or other of his novels about, and I faintly recall many recommendations in the past. So, what made me finally pick up one of these and read it? The recommendation, passed to me second-hand, by my favorite writer, Jonathan Carroll, given as one of his influences for conceiving novels with interlinking characters.
Fifth Business is a marvelous book, and while it doesn't have quite the same mystery or horror of Carroll, it does have an excellent style, and there is indeed a twist or two along the way to keep most any reader sated. Basically the autobiography of Dunstable Ramsay, born around the turn of the century in the small Canadian town of Deptford, Fifth Business details not only Ramsay's life, but also the life of his oldest friend, Percy "Boy" Staunton. What makes this novel so remarkable is how realistic the portrayal is, without bogging down in pages of mundane description. Over the course of the novel, one's understanding for Dunstable grows, both in positive and negative turns, and by the end, he is as an old friend of one's own.
Based on some of the cover blurbs, I had expected a little more magic realism, or at least an edge of the fantastic, to this book, and while it may be there, it is consistently down-played. Normally I am not one to go in for fiction without at least a feeling of the extraordinary, but Davies writing style kept me glued to the page, reading longer into the night than I would ordinarily wish during the work week. And I learned many things, including what the term hagiography refers to, and some feeling for Canada and their strange ties to Britain and the world.
But it is the aspect of Fifth Business itself where this book receives full credit for its recommendation. "Fifth Business" refers to, as related in the novel:
"You don't know what this is? Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep up in Europe you must have a prima donna--always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something; and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.
So far, so good. But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody's death if that is part of the plot."
Dunstable is indeed Fifth Business, for he does know the secret of the hero's birth, and does come to the assistance of the heroine, and keeps a woman in her cell, and may even be the cause of Boy Staunton's murder. The trick is discovering who exactly is the hero, and the assistance only lasts for a short time, and being locked in a cell is not always advantageous, and who exactly did murder Boy Staunton? These and more questions are brought up in Fifth Business, some of which are answered.
The Manticore picks up almost where Fifth Business lets off, but quickly reverts to flashback to tell some of the same story from the point of view of Boy Staunton's son, David. David's recollection of some of the events as told by Ramsay are colored by his own life, including the fear introduced by his sister that David is not actually Boy's son, but Ramsay's. Whereas Ramsey was fifth business to Boy Staunton, David is a star in his own story, which is told by a journal that he writes to discuss with his psychotherapist.
It sounds dull, and at times it slows due to the conceit, but Davies has a way of interjecting interest right as you are about to put away the novel. Two-thirds into the novel and it breaks away from the psychotherapy, returns to the "present" of the trilogy, and reunites us with Ramsay and some of the other characters from Fifth Business. The problem with The Manticore is that it is the middle novel, without the refreshing newness of the opening and lacking the rush towards the climax of the concluding novel.
And what a rush World of Wonders is--once again, it covers some of the same ground of the two previous novels, filling in detail about magician Magnus Eisingrim (nee Paul Dempster of Deptford) that also provides additional insight into Ramsey and, in the end, Boy Staunton. Of the three novels, World of Wonders is closest to Carroll. Rather than tell the story from Magnus viewpoint, Davies switches back to Ramsay. However, the story Ramsay tells is of the biographical confessions of Magnus. This way Davies can tell the story from a new viewpoint while retaining the mysterious nature of Magnus (who is the closest to the unreliable narrator used by Carroll) to keep the secret of Boy Staunton's death until the closing minutes. Magnus' history isn't pretty, and the World of Wonders is as a carnival sideshow, full of flash but hiding a seedy underbelly. However, Magnus is not unhappy with his lot, looking back over his life, which is one of the aspects of the story that haunts Ramsay, who feels somewhat responsible (along with Staunton) for Paul Dempster's early life. The philosophical aspect of this is interesting--Davies implies that, while taking responsibility of one's actions is important, there is a statute of limitations on guilt.
The Deptford Trilogy is a strong suite of novels, cunningly wrought and well worth your time. I regret that I had waited this long to discover them.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on July 14, 1999
The only bad thing about Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy (FIFTH BUSINESS, THE MANTICORE, WORLD OF WONDERS) is that it had to end! Sparklingly clever, bawdy, poignant, erudite, and laugh-out-loud funny, Davies entertains in a wonderfully rich, old-world style.
A friend of mine (who recommended the books, and to whom I will be forever grateful) put it this way: "Reading Robertson Davies is like sitting in a plush, wood-paneled library--in a large leather chair with a glass of excellent brandy and a crackling fire--and being captivated with a fabulous tale spun by a wonderful raconteur."
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2002
I first heard of Robertson Davies in an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" when he appeared to discuss his last novel, "The Cunning Man." He was in his eighties then, and I always kept a distinct recollection of his resonant, charming voice. About seven years later, I picked up a copy of "Fifth Business" and was delighted to find that the same charm and wit shines through from Davies' prose. I just finished the third novel of the Deptford Trilogy, and I enjoyed the set of novels immensely.
Some of the reviews here may go into a little too much detail about the plots and subplots. It may be more enjoyable to read these books cold. The plots diverge and wind around, and you sometimes wonder where everything is going, but there is a definite pleasure in being surprised to see how everything fits together in the end. You can trust Robertson Davies' craft to make sure things do fit together soundly in the end.
One character in Fifth Business descibes his ideal in scholarly pursuits as to approach a subject "with a critical but not a cruel mind." I think that approach characterizes Davies' style. I can understand that he may seem pendantic and opiniated to some readers. I personally would not agree with many of his opinions, but in reading him I realized how much of our modern discourse on moral issues has lost the elements of wit and charm - and a benevolent humor - that characterize this writing. How often can you say that you thoroughly enjoyed reading something by someone even though you disagreed with half the ideas that person expressed?
As a reader in from the U.S., I also felt that I learned a bit about Canadian history and Canadians' perspective on the world. This will certainly not do us any harm. So when we Americans read the Deptford Trilogy, in addition to enjoying great literature, we can learn who Mackenzie King was and find out about the Prince of Wales' tour of Canada in the thirties.

Of the three novels, I thought Davies' best writing was in the "World of Wonders." I sense a definite tone of nineteenth century fiction in Davies' writing, something of Trollope, Dickens, and Balzac, and that style emerges most warmly from these two novels. This is a cheerful, humane style in them, and it kept my attention throughout. If people are still enjoying decent literature at the end of the twenty-first century, I think it will be because novels like these endure. I hope they will.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2000
If you're going to read any one of these books, you should do what I did and read all three of them at once. The Fifth Business is a clever biography of a man who lives in the shadow of the supposed main plot ("Who Killed Boy Staunton"). I think Davies at his best is when he is writing a biography like this one. The Manticore is very interesting, an abrupt departure into the world of Jungian analysis. Its narrator shows the previous narrator in a different light. World of Wonders lives up to its name, a richly textured tale with mystery and twists at every turn. In reading all three together, each narrative illuminates the other two. What I liked the most about these novels is that they are written in a very literary way, but full of humor and jest. The characters are sometimes likeable, sometimes challenging, but at the end you feel like you have progressed an intellectual and/or spiritual distance and really learned something. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to sit down and read something very well-written and fascinating.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 1999
Book 2 of the Deptford Trilogy. In an odd way, this book runs at a tangent to the two massive novels that frame it, Fifth Business and World of Wonders. It is tightly focused on a minor character from the other two novels and does not drive the story forward. At the end of the book the reader is left a bit nonplussed -- where is the scope and epic nature from Fifth Business? But the "trilogy" is not intended to be a serial. This becomes clear upon completion of the three. This book serves to deepen the reader's appreciation for the themes expressed in Fifth Business and which culminate, if a theme can culminate, in World of Wonders. The reader who pays attention (a pleasant requirement for Davies's greatest novels) finds himself engrossed in a sad, exhuberant, and contradictory life, and also gains some clues about the other two novels. This book could really stand alone, outside of the "trilogy". Mr. Davies was not a slave to convention (although he certainly understood convention both theatrical and novelistic) and would have found the task of a serial across three books both frustrating and pointless. None of his three (not four, thanks to Father Time) "trilogies" are serials: they simply explore similar themes and share a few characters and -- important to Davies as playwright and keen fan of poetry -- setting and atmosphere.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 1999
The reading of Fifth Business (of the Deptford trilogy) is a coming of age rite in Canada. No other work of Canadian fiction comes close to the style and psychological depth of the books in the Deptford Trilogy (Stone Angel by Laurence and In the Skin of a Lion by Ondaatje come close). The Manticore was in part responsible for turning me toward psychology as my undergraduate major. Robertson Davies fashioned other fine works after Fifth Business (The Cornish trilogy is sublime) but there is an aura that surrounds the Deptford Trilogy which is unique in literature. My office at the University of Toronto is not far from Massey College where Davies was chancellor, and where he "set" Rebel Angels. I think of him, or perhaps Parlabane from the Rebel Angels, as I pass it on the way to Davies' beloved Hart House. On cold winter nights I wish that I would find Davies' ghost gliding through the Hart House library, or rubbing its hands by the hearth in the reading room. I would beg him to tell me the plot of the fourth novel in the Deptford Trilogy.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Robertson Davies has sadly left our world. And what we have is a wonderful corpus of literature that is imaginative, provacative and captivating. Among his excellent writing, the Deptford trilogy is his very best.
Of the three, I would say that Fifth Business is the best book, an almost cartain influence upon John Irving's Prayer for Owen Meany. At once, Davies weaves a tale of childhood and tragedy, mysticism and religion. I was enthralled by each book.
Davies' wonderful ability to write trilogies that use the same characters, but from the different perspectives of his many characters is brilliant. Here, we have three autonomous stories that intersect and overlap, but one could in fact read the trilogy in reverse order and still find that it coheres.
His humour is unmatched. Davies writes with a biting wit that cuts with razor sharpness. He uses an ironic narrative that will always not only make one laugh, but laugh thoughtfully. He makes us think of life and love.
Davies was never appreciated as much as he should have been outside of Canada. These books are timeless and worth being on anyone's shelf.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 2, 2000
Robertson Davies is, above all things, a raconteur, and the greatest pleasure of these three interconnected Bildungsromans is that each offers pure narrative pleasure as they each plow through the events in a different man's life, all of which are connected in some way or another with the miraculous and the fantastic. One of the larger concerns of the trilogy as a whole is made evident in the title of the first book, FIFTH BUSINESS: can people be said to 'star' in their own lives, or are they simply bit players in the lives of the more important? The three books go about answering this question in radically different ways, but each offers its own delights and its own enounter with the "world of wonders" existing at the edge of quotidian life. Along the way, the books also offer the scholarly pleasures that Robertson Davies novels always allow: you wind up *learning* more after reading his books about some arcane lore than you do through reading almost any other (nearly-)contemporary novelist.
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