In the 1970s there was a popular Canadian television show called Reach for the Top
. It was a quiz-style game show pitting two teams of four against each other in a battle of general (read: mostly useless) knowledge. (Fun fact: Stephen Harper competed but did not win the national championship, although he came close—smart man.) Lamentably, the show did not survive, but the concept was reincarnated in Canadian high schools. Schools would form their own "reach for the top" teams and would compete in provincial and national tournaments.
The Reach team of which I was a member never made it to the nationals (we lost in the final round of the provincial tournament once—heartbreak!) but we had fun nonetheless. One in-joke all Reach players shared was the Atwood
, which proceeded like so: If a question concerning Canadian literature was posed and if no player knew the answer, someone would buzz in and guess "Margaret Atwood", the joke being that Atwood is the
ubiquitous Canadian author. The Atwood was a fun tension-dispeller, especially during a knuckle-biting Reach for the Top deathmatch—and was rioteously funny (or so our teenaged selves thought) when questions like "This Canadian author wrote his
second book at the age of 22..." were asked.
Well, I played the Atwood a few times during my Reach days, but now that I think about it, I'm not so sure she's the
Canadian author. Yes, she's everywhere and we all love her, but I'd contend that another figure is more quintessentially Canadian than Atwood. Of course, that depends largely on how you define Canadian, which discussion I will leave for the sociologists. But at the very least I will present the case for my favourite Canadian author: Robertson Davies.
At first glance, Davies is a curious choice. His novels are often "about nothing"—more boring
than Beckett-esque, yes, but hardly plot-driven the way an Atwood may be. One ought not summarize the plot of Deptford Trilogy
for fear that the books themselves might die of boredom! (Fifth Business
is about a stodgy saint-obsessed professor writing his memoirs—the action starts a mere fifty pages from the end—while The Manticore
features a misanthropic criminal lawyer who engages in Jungian psychotherapy in Switzerland for a while; these are hardly attention-grabbing blurbs.) And yet once the attentive reader looks past the seemingly boring nature of the plot, they will discover a world of magic, wonder and hilarity wrapped up in small-town Canadian life. If topping Atwood is a tall order, then matching Davies is an extra-large double-double.
The Deptford Trilogy
is probably the greatest trilogy I have ever read. It exceeds the sum of its constituents (as do all good multi-part works), which may come as a surprise to the scoffing masses who are wont to skim a plot synopsis and move on with their lives. Deptford is paradoxically the boring town we wish we had never grown up in and simultaneously the perfect place to linger as an adult.
What then is so compelling about this trilogy? We have first-rate writing from Robertson Davies, of course. I strongly suspect that Davies could spin a fascinating tale about sloths, for his powers of observation are always hard at work. His penchant for crisp description and hilarious characterization is in full force here.
There is a tendency in fiction to seek "over-real" characters; men and women who are so gritty that they accidentally become ludicrous parodies of real life. One might say that Davies instead treats the mundane, or perhaps the quotidian. While his characters are indeed fantastical in many respects (particularly Magnus Eisengrim), they are firmly grounded in reality. These are archetypes, yes, but in a way we are all archetypes, people striving to become the perfect version of ourselves. And you can bet that Davies has fun with the Jungian in his characters.
Davies also displays a recurring sense of ironic humour. We first see this cruel irony in Fifth Business, surrounding the traumatic events of Mary Dempster's pregnancy. Davies revisits it time after time: in Liesl's deformed appearance, in the stone that's continually being unturned (you'll know what I mean once you've read the series), in the ridiculously fantastical way Magnus Eisengrim becomes Magnus Eisengrim. And the spirit of psychology lingers throughout the trilogy too: we see Jung quite frequently (and well-done too, I might add—consult The Manticore
for more details), but Freud would have had a field day with World of Wonders
, and there is no small deal of psychological depth to Dunstan and friends in Fifth Business
This is not a series many have read. But few who pick it up do not enjoy it. Small-town Canadian life may seem boring, but Davies transforms this mundane existence into a sort of fantastical, magical reality where the reader discovers the joys of being human. For this is really what the Deptford Trilogy
is about: humanity at its essence. It's what the psychology and the murder mystery and the horrible carnival point to—the good and the evil in each of us. Worthy cause for contemplation from Canada's greatest author.