March 28, 2012

The Salterton Trilogy - Robertson Davies

I'm cheating a little bit here by reviewing 3 books in one post, but since I originally read them as a trilogy; and have just finished re-reading them as a trilogy; I am going to review them as a trilogy! These count as books 6, 7, and 8 in my attempt to re-read 13 Canadian books for The Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set. (5 books to go, and only 3 months left in the challenge. Can I do it?)

So, using the format that I have been using for these reviews, here goes...

Book(s): Tempest-Tost, A Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties, aka The Salterton Trilogy. My copies are all in one volume (one rather thick-ish volume). I'm not sure that I like these covers that Penguin is currently using.

First Read: The spring of 1995. For anyone who attended high school in the same province as me, in the same era, I read them for my OAC English Independent Study. At that point, I had read all of Robertson Davies' other books, loved him as an author, planned on reading these books anyways, so why not read them for credit!

Original Impressions: Not surprisingly, I loved them. I went into the books expecting to enjoy them, so I did. I don't have the essay that I wrote about these books, but I remember the thesis - that these books marked Robertson Davies' transition from playwright to novelist. He had previously written several plays, and when he came up with the idea for Tempest-Tost (a group of amateur actors put on a performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest), he figured that he would never get a group of actors to actually perform it as a play, since it is essentially poking fun at amateur actors and theatre groups. And so he wrote it as a novel, changing the direction of his future writing career. My essay was probably a bunch of pompous garbage, but I did inspire my English teacher to read these books (he hadn't previously, even though we were studying another Robertson Davies novel - Fifth Business - that year).

Current Impression: I have re-read these books many times over the years. Robertson Davies is one of my laugh-out-loud authors. I love his ironic sense of humour and his ability to draw such sharp characters. I still enjoy them. And I still agree with that original essay, though I could probably write it much better now. The first two books in the trilogy read more like plays - very character and action driven; an ensemble cast; episodic - I could almost see the scene and act divisions; and a romp with not much growth from beginning to end. But by the 3rd novel, there is a distinct main character who has grown by the end of the book.

The three books are held together by a common setting (Salterton - based on Kingston, Ontario) and by many common characters. The third book deviates a bit - it starts out in Salterton and the opening chapter gives the impression that the cast of characters is going to be similar to the previous books; but a new "main character" is quickly introduced, and the main plot line moves to London (England, not Ontario).

Let me say here and now that these books contain what is probably my favourite character in all of fiction - Humphrey Cobbler. How can I not like a character who is described as follows: "Cobbler was a man so alive, and so apparently happy, that the air around him seemed charged with his delight in life." Or who can declaim a speech such as, "Purcell! What a genius! And lucky, too. Nobody has ever thought to blow him up into a God-like Genius, like poor old Bach, or a Misunderstood Genius, like poor old Mozart, or a Wicked and Immoral Genius, like poor old Wagner. Purcell is just a nice, simple Genius, rollicking happily through Eternity. The boobs and the gramophone salesmen and the music hucksters haven't discovered him yet and please God they never will. Kids don't peck and mess at little scraps of Purcell for examinations. Arthritic organists don't torture Purcell in chapels and tin Bethels all over the country on Sundays, while the middle classes are pretending to be holy. Purcell is still left for people who really like music." I don't remember ever pecking away at Purcell's music for examinations; but I do torture Purcell on the organ the occasional Sunday! (Though I'm not yet arthritic.) I would love to meet Cobbler in person, but I don't know if I would be able to take his intensity if I had him as my teacher.

OK - diversion over. These books were written in the 1950s, and while there are a few cultural references that can place the books in that decade (see the gramophone reference above!), I can almost imagine much of them being written today.

One thing that bothered me on this re-read is Revelstoke's treatment of Monica in A Mixture of Frailties. Their relationship seems to be very much that of the abuser and his victim (psychological rather than physical); and possibly because I am older now than I was when I first read this book, it seemed more tinged by horror. I know that in the decade in which this book was written, domestic abuse was present by not openly acknowledged; but in this book, other characters reference it, and in the end she is free of him.

But all-in-all, these books include all that I love about Robertson Davies' writing, and really do show his development as an author. They will probably cycle through my re-read list every few years!

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