Friday, 1 December 2006

The Deptford trilogy

Listening to:

Mikhail Pletnev playing Beethoven “variations and bagatelles”. (Deutsche Grammophon 457 493-2.)

Just read:

Robertson Davies, The Deptford Trilogy.

When I bought this rather fat book (it’s an omnibus of three novels, Fifth Element, The Manticore, and World of Wonders), I hoped that it would be as good as Davies’s Cornish Trilogy. Unfortunately, it’s nothing like as successful, in my opinion. Of the three constituent novels, the first is definitely the best. The last is little more than a series of conversations that are supposed to be taking place as the main characters make a film about one of their number. This character, the film’s subject, has a reasonably interesting story to tell, but is an arrogant tosser, who seems to be in the novel mainly to serve as contrast with the terribly provincial Canadians. The other significant character is the earnest Canadian intellectual, aware of his desperate disconnect with all that is deeply meaningful, and willing to sit at the knee of the liberated soul.

That the guru is actually a stage magician just seems like willful perversity on the part of the author. The first novel is not so bad because it tells the story of how these people grow up, escaping their small village upbringing and because it introduces the one great drama that defines the trilogy. For all that this might be proof of their basic unworthiness, Davies definitely entertains with his descriptions of his characters’ origins. Their childhoods are well done, and the stories of the characters’ early adult careers are interesting too. In particular, this stage of things includes a third character. He’s interesting, though even worse off on the possession-of-soul front, eventually growing up to become a dirty capitalist and all-round fixer.

There are occasional flashes of humour, but most of it is earnestly serious:

... Eisengrim directed him to look towards the ceiling, from which his handkerchief fluttered down into his hands. He borrowed a lady’s handbag, and from it produced a package that swelled and grew until he revealed a girl under the covering; he caused this girl to rise in the air, float out over the orchestra pit, return to the table, and, when covered, to dwindle once again to a package, which, when returned to the lady’s purse, proved to be a box of bon-bons. All old tricks. All beautifully done. And all offered without any of the facetiousness that usually makes magic shows so restless and tawdry.

This is well-written, elegant even, but this tone dominates the 700 pages, and grows wearying. And basically, not enough really happens.