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on May 13, 2002
There are a thousand reviews on Amazon saying "this is the best book I've ever read", so they're easy to pass off as hyperbole, but do yourself a favor and read this book. This is great literature, and although I am pleased to find a lot of reviews here saying that it is required reading in many literature classes, this is a book that inspires more than academic analysis - approach it with a sense of wonder and you will be amply rewarded.
I first read "Fifth Business" around 1970, and I've been telling people for over thirty years that I've never read anything to compare to it. At the time everyone was touting "The French Lieutenant's Woman" for it's "magical realism", but that was a cold read compared to "Fifth Business." This book transports you. You will find it hard to leave the world of Dunstan Ramsey when you finish this book.
The rest of the "Deptford Trilogy" is very good (though I found "World of Wonders" far superior to "The Manticore"), but if Davies had never written another word after "Fifth Business" his literary reputation would have been assured.
After spending all those years claiming that this book is the best novel of the second half of the 20th centiry, I felt an obligation to pick it up again as the year 2000 rolled around, since it had been several years since I last read it. I was not disappointed - despite being so familiar with the book, I was unable to put it down, and read far into the night before finishing.
Do yourself a favor and visit the world of Dunstan Ramsey - those who don't are the poorer for it.
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on October 28, 2011
As fresh today as it was when I first read it in high school some 34 years ago and, more importantly, it still speaks to those students to whom I teach it in the 21st Century classroom, not least because it is unashamedly Canadian in focus and it is a great introduction to Jungian psychology. It remains my favourite novel because, as with anyone's favourite piece of literature, it affects me most personally.
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on July 18, 2002
Fifth Business, the first installment of the Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy, is without doubt the best novel that I had never heard of. Davies prose and narrative voice rival Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited in elegance, humor, and style. And his characters and plot development, so rich, absorbing, and at once triumphant and tragic, put this fine novel in the same class as Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
The term 'Fifth Business', as Davies describes, refers to the role in an opera, usually played by a man, which has no opposite of the other sex. While only a supporting character, he is essential to the plot, for he often knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when all seems lost, or may even be the cause of someone's death. In this novel, Dunstan Ramsay plays this role, and he is in maginificent form. Though he narrates the novel, and is intimately entwined in the lives of all its characters, he somehow manages to remain slightly in the background as a passive observer of others. It is through his eyes that we witness the rise of Boy Staunton, his childhood friend from the small Canadian town of Deptford. While Dunny goes off to the war where he is seriously wounded, and later becomes a boarding school master and expert on the history of saints, Boy makes his fortune in the sugar business and eventually pursues a career in politics. Dunny, whose soft-spoken charm, honesty, and self-reflection become clear through his narration, serves as an admirable foil to Boy, whose drive and ambition are unrestrained by a sense of morality, duty, or altruism.
But the novel is far more complex than a simple study of two contrasting characters. Davies' cast is rich and diverse, and their lives intertwine fluidly, though often in surprising ways. There is Mrs. Dempster, who in the opening pages is struck by a snowball thrown by Boy and intended for Dunny, and is rendered "simple" after the subsequent premature birth of her son Paul. Paul runs away from home at a young age, but reappears later in the novel in a key role. And Liesl, the magician's manager, a strong-willed and sexually aggressive woman, hardened by life but wise in the ways of the world, proves to be an admirable rival for Dunny as astute observer of others.
Narrated in the form of a letter to Dunny's headmaster, the novel maintains a strong sense of plain honesty throughout. It is a remarkable novel, and a shock that Davies has remained relatively obscure in this country.
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on June 29, 2003
Merciful heavens, what a novel!! The implications of a thrown stone-loaded snowball is the basis of this book, and indeed an entire trilogy. From this simple premise comes one of the most profound and multi-layered stories that I have come across. Magically brilliant. Dunstan Ramsey is the narative voice of the book and is a nicely fleshed out character. Ramsey is moved by his unfounded guilt because of his part in the fateful snowball toss. His guilt and dedication is nicely played against the carelessness of Boy Stanton. A very thoughtful novel. Truly a great and important work.
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on September 29, 2011
This is considered one of the greatest books in Canadian literature. I think it is the best. The striking thing about this book is it is both traditional and modern. The main character Dunstan Ramsay is a biographer of saints and a believer in miracles. Mythology, psychology, chance and the modern world interplay for this classic tale which seeks to unravel many of life's questions. I would recommend reading the entire Deptford Trilogy including The Manticore and World of Wonders as it will flush out many of the unanswered questions from Fifth Business.
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on October 4, 2000
The best way to approach Fifth business is to read it in small installments. This is definitely not a read until sunrise book. This is a true Saga, leaving out plenty of unnecessary detail. It covers the life of one man, almost desperately trying to prove that he has lived a full and interesting life. As the reader, you are to judge this by paying attention to his bizarre but captivating hobbies in life. Most people don't want to read about dubious sex scenes, nor sinners and saints. Davies draws on our own feeling, we all have our own unique interests in life and find that relating to Ramsay is easy. The ending is not so much of a shocker as a pleasant conclusion to a story which nearing the finish has been dragged out somewhat. None the less what makes this book a great read is how it sets the scene for the next installment of the Deptford trilogy (The manticore) which is twice as wonderful, though pointless without reading fifth business. None the less there are great lessons of life to be learned, and a vaguely true generalisation of Canadians. A fair read, though a great trilogy. Three stars.
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on February 14, 2004
I first read Fifth Business as a course requirement in college 25 years ago. To this day, that very same copy sits on my bookshelf, dog-eared and well worn. This is truely one of the finest books I have ever read and I recommend it most whole-heartedly. Robertson Davies was short-listed for the Nobel Prize in 1986 and when you read Fifth Business I'm sure you will understand why.
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Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy is a strange, slightly magical trio of fictional biographies, all of which originate in the small Canadian town of Deptford. And it all starts with "Fifth Business," Davies' exploration of the life of Dunstan Ramsey and his friendship with a callous billionaire and a magician-- magical, intellectual, and written in a pleasantly old-timey style.

As a boy, Dunstan dodged a snowball thrown by rich brat Percy Boyd Staunton... but it then hit the minister's pregnant wife, Mary Dempster. She went into premature labor from the shock, and produced a tiny baby named Paul. What's more, she apparently lost her mind (which resulted in a massive sexual scandal).

Dunstan grew up with mingled guilt and fascination with Mary, since she seemed to have a purity and sweetness that didn't mesh with her depraved reputation. As the years went by, Dunstan left Deptford behind to become a soldier in World War I, was badly injured, had his first passionate affair, went to college and became a teacher at an elite boys' school. And because of his fascination with Mary, he became interested in the Catholic pantheon of saints.

He also remained friends with Percy, who had renamed himself "Boy" Staunton, married his childhood sweetheart and become a wealthy, influential man. But Dunstan discovers that Boy is also a selfish, cruel man who wrecks his poor dumb wife's life, spoiled his daughter and alienated his son -- and since this is a book, it inevitably leads to tragedy.

Like many of Robertson Davies' books, "Fifth Business" is a sort of fictional biography with lots of sprawling, interconnected plot threads that feed back into each other. And aside from what is actually going on, Davies weaves in some more intellectual content, focusing on saints, God and what makes a person truly good -- what they do, or who they are.

He wrote in a stately, almost 19th-century style ("She knew she was in disgrace with the world, but did not feel disgraced; she knew she was jeered at, but felt no humiliation. She lived by a light that arose from within"), but laced it with magical realism and some clever satire (Boy's pretentious friends "were so humourless and, except when they were drunk, so cross that I thought the ordinary fellow was lucky not to be like them").

The only flaw of it is perhaps that it deals primarily with the life of Dunstan Ramsey, who isn't nearly as interesting as the luminous sinner-saint Mary Dempsey, or her runaway child Paul. Dunstan comes across as cold, introverted and rather pathetic (especially since he keeps letting Boy shove him around), especially since he never quite realizes that he is "watching life from the sidelines and knowing where all the players go wrong."

The supporting characters are fascinating -- Mary is a hauntingly lovely depiction of a woman who knows nothing about what the world cares about, and is slowly ruined by her innocence. On the other hand, Boyd is a man with no inner depth or goodness because he cares only about the world. And there are many others: Magnus Eisengrim, the kindly Diana, and the ugly but wise Liesl ("With such a gargoyle! And yet never have I known such deep delight or such an aftermath of healing tenderness!").

"Fifth Business" is the jumping point from the Deptford Trilogy -- the protagonist isn't nearly as intriguing as the supporting cast, but they're enough to fascinate and horrify.
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on December 31, 2001
This is a very typical Canadian novel, set in the first half of the 20th century. The protagonist, Dunstan Ramsay, is born in a small Ontario town where he experiences the sort of the village politics that have since become a thing of the past (the social differences between different Christian denominations dominates the scene).
Dunstan undergoes several major turning points in his life. The first and probably most important is World War 1 (1914-1918), an event that was definitive in the formation of Canadian identity. Dunstan then becomes a teacher and leads a rather uneventful life.
Some of themes explored in the book are spirituality vs. materialism, psychology and religion. The first theme is evident in the interaction between Dunstan and his lifelong friend, Boy Staunton. Boy is a successful businessman who succeeds at everything he tries but has little time or inclination for spiritual matters. Dunstan, meanwhile, teaches at a high school his whole life and writes books about saints. Dunstan finds intellectual stimulation and meaning in the inner life. Psychology is explored using Jungian symbolism (Carl Justav Jung 1875-1961, Swiss-German psychologist) and Sigmund Freud's ideas, (1856-1939, Austrian, founder of psychology). Their ideas about the unconscious, both individual and collective, are seen throughout the book.
The preoccupation of with psychology of religion in the book is very telling of the late 20th century. The characters are more concerned with their emotions, "mental health" and the like rather than whether finding out if beliefs are true. The depiction of agnostics/atheists in the novel is very realistic; the characters mumble something about reason or rationality and then proceed to ridicule the believer. Granted this sort of behavior is limited to those people who believe atheism because it is fashionable and thought to be intellectual, it is still well done.
Another major theme is that of religion and magic; are they the same? Do the differences really matter? One of Dunstan's favorite sayings is that the Bible and Arabian Nights are very similar; this is not explained though. I got the impression that Davies is saying that both of them are simply amusing, meaningful stories with no objective basis or that the value of both of them is in their psychological truths. Paul Dempster, whose premature birth is caused by Dunstan and Boy, renames himself Magnus Eisengrim and becomes a magician of international renown.
Overall, I found the novel interesting although its approach to matters of religion is tiresome. After all, if one's beliefs are false then it does not matter how useful or satisfying you find them, for they are nothing but a fiction. The struggle for identity in the novel is very Canadian, for we are always trying to define ourselves other than to say, "We're not Americans."
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on October 26, 2001
In classical dramatic theory (Davies started out as an actor), there are four principal roles: Hero, Heroine, Confidante (the Hero's sidekick), and Villain (who tries to separate the Hero and Heroine). But something more is needed: The supporting players who serve as catalysts in the actions of the major roles, and that composite role is known as "Fifth Business." Dunstable Ramsey is the lifelong catalyst between Percy Boyd Staunton and his inept wife, Leola Cruikshank, and also between the tragic Mrs. Dempster and her son, Paul. All are originally residents of the small rural Ontario community of Deptford, but the rational and decent Ramsey (who changes his first name to "Dunstan"), and the money-driven but also usually decent Percy (who changes his name to "Boy"), and the success-driven but also eventually decent Paul (who changes his name to "Magnus") rise greatly in the world, though in very different ways. There are any number of parallel themes, but the major one involves Ramsey's search for the supernatural in a merely real world. Davies is a master of in-depth characterization and also exhibits a delightfully droll sense of humor, both of which together will hold your attention to the last page. Happily, this is only the first volume of a terrific trilogy!
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