Fifth Business Paperback – Jun 28 2005
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The first book of Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy tells the story of three men destined to be crucial players in each others' lives. The story is, in fact, the memoir of Dunstan Ramsay, a long-time boarding-school teacher, set to retire. Written to the headmaster of the school, the memoir intends to disprove the common belief that Ramsay is nothing more than a senile old professor, "doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose." The story includes two other main characters, the outcast and eventual circus performer Paul Dempster and socialite Boy Staunton, with his "too glossy perfection."
The story of Ramsay's life begins when he is 10 years old, living in a small Canadian town called Deptford. A snowball thrown by Boy Staunton, intended for Ramsay, hits the pregnant mother of Paul Dempster, forcing her into labour early. She gives birth to a premature and deformed Paul. Ramsay feels responsible for this, and thus begins his guilty friendship with Paul, as well as his grudging friendship with Boy. Eventually, Dunstan Ramsay goes off to fight in the First World War, where he earns a Victoria Cross. He later travels throughout Europe and Mexico to pursue his interest in saints and write several books about them. He even attempts to prove that Paul's mother, whom he had taken a liking to over the years, is in fact a saint. Paul and Boy keep crossing paths with Dunstan, for good and ill, for the rest of his life. This fascinating, absorbing classic of Canadian literature is punctuated with elements of the comic, the supernatural, and the magical (even touching on the occult), while the writing itself is always elegant and at times exquisite. --Mark Frutkin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"...A mature, accomplished, and altogether remarkable book, one of the best of this or any other season, and it simply cannot be ignored." -- The Washington Post Book World
"A marvelously enigmatic novel, elegantly written and driven by irresistible narrative force." -- The New York Times --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
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.
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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