Ever wonder why your life turned out the way it did? Was it fated by some childhood incident that sparked a journey that you wouldn’t have otherwise taken? I sometimes wonder about those kinds of things. What if this happened instead of that? How would have things turned out differently?
Probably more interesting is recognizing those moments that did have such a lasting influence, but are so buried in our past, that we rarely call it up for reflection. But what are those moments? How much was in or out of our control? This reminds me of the classic tension between freedom and fate.
These are a few of the sketchy thoughts I’m having after finishing Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business a couple weeks ago. Dunstan Ramsey, the narrator and central character, looks back on his life after retiring as a history teacher at a boys school, has one moment from his childhood that sparked a series of trajectories that he couldn’t have planned for, desired, or brought about by sheer free will, but has carried his life through unexpected turns and discoveries. According to him, “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5:58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.” (1) This involvement began when he jumped out of the way of a snowball that ended up hitting Mrs. Dempster in the head, causing her to fall, and ultimately resulting in her going into early labor and delivering a premature baby boy.
First I thought, that’s some nasty snowball. How’s that even possible? Well, there is a secret in the snowball which is revealed in the end, but it is a secret I won’t spoil here. But there you have it from the beginning, Dunstan recognizing that one moment that set his life on a particular path, affecting all those involved: Dunstan Ramsey who jumped out of the snowball’s trajectory; Mrs.Dempster, the Baptist pastor’s wife, who not only delivers early, but seems to have lost a bit of her mind due to the accident; the baby boy, Paul Dempster, who’s own journey goes in unexpected worldwide directions; and the kid who threw the snowball in the first place, Percy Boyd Staunton, who Dunstan describes as his lifelong friend and enemy.
Even though this is primarily Dunstan’s story, he seems to be the observer, sharing plenty of the other characters’ stories. In fact Dunstan eventually learns his role in this grand scheme, summed up as the “fifth business” which is defined before the novel even starts as “Those roles with, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business” attributed to Den Danske Skueplads by Tho. Overskou.
But being the ”fifth business” does not make Dunstan’s story any less interesting or uneventful. From his seemingly minor adventures as a child, to his recruitment to go fight in World War I, his travels over the Europe and South America searching out saints and magicians, along with his lifelong, yet platonic, relationship with a former pastor’s wife, Dunstan’s obersevations and friends are imbued with a mythic quality without losing any sense of reality, along with a playful and deeply wrought humor.
I prefer not to spill too much of the story here, but from what I’ve said so far, do not mistake this novel for a simple series of slices of life lessons spread across time. This novel is beautifully constructed, with a long game plot that was completely unexpected, and one that should be enjoyed without any major spoilers from me.
One aspect of the novel I really enjoyed was it’s exploration of magic and religion. Yes, magic, like in card tricks, which Dunstan as a teenager teaches to the even younger Paul Dempster as he watches him for his mother. This innocent moment of teaching card tricks has far-reaching consequences that thoroughly suprised me, illustrating Davies’ mastery of narration and plot has the lightest touch.
And speaking of the lightest touch, Davies’ working through religious ideas and pursuits didn’t come off clunky in the least, as could be the case in lesser writers. In fact his treatment of religion is evocative without pandering to the cliche dictonomies common in what I see in my Facebook feed.
Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable facts? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real?
Philosophers have tackled this question, or course, and answered it in ways highly satisfactory to themselves; but I never knew a philosopher’s answer to make much difference to anyone not in the trade. I was trying to get at the subject without wearing either the pink spectacle of faith or the green spectacles of science. All I had managed by the time I found myself sitting in the basilica of Guadalupe was a certainty that faith was a psychological reality, and that were it was not invited to fasten itself on things unseen, it invaded and raised bloody hell with things seen. Or in other words, the irrational will have its say, perhaps because ‘irrational’ is the wrong word for it. (186-187)
Perhaps Davies is trying to come up with another word for it, but if so, he doesn’t let that get in the way of telling a good story that doesn’t need to provide clear definitions of “truth” or “beauty,” but instead let’s the characters have their say.
But I won’t get to far afield, since like Dunstan, “I had schooled myself since the war-days never to speak of my enthusiasm; when other people did not share them, which was usual . . . why was I always excited about things other people did not care about?”(154) Religion and myth, along with history and lit, is something that I always find interesting to talk about, but rarely find people who share an enthusiasm in a approach that avoids the reductionist in us all. I’m told that either I am wrong or right about some particular thing, even though for me that is beside the point. Like Dunstan says of a particular type, “they have the cruelty of doctrine without the poetic grace of myth.”(213) Discussing such things is not about putting people or ideas in particular boxes to keep my worldview in comfortable balance, but like fiction itself, is about exploring and understanding the ideas and people that have created the culture we live in, risking that we may change because of it.
Though Davies use of myth is one of the hallmarks I hear most people talk about when it comes to his novels, don’t mistake Fifth Business for some religious story. It is less a religious story and more of an Biblical story in the best sense, with plenty of sex, war, peace, murder, exploring the perennial myths of youth, aging, guilt, wealth, and fame.
For those familiar with this novel will notice I have not mentioned it is actually part of a tryptich typically referred to as The Deptford Trilogy. After Fifth Business comes The Manticore and then lastly the World of Wonders. I have not read the other two works yet, though I understand they can be read as stand alone works, but they also play off each other, revisiting particular characters and events from the other novels, while expanding the Deptford universe. I plan to dive into those works soon enough, but wanted to consider Fifth Business as it’s own creation before being colored by the rest of the stories that will come to build off from it. But starting from where I stand now, I can so far concur with others who have claimed that this is Davies’ masterwork.
So what more can I say? This novel is one that I’ve heard about for years and have always heard good things. I ignored reading it for so long, unfortunatley. But since the beginning of the New Year I have made more of a conscious effort to read some things that I’m more than familair with, but never have got around to spending time on. In reading Fifth Business I could not have expected to enjoy it as much as I did. In this I’ve learned something, and not in just an abstract manner, but to not resist all the good books I’ve heard about for so long. I know I won’t get to them all, but at least I’ll be able to remedy a few before my fate closes in on me.