As the second book in the Deptford Trilogy, it’s not an easy thing to review The Manitcore without tipping a few secrets from Fifth Business that would, to me, spoil the pleasure and horror of the dénouement that concludes the first (review here). So on that note, I’ll try to keep things held back if I can help it, but I think after I read the third book in the trilogy, I hope to write a summary review of the whole tale, spoilers included.
After the events of Fifth Business, David Staunton travels to Zurich seeking out the help from a Jungian psychoanalyst, in this case Dr. Johanna Von Haller who has trained with Dr. Jung himself. Of course only someone like David, successful criminal lawyer and the son of a billionaire, could afford to go to the center of the psychotherapy world to seek help. At first he is reticent to go through with it, but after an imaginary cross-examination of his life, he is determined it must offer him something that will help.
In Fifth Business David Staunton is a very minor character, mostly seen in the background as a child and later as the events of Boy Staunton end the novel. And while Fifth Business was the story of Dunstan Ramsay, The Manticore is about David as much as it is about Dunstan’s “best” friend and David’s father Boy Staunton.
To put it plainly, Boy is kinda an asshole. Some might even argue “kinda” is putting it too kind. And even though there is not much to like he is fascinating to read about, considering it was Boy’s careless throwing of the snowball in the beginning of Fifth Business that spawned these series of tales and stories. This middle novel reveals much about how assholes can and do effect those closest to them.
David is asked by the analyst to write a history of his life, a journal of thoughts, and it is this narrative along with notes of therapy conversations that make up the bulk of the novel. David recalls the moments in his life that matter, discovering the masks he has put on, the lies he has told himself, attempting to figure out the truths of his family. Robertson Davies’ titles this section of the novel "David Against the Trolls," which comes from a poem by Isben that the therapist quotes:
To live is to battle with trolls
in the vaults of heart and brain.
To write: that is to sit
in judgement over one’s self.
In a lecture that the author once gave he remarked that “…trolls may be persuaded to yield deep secrets. They may, to some heroes of the inner struggle, yield what Jung spoke of as ‘primordial experiences’ - secrets from the depths of human spirit.” (x)
Jungian analysis has always been an interest to me, with its use of myth to reveal aspects of a person’s life. I’m not necessarily convinced of its impact to solve serious mental health issues (I would say the same of Freudianism) but it certainly provides a deep and rich vein for literary exploration and personal reflection. And this novel is Jungian through and through without being constricted by its direct exploration of Jungian analysis. I would be interested if real analysis is similar to what is depicted in the novel – I’m not sure. But the narrative deployment of mythic reflection in that analysis depiction is well done and thankfully doesn't come off pendantic. Considering that Joseph Campbell’s huge rise didn’t occur until the 1980s PBS Power of Myth specials, I would also be interested in how The Manticore’s first readers in 1973 digested Davies’ use of myth. I would expect that those who enjoy Joseph Campbell would simply love this book.
This might give you the impression that the novel is a lot of talk and little action. But be assured, stuff happens, with a good number of surprises and stories, from the death of David’s mother, his first sexual experience arranged by his father, his growing alcoholism, his unrequited love, his rise as a criminal lawyer and being a witness to a client’s execution – it’s a rich and troubled life
In the introduction by Michael Dirda, he attempts to define what a Robertson Davies novel is like.
Some readers find Davies’s novels, laced as they are with monologues about philosophy, art, and religion, distinctly and even garrulously old-fashioned. In truth, they aren’t naturalistic fictions at all – ‘I’m not in any way a devotee of realism,’ Davies has asserted. Instead his books are romances or philosophical fantasies, examples of what one might dub North American magic realism.
I’ve never come across the idea of North American magic realism. It’s an interesting idea that I can see in Davies work, but maybe even that is trying to pin down too much that doesn’t quite fit, though I think it’s an interesting place start. But what one does get with a Davies’ novel is a strong and lively narrative, with truly memorable characters, that keeps one reading and thinking all along till the end, casting a spell and a shadow, a bit of a dream and a nightmare.