Friday, September 16, 2011

Modern Fiction: Fifth Business

"... those roles which, being neither those of Hero or Heroine, Confidante or Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama..."
"... opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often reffered to as Fifth Business.

These quotes from William Robertson Davies' brilliant and best-known novel, the first in the Deptford Trilogy, describe its premise. Dunstable "Dunny" Ramsey begins his life story as he ducks to avoid a snowball thrown by his boyhood friend Percy Boy Staunton. It hits a young woman and precipitates the premature birth of Paul Dempsey. At once, both Dunny and the event are established as "Fifth Business".

Dunny's guilt-induced relationship with the singular Mrs Dempsey sees her apparent decline into madness... or sainthood. Robertson Davies then explores how a saint would be received in a small town in Ontario in the early years of the 20th century. Paul, Percy and Dunny's lives remain intricately intertwined, leading Dunny to Europe, Percy to wealth and status, and Paul to run away with a travelling circus. Jungian archetypes, faultless, wryly humourous prose, erudition, magic and mythology characterize this Canadian masterpiece.

First published by Macmillan of Canada in 1970, Fifth Business was selected 40th on the American Modern Library's "reader's list" of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.

William Robertson Davies, (born August 28, 1913 - December 2, 1995) was a Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, journalist, and professor. He was one of Canada's best-known and most popular authors, and one of its most distinguished "men of letters", a term Davies is variously said to have gladly accepted for himself and to have detested. Davies was the founding Master of Massey College, a graduate residential college associated with the University of Toronto.

The book is concerned with serious things, deeply so, but it’s also marvelously witty and even comic in parts. Davies has a gift for phrasing; early on, Dunstan’s mother describes Mrs. Dempster as having “a face like a pan of milk.” I’ll give you a representative passage–Dunstan has just stolen an egg to practice a magic trick, and accidentally broken it open in his pocket:
But that egg led to a dreadful row with my mother. She had missed the egg–it never occurred to me that anyone counted eggs–and accused me of taking it. I lied. Then she caught me trying to wash out my pocket, because, in a house with no running water, washing cannot be a really private business. She exposed my lie and demanded to know what I wanted with an egg. Now, how can a boy of thirteen tell a Scotswoman widely admired for her practicality that he intends to become the world’s foremost prestidigitateur? I took refuge in mute insolence. She stormed. She demanded to know if I though she was made of eggs. Visited unhappily be a good one, I said that that was something she would have to decide for herself. (ch. 7)

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