Wednesday Book Club: The Manticore

Wednesday, 2 July 2008 — 6:38am | Book Club, Canadiana, Literature

This week’s selection: The Manticore (1972) by Robertson Davies.

In brief: The second novel in the Deptford Trilogy never quite attains the the ambitious moral order and dramatic unity of its sublime predecessor, but it doesn’t need to, as it is a very different book tailor-made for a very different narrator. The story on the surface (a rationalist lawyer exorcises his personal demons with the aid of Jungian psychiatry) is not by itself earth-shattering. Where Davies’ genius shows its hand is in his depth of vision and talent for expository voice, best displayed when the book interlaces its characters and events with those of the previous volume. The Manticore stands independently, but with diminished elegance; I recommend it as essential reading for anyone who loved Fifth Business, which should or will be all of you.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Manticore, keep reading below.)

Dominion Day brought to mind the problem of the Great Canadian Novel; that is, if such a beast exists. For decades now, various circles of literary criticism have talked about the Great Canadian Novel as if it were a sasquatch—non-existent, frequently confused with actual wonders that fall just short of national mythopoesis, and hypothetically enjoyed over a pilfered can of Kokanee lager.

Some have gone so far as to call its existence an ontological impossibility. As I see it, this is symptom of the postmodern refusal to label anything the Great X-ian Y, but the arguments have some merit. The dominant complaint used to be the Argument from Our Inescapable Provincialism; nowadays, it is the Argument from Our Paradoxically Essential Multiculturalism. I attribute both lines of reasoning to an underlying anxiety that Canada has no shared history. To be more precise: we have a history, but people don’t like to share it.

According to my learned opinion, the matter of the Great Canadian Novel was settled in 1970. It’s by Robertson Davies and it’s called Fifth Business. If you haven’t read it, you must.

The Manticore is the sequel. Its narrator, David Staunton, is a minor character in Fifth Business who only appears to us peripherally as a child, and later, “a lawyer and a drunk,” in the first novel’s action. In The Manticore, we find out just how lawyer-like he is, and how drunk.

As I re-read Fifth Business beforehand, the ironies that reveal themselves in connection with the first book were especially visible to me. The biggest problem with sequels and derivative works of any sort is their tendency to fill in gaps that are best left open to interpretation, but Davies’ command of voice and perspective claims this pitfall as an asset, and that is when the novel is at its best.

There are moments in The Manticore that develop familiar characters entirely by implication. The information we glean from David’s tale is never just an exercise of filling in the blanks; some of the things we discover feel like they were hitherto unconsciously glossed over by the first book’s narrator, Dunstan Ramsay. We get a child’s-eye-view of some of the pivotal events in Fifth Business (insofar as the middle-aged David recalls his own childhood under psychiatric examination), and the added elements feel like they weren’t merely details the author hadn’t figured out at the time. They were organic events and behaviours that never struck Ramsay as relevant to his purpose as a storyteller, even if he knew about them. For one thing, he paid little to no mind to the Staunton children and the family’s servant, Netty Quelch (never named and barely mentioned in Ramsay’s memoir); the more we hear from David, the stronger our awareness of the first book’s implicit upstairs-downstairs myopia becomes.

It works both ways: what we already know from Ramsay’s story colours our impression of David’s narrative, revealing its limitations. Previously, I had thought of Fifth Business as a fiercely independent book with a marvelous sense of dramatic closure, but after reading The Manticore, there is a symbiosis between the two volumes that I cannot ignore. No doubt I’ll have even more to say on the matter once I read the third Deptford novel, World of Wonders.

One scene sticks out for me in this regard. I will not divulge all of the details here, to avoid spoiling too much.

It is one of David’s recollections from adolescence, wherein his sister Caroline makes two bold accusations based on a spot of deduction after a conversation with Netty. In the manner of the Harry Potter trio, Caroline imagines that the adults in her life are scandalous in the most romantic ways, and leaps to conclusions that are logical, entirely plausible, and almost certainly wrong.

The first claim is that David’s parentage is in doubt. We know, from the first book, that this isn’t the case… or do we? One of the guiding motifs of Fifth Business, explored further here, is how individuals rewrite their own histories without knowing it; Ramsay’s confessed unreliability as a narrator allows us to entertain a shadow of a suspicion. By the end of The Manticore, we are assured that the truth is what we thought it was all along.

We are given no such assurances vis-à-vis the veracity of Caroline’s second deduction, which involves a domestic murder identical to the one in Double Indemnity, curtains and all. The one in Double Indemnity is also related by an adolescent who suspects there is a lot more to grown-ups than meets the eye, and we are meant to believe that she is right. Caroline’s second theory is easy for the reader to discredit in conjunction with the first, but who knows? Sometimes, the boy really does cry wolf.

My point here is that the novel’s interplay of truth and misunderstanding is at the height of its powers when Davies weaves it in and out of a universe that he has already shown us through another character’s eyes.

As a consequence, I would shy from recommending The Manticore as a book to be read independently, though it is a distinct novel with its own sense of structure. I like to think of it as the second movement of a classical sonata, a meditative companion to the intricate thematic development and recapitulation of the allegro before it. (The more I dwell on the analogy, the better it fits. Note to self: explore this for potential publication.)

The frame story, presented as David’s notes on his Jungian psychiatric treatment and later, his diary, is a straightforward debate of ideologies that befits the self-doubting lawyer as well as the total moral closure of Fifth Business suits the hagiographer Ramsay. It is the usual confrontation between the rational docket of police-court evidence and the romantic conceptualization of life as dream and myth—nothing special, but made better in the telling.

Robertson Davies dips into an exquisite bag of storytelling tricks, and the biggest trick of all is the self-awareness of his characters. There is a fine distinction between Davies’ brand of self-awareness and the worn-out metafictional device of having the characters in a book realize that they have no existence off the printed page, which few authors ever get away with cleanly (the jury is still out on Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World). Metafiction works better as a logic game, like the Preludes in Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, than in it does in the form of a novel.

Where the Deptford novels are concerned, the self-awareness I speak of is more like the second book of Don Quixote, where the characters think of life itself as one big drama, and are all too willing to fit snugly in their parts. It’s an easy conceit to swallow, because the implication is that we, the readers, also think of life as one big drama, with the usual Jungian procession of good fathers and bad fathers and all the caves, whale bellies and threshold guardians in between. We’ve heard it all before in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, better known to today’s audiences as Star Wars.

It’s fascinating to think about the universalizing nature of archetypes in the context of the Great Canadian Novel’s questionable existence. Consider Davies’ own statements in The New York Times:

Did he detect any new theme breaking through in the Canadian novel?

“I don’t see one,” he said. “Of course, every author pursues his or her own theme in fiction. Margaret Atwood, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler – they all go their own way. There’s no central theme in the Canadian novel because there is no unifying Canadian problem.”

I’d say that the unifying Canadian problem is a product of its own non-existence: the much-belaboured problem of identity. Canadians are so divergent that whatever it is they share must reside at the heart of what it means to be human. Small wonder, then, that Davies capitalizes on Carl Jung and presents the world as a theatre of archetypes. Or, in his words (from the same article):

Did his own novels have a central theme?

“I do have one,” Mr. Davies said, “but I hesitate to mention it because it’s so ordinary: the growth of a life, of a spirit, from innocence to experience. But isn’t that the theme of every serious novel?” He paused. “I have a favorite motto that I sometimes inscribe for friends in Celtic. It goes: ‘A man must be obedient to the promptings of his innermost heart.'”

What isn’t so clear is why the human habit of abstracting lived experience as myth is so at odds with a rational worldview, which is presented as something antithetical to dreams, and an affliction of which David Staunton has to be cured (and even then, I am unconvinced that a psychiatric bloodletting does the trick). Herein lies the major issue I have with The Manticore: Davies’ conception of the legal, reasoning mind, and its discovery of the inner spirit, is founded on a number of naïve prejudices in the humanities that don’t stand up to careful scrutiny.

As the Feynmans, Sagans, and Nicholas Tams of the world have been shouting for ages, the rational imagination has plenty of room for myth and wonder. At risk of going off on a tangent, I would argue that one of the main reasons to be sceptical of institutions like organized religion is humanity’s thoroughly documented reputation as a species of inveterate storytellers. The intelligence that gives us everything from theorems to legal defences—knowledge representation, pattern recognition—resides in the same location as the right-brain spark that moulds the world into our personal visions.

The real difference is between objective and consensual models of reality; it has little to do with how we get there. Crucially, one’s spiritual/psychological reality can never be objective—and if The Manticore is any indication, Davies is aware of this. We all cast the life-drama’s roles differently: even the ones privy to the facts or responsible for the cryptic answer that closes Fifth Business (“the woman he knew, the woman he didn’t know,” and so on) can’t agree on who’s who. So much for authorial intention—and all the better for the reader’s interpretive freedom.

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