Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Robertson Davies -- Information

Here's the wiki:


Pretty standard stuff, though apparently some alternative band quoted Davies once. This chimes in with my own experience: I was reading World of Wonders outside of a Whole Foods one day and a tattooed hipster said something like "Dude! Great book!" Who knew Davies would become hip, of all things?

A general collection of links, saving me from doing a lot of it:


Here's an authentic Robertson Davies page. Best for the reproduced interview from American Way, absurdly one of those inflight magazines. People interview writers in inflight magazines? Huh? I thought they were filled with ads for overpriced stuff at the airport and things like " ten wines that will stretch your budget":


And here's an interesting piece from First Things, although I think it's mainly interesting for being exactly wrong on the guy, up and down the pike:


Friday, December 15, 2006

Robertson Davies part two

Davies’s one genuine classic is Fifth Business. It’s a masterpiece, and the only book of his I really recommend wholeheartedly. It’s the one time that all of his forces: Anglophilia, a sense of comedy, polymath erudition (you’ll learn a lot about hagiography here), and the notion of a man’s life as a spiritual autobiography that can reflect all of our lives (Davies’s interest in Jungian archetypes begins here) was held perfectly in balance.

As is often the case, it’s harder to talk about a book you love than a book that you hate. I would say that Fifth Business has an actual plot, with a very impressive ending, which helps things a lot. Davies is also a lot more tightly reined in here: his flights on hagiography make sense in term of the character of the protagonist, who has become obsessed with the sense of the miraculous in the mundane. Also, and it’s kind of sad, given the amount of attention this kind of stuff is given later in Davies career, this is the only place I know of where the mystical enters the mundane world with just the right sort of impact. Like many an academician, Davies had a real tendency to over-explain everything – and this is the sort of thing that doesn’t bear the weight of much explanation. This is the only time I really think he hit it right.

Oh, and A Prayer for Owen Meany owes a hell of a lot to this book.

Davies never hit that peak again, although the two immediate follow-ups have their moments. The Manticore, most of it, anyway, is Davies best stab at a spiritual autobiography using Jungian archetypes. As I said to a friend, it’s one of the best examples I know in literature of psychoanalysis. Unfortunately Davies gets our hero off the couch for the final third of the book, and it’s a mistake – the ending is rushed and lazy and just not worth getting into. World of Wonders is another one of Davies spiritual autobiographies of an artist – here a magician. The first part, dealing with Magnus Eisengram’s adventures with carny folk, is really first rate – Davies puts a lot of his varied learning to good play here, the carny stuff is incredibly interesting – it turns out a Dickensonian take on the carnival, which when you see it in fiction is usually presented in a hardboiled way – is the rarity, a fresh look. Unfortunately World soon shifts gears to the theater, and while Davies is enthusiastic, I found the whole thing a pretty dreadful slog. Davies is to theater writing what George Will is to baseball writing: he tries hard, but, well, you’d rather not.

After that it’s all a pretty dreadful slog. Some people do like the Cornish trilogy: I personally find The Rebel Angels tedious (and not especially an accurate picture of academia) and The Lyre of Orpheus just absolutely awful, Davies at his worst, all out of control with his musings on gypsies, sex, cuckoldry, uses of myth, uses of art, the ways art plays into myth, how an artist is formed, what he/she needs, etc. I know, it sounds fascinating, but it’s not, it’s tiresome, a crank’s opinions strung out interminably. This is what happens when you have no discipline; yeah, verily, this is what happens when you don’t have an editor.

These two novels buttress What’s Bred in the Bone, which has it’s admirers but is not one of my favorites, mainly because Davies here is excessively taken with the notion of counterfeiting as an artistic stance, essentially. Certainly would make an interesting essay, not so much an interesting novel -- the drum is beat mercilessly for it. We also see a final sort of perversion of a device that worked reasonably well in The Manticore: a Socratic dialog in which one person is all-knowing and the other one’s a putz, and the dialog is really there just to point up how putzy (is that a word? Now it is!) this guy really is. That’ll work when you’re looking at psychoanalysis, since that’s essentially the dynamic that’s taking place, but life ain’t psychoanalysis.

I read online a critic quoted saying that when you first look at Davies, you think you see a lake miles across, but when you dip a toe into it, you’re shocked to see it’s only an inch deep. That’s a bit harsh, although there’s something to the snark: Davies is really like John Dickson Carr in a lot of ways, he apes classic British writing so well you expect you’re going to get classic British breadth, but in point of fact both men’s reach was quite short. It matters little with Carr, who never wanted to be anything more than an updated Gothic writer, I think, but Davies is trying to play on a bigger court, and there it shows. Reading a lot of Davies back to back points it up, too -- but hell, you could say that about anybody.

What I would say is that Davies really only had one story to tell after the journeyman/prepatory work of the Salterton trilogy: something like “a spiritual autobiography of a kind of creative man who learns lessons and experiences mythic occurances both extreme and subtle that bring light to us all”. Something like that. And he tries it again and again and again and he got it just right with Fifth Business, and thereafter never balanced the seesaw properly. But hey, if any of us can cough up a Fifth Business we’d be lucky men, so let’s not sneer too loudly.

Generally overrated, but he had his moments.

Robertson Davies

I’ve talked elsewhere here about how one of the things that people want out of a book is knowledge. People want to learn things – it’s the only way to explain the popularity of somebody like Arthur Hailey.

Let’s push this a bit further. I think lurking at the heart of this is the notion, deep in the reader’s soul, that the writer has wisdom. (The way that there’s a deep, almost unacknowledged sense that the musician or, to a lesser extent, the artist has passion). Now, of course a moment’s sober reflection is enough to bring to mind countless foolish or silly writers. Yet the notion continues. I think deep in Western civilization’s soul lies this idea that the writer, if not exactly a better person than the common Joe or Jane, is at least a different sort of person, set apart in some kind of fundamental way.

Thus the higher end version of somebody like Arthur Hailey, who tries to teach you how an airport works, is somebody like Robertson Davies, who tries to teach you how to live.

Davies was once well-known – so well-known that he was seriously bandied about for the Nobel Prize. Nowadays – not so much. Although a cult-like following persists, and I rather expect some of his books, most notably Fifth Business, will survive.

Davies was an Anglophile, and like a lot of these sorts – John Dickson Carr leaps to mind – he was more British than British. Although theoretically taking place in Canada, you could change the place names to English ones and it wouldn’t make much difference. For all of his fussing about Canada and what it is and what its people are like, none of his books feel exceptionally Canadian to me. Of course, considering I’ve actually never been to Canada, don’t know any Canadians, and have not even really thought all that much about Canada, you might fairly ask what I think “authentically Canadian” really is. And honestly, I don’t have an idea.

But I know this ain’t it.

Davies’s reputation is based on three trilogies. He started out with the very cautious Salterton trilogy: Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties. These are small city comedies in what I suspect was intended to be the Trollope mold: that is, while they have their humorous moments, they’re mainly meant to be gentle meditations on life. There’s a happy ending, but you’ll get some painful moments too – that kind of thing.

They’re basically early efforts, Davies learning his voice and craft. Tempest-Tost centers around a small-town production of, um, The Tempest. A lot of interesting details of how one puts together this kind of production, and some good pictures of the local townsfolk, but it doesn’t have much by way of a story. Leaven of Malice actually has a plot – it even ends with a marriage (or at least an announcement of one) – but it’s not a particularly interesting plot, and it’s not hard for the reader to detect the locus of authorial interest and energy in the accounts of a smallish newspaper, sort of the sideshow of the thing.

The most interesting of the three is A Mixture of Frailties, which is the first appearance of the “biography of the artist seen as a spiritual exploration”, a kind of thing Davies would tackle again (What’s Bred in the Bone, most interestingly in World of Wonders). I think Davies is pretty good as this notoriously hard-to-manage kind of thing, and I think the secret is that he focuses on the performing arts (magic, acting, singing, interestingly, connoisseurship). This enables him to dramatize the kind of things that, for an artist, are usually pretty internal. And, more basically, these kinds of people just generally get out and do more interesting things, inherently.

I don’t think Frailties is a great book, it still feels hesitant to me (like this whole series, actually) and female characters are not Davies strong suit, but it’s the best of the Salterton Trilogy and would most clearly show Davies’s path.

End of Part One.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Louis Auchincloss - information

There's a lot of special pleading for Auchincloss. Here's the very best example I found, Bruce Bawer (who should write on books more often):


But even he has to carefully delinate and circumscibe everything: yeah, he only deals with a certain subsection of America, yeah, his concerns are limited, etc.

This is the more unreflective kind of special pleading. This is the kind of thing that made me cancel my New Criterion subscription:


This is also the kind of thing that makes people treat conservative critics less seriously. One has the sneaking feeling Auchincloss is admired mainly because he's talking about "our" kind of people.

Here's the other typical assessment of Auchincloss, just sheer goggle-eyed amazement that the poor bastard is here doing what he's doing at all:


Which may be the most honest reaction, actually. His books aren't really interesting, but he is.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Louis Auchincloss

Auchincloss is primarily a short story writer. In his introduction to his Collected Short Stories, he genially says that he thinks some of his best work is in the short form. But in fact even his most famous novel, The Rector of Justin, isn't a long form story so much as it's a series of shorter works, with the main character the connecting thread.

It is extemely interesting that Auchincloss once had a bestselling book, with Justin. Nowadays, to the extent that one thinks of him at all, one sees him as a nice grandfatherly type relegated to the back pages of The New Criterion, sipping sherry and writing notes on Edith Wharton. Hard to imagine Auchincloss as young. My copy of Tales of Manhattan had a picture of Auchincloss with presumably his kid. It was forty years ago and he looks old there.

Auchincloss is plowing the same field that Marquand did, and many others have -- "the decline and fall of the gentry", with "the gentry" being variously defined. Marquand was obsessed with the reality of the notion itself; Auchincloss more or less takes the decline for granted, as a jumping off point. This gives the writers varying strengths and weaknesses. Marquand meant it so damn hard that much of his work has the humorless thudding feel of a tract.. Yet when it works, as I think it mostly does in Point of No Return, it has an undeniable power. Auchincloss is a much better, much more consistent line by line writer than Marquand ever was, and his work has a sprightliness,, a bounce and a sense of humor that's often sorely needed in Marquand. On the other hand, a lot of Auchincloss feels like a genial waste of time. The poor old duffer would probably keel over if I told him this, but a lot of his work feels to me like very highbrow Judith Krantz. It has the same sort of voyeuristic peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous, the same sort of "secret sharer" mentality that pervades a lot of this kind of writing. Of couse, Auchincloss is more acerbic and ironic about it than Krantz, but I'm not really sure that equals out to "depth", Henry James references or no Henry James references.

So I think he's basically skippable. You're not going to get much bang for your buck here. Auchincloss is usually pretty good with scene-setting, and he usually tosses in some interesting reflections about character along the way, but I don't know if that makes up for actually having to plow through The House of Five Talents, say. Again, it's interesting Auchincloss was once a bestselling author. Times were certainly different in the mid Sixties.

What's really needed is a sympathetic editor who can go over Auchincloss's complete work and pull out the best bits. If there was ever an author who's screaming for one of those "Portable" anthologies, it's Auchincloss. As I said, even his novels are really short story cycles in drag, it's not like you're going to miss much by way of context. In the meantime, if you really must, The Rector of Justin is easily available and fairly representative of the kind of thing Auchincloss does. Charting the life of the founder of an exclusive private school, it is quite readable, very evocative, and often very wise and knowing about humans and their frailities. One does finish it, though, wondering what the hell all the fuss and bother was for.