“The Cunning Man” By Robertson Davies (Viking, $23.95)
One might expect a certain deference to be accorded an artist of international stature, still working at age 81. One might expect criticism of his work to be muted, demands on his time restrained, in respectful recognition of his years of solitary toil.
But just the opposite has been the case for Robertson Davies, Canada’s pre-eminent writer. This Olympian figure, with his flowing white locks and his massive white beard, laughs a belly laugh at any suggestion that people are letting him off easy now that he is 81.
“By no means,” Davies related earlier this month in Seattle. “People get very demanding when you get old. If you’re still producing work, they seem to think you’re immortal and can do anything, so they aren’t shy about asking you to do all sorts of things. And the younger critics are not shy either - there’s nothing they like better than to suggest that it’s time you gave up the work, or that your recent books are not up to your past standards.”
Davies is undeterred by any such impertinent suggestions. Writing is still what he likes to do best and what he probably will continue to do until, as he puts it, “I fall over my typewriter.”
He has just published his 12th novel, “The Cunning Man.” It is, like his others, a story with a large cast of characters and an important theme - “the coming of age of a man (Dr. Jonathan Hullah) and the city (Toronto) where he lives” - told with Davies’ characteristic wit, insight and erudition.
As always happens with a new novel, Davies now likes “The Cunning Man” better than any of his past novels, although he says he remains uncertain whether it really is his best one. His nearness to the new novel - like a new baby - makes any dispassionate assessment of its real worth impossible for now.
But Davies emphasizes that he is not unmindful, at his age, of the need for a special vigilance toward his work.
“You have to be very watchful not to become a kind of granddaddy who lectures people about all manner of things,” he says. “And you have to keep your eye on what the world is doing today, not what it was doing when you were younger.”
Davies is no hermit. He finds the world “almost more interesting than I can bear, all but overwhelming in terms of the sensations it provides.” As Davies flew from Toronto to Seattle, he was subjected to Sylvester Stallone’s latest offering, a movie he says left him “goggle-eyed with all its bang, bang, bang, kill, kill, kill.”
Nor does Davies consider himself, after writing 30 books and plays, exempt from dirtying his hands in the commercial aspects so crucial to the publishing business today. His talk to a sold-out audience of 2,100 at Seattle Arts and Lectures was only the first stop on a book promotional tour through five American cities for “The Cunning Man.” It follows a similar tour through Canada and precedes another through England, despite Davies’ great distaste for days of airplanes, hotels and suitcases.
“This is the way books are sold today,” he says. “And I certainly do not pretend to be so grand that I don’t care if I sell any books.”
Davies comes across as a writer’s writer - a person of rock-solid equanimity who is generous in his assessment of other writers and modest about his own accomplishments. He also seems the gentleman incarnate, polished of mind and manners and attire, intellectual, thoughtful, often bemused by life and fate, yet also unabashedly blunt-spoken, even profane.”I told those guys … that they could take their dead mouse and stick it,” he recalls with a smile. “To hell with them, that bunch of soup boilers.”
Part of what makes Davies such an intriguing character is that he has had several careers. His first was as an actor in the famed Old Vic Company in London (“I had the wrong temperament for an actor; actors like to show themselves off and I preferred to hide behind layers of makeup”). Next he became a journalist, following in the inkstained trade of his father and several other forebears.
Then he turned to playwriting, probably his greatest love, pursued through 17 plays that never quite achieved the success he hoped. It was characteristic of his luck in that pursuit that when one of his plays finally did make it to Broadway, it opened during a newspaper strike and quickly closed. He later spent years as a university professor, writing novels instead of plays whenever he could find the time.
Other novelists might bemoan not coming to that form sooner, but not Davies.
“I started writing novels when I had something to write about,” he says. “A lot of novelists write one book, which is largely autobiographical, and then they’re up a tree, wondering what they’re going to write about next. You’ve got to have something to write about - and I drew on all my experiences in different fields.”
Davies’ novels are praised for their sweep and insight, as well as his fine touch with the human comedy of everyday life. With three separate trilogies of novels under his belt, Davies is sometimes seen as a kind of 20th-century Canadian version of such 19th-century British writers as Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope. Davies does venerate such classic storytellers and their work, although he bristles at being frequently labeled “an oldfashioned writer.”
“My novel ‘The Manticore’ is the only novel written in the form of a Jungian analysis,” he says. “And a number of my novels have been done in an experimental way, such as being told entirely by a bystander to the action. I often don’t tell a literal story, like Henry James, suggesting things instead. I try to get my reader to work, to fill in the blanks.”
Great honors have long come Davies’ way, from his native Canada to England to the United States. He is the first Canadian to become an honorary member of the august American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Yet, at 81, Davies says his one great wish is that he could know for certain that he had written “one really good book.”
Nor is he convinced that his work will live on after he is gone.
“I don’t know and I don’t have any solid notion that I will be remembered,” Davies says. “People remember all kinds of oddballs and they forget someone like Joseph Conrad.
“You simply can’t tell if you’ll be remembered or not. You’re indeed lucky if you are. But if you’re not, you’re no worse off than many people who have been your betters.”