The Reading Life, Part Six

I picked it out the remainder bin at a store somewhere around the intersection of Brainerd and East Brainerd Roads in Chattanooga–funny, I can remember the streets but not the store.  It was a standard size novel, about 350 pages long, marked down to $1.99 which on that particular day I could afford.  Black cover, bearing a blurred image of a slight, fair, elegant man of indeterminate age.  The title: World of Wonders, which purports to tell of the inauspicious beginnings and amazing career of the world- famous magician known as Magnus Eisingrim.

I don’t remember the season for sure, but think it was late fall or early winter: shorter days and sooner darkness, more reading time.  I realized from the jacket copy that the volume was the third in a trilogy–usually not a good place to start reading, but for two bucks I decided to take a chance.  The first chapter picked up with characters I was supposed to know in a conversation already in progress.  But I was more patient with slow starts back then, and it’s a good thing.  Because by the time I was about one-quarter of the way through, I clearly remember glancing up at my husband on the other end of the black vinyl sofa and remarking with some amazement, “This is really good.”

World of Wonders was the “eagerly awaited” completion of the Deptford Trilogy, a series of novels by Canadian writer Robertson Davies.  By the time I encountered him, Davies was considered the Grand Old Man of Canadian letters–should I say there’s not a lot of competition? Nah–largely on the basis of Deptford alone.  I didn’t get around to reading the first and second volumes until over two years later, when we were in Springfield, Missouri.  It seems odd now–World of Wonders should have whetted my appetite enough that I couldn’t wait.  But it was oddly satisfying in itself; I read it at least once more before turning to the others, and by then was absolutely enthralled to see the people and incidents barely referenced in the third installment, fully fleshed out and animated in the first and second.  The first book, Fifth Business,  begins with the scene that haunts all the rest:

A reddish band of wintry twilight broods over the Canadian prairie as two boys make their way home from an afternoon of sledding.  One of the boys is teasing the other, punctuating his remarks with snowballs.  They come suddenly upon their town, its streets nearly empty, its steely air tinged with wood smoke, stable sod, and dozens of evening meals–smells both earthy and ethereal.  Just ahead, the local Baptist pastor strolls the deserted street with his pregnant wife.  The taunting boy packs his last snowball around a chunk of pink granite the size of a hen’s egg.  He hurls the overcharged missile; his target ducks.  The snowball strikes the pregnant woman on the back of her head, and the lives of five people are changed forever.

The town is Deptford, Ontario; the snowball hurler is Percy Boyd Staunton; the snowball ducker is Dunstan Ramsey, and the pregnant minister’s wife will soon give birth prematurely to Paul Dempster, later known as Magnus Eisingrim.  The premise of the entire trilogy is how one impulsive act altered the destinies of three men, each detailed in a separate volume: Ramsey in Fifth Business, Staunton in The Manticore, and Eisingrim, where I joined them, In World of Wonders.

Eisingrim-alias-Paul Dempster’s story could have been a nightmare under the pen of someone like, say, Margaret Atwood.  He grows up in extremely narrow circumstances with an embittered father and a slightly demented mother.  At the age of ten he is raped and abducted by the magician in a traveling show.  The abduction is an afterthought; having despoiled the little boy, Willard the Wizard can’t think of any way to keep him from talking but to take him along.  So Paul becomes an apprentice to a second-rate sleight-of-hand artist in a seedy itinerant carnival, as well as the operating insides of a card-playing automaton called Abdullah. 

What keeps the story (and the reader) from despair is perhaps the author’s strongest trait and the main lesson I learned from him: a consuming interest in the texture of life, recreated on the page with such loving attention to detail you can almost smell it.  In fact, Davies pays particular attention to smell, more than any author I’ve ever encountered.  For example: Happy Hannah, the carnival fat lady, is a copious sweater and has to be powdered down with cornstarch in between shows, to the extent that the whole carnival tent sometimes smells “like a giant nursery pudding” by evening.  The card-playing automaton was once operated by an alcoholic dwarf.  When Paul takes up residence there, the cabinet still bears a “whiff of hot dwarf,” (Once the words are read, the reader can almost swear he knows that smell!), soon to be replaced by Paul’s own unwashed odor.  Characters are given their full due, in all their banality, hypocrisy, malevolence and occasional good will, to the extent you can hear their voices calling hoarsely across the tent under the naked light bulbs of a summer night on the Canadian plains.  And if you think it must be a fairly simple matter to make a carnival crowd “colorful” (though it’s really not), the London theater company that Paul later joins as a young man flaunts its own glorious, gaudy plumage. 

“Don’t despise things,” advises a character in one of Davies’ later novels.  “Every thing has a soul that speaks to our soul.”  I wouldn’t say soul; I would say character and distinctiveness.  A pony whip deployed in a mother’s rage, a nickel-plated wood stove standing foursquare against the brutal Canadian winter, a lacquered chest splashed with cheap gold paint where Paul serves his apprenticeship: things become the matrix in which the story is told.  Davies had a style that blended 19th-century materialism with 20th-century introspection–a Dickensian observation of his characters with a Jungian understanding of what made them work.  His fiction, though not always disciplined in structure, is exuberant in detail.  whether drawing shadows on an actor’s face with a lead spoon, or creating the effect of snow on stage with lightly sprinkled fuller’s earth–he takes you there.  And once there, you know exactly what it’s like.

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2 Responses to “The Reading Life, Part Six”

  1. Emily@Behind the Bookcase Says:

    There is drama in good description. Just by existing, just by their presence in our minds and our stories, people and things imply so much. About God and our frailty and the metaphors of His glory that we barely notice but which He has carved into our being. I love good description, when I make the time to notice it. Thanks for creating some for your readers in this blog!

  2. jbcheaney Says:

    Well said, Emily! Thank you.

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