Fever Dreams with Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies

I just went through a pretty serious bout of the flu, so I was in bed for a week and took the opportunity to reread Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. This brilliant book is the first of the Deptford Trilogy, but it definitely stands alone. And how! The stupid jerk we meet in the very first chapter gets his comeuppance in the very last.

Davies is a masterful writer, as the reader can tell from every single paragraph, and his story gripped me from beginning to end. There is a power to it that I cannot describe in words. Wikipedia reports that “Davies drew on his interest in Jungian psychology to create Fifth Business (1970), a novel that relies heavily on Davies’ own experiences, his love of myth and magic and his knowledge of small-town mores.”

The narrator of the work is Dunstable Ramsay, a boy who grows up in the little town of Deptford, Ontario. He loses a leg and becomes a hero in World War I and ends up teaching at a private school. When an alumnus of the school delivers a condescending tribute to him, portraying him as a lovable old duffer, he decides to tell the real story of his life, and the story of his ‘friend’ Boy Staunton, his ‘girlfriend’ Leola Cruikshank, and the magnificent Paul Dempster.

In the course of the book, each of these characters (except poor Leola) is renamed. Dunstable becomes Dunstan, Boy becomes Boyd, and Paul becomes conjurer extraordinaire Magnus Eisengrim.

It is Lisilotte Vitziputzli, Eisengrim’s manager, who explains to Dunstan his role in the drama of life:

“Do you know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business. You don’t know who that is? Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep up in Europe, you must have a prima donna, always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something; and a basso who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.

“So far, so good. But you cannot make the plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, ┬áthe person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of someone’s death if that is part of the plot.

“The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those that play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices.”

My brother Rob recommended this book to me many years ago, and I have to say I enjoyed it even more on a second reading. The Jungian component accorded so well with my fever dreams.