Canongate’s Meet at the Gate site is inviting writers to highlight books from all over the globe for their World Literature Tour, so I decided to do my bit and write about Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business for the Canadian stop of their tour.
I loved getting the chance to think about one of my all-time favourite books, especially since it gave me an excuse to read it yet again. But it was harder than I expected. When you don’t like something, it’s easy to say – the dialogue was wooden, the plot didn’t make any sense, there were no surprises. But how do you describe what makes a book magic?
Here’s my full post, from Meet at the Gate:
Fifth Business is my favourite book, so an impartial review this ain’t, but it’s not easy explaining why something has earned a permanent spot on your nightstand. I first read it in a university “Can Lit” class and have since haunted used bookstores in Toronto, looking for every other Davies book (a feat I just achieved over the holidays, thanks to Eliot’s Bookshop on Yonge Street).
Fifth Business combines the readability of a bildungsroman with the intrigue of the mythical, philosophical elements that have become Davies’ calling cards. It’s narrated by small-town Ontario boy Dunstable Ramsay (later renamed Dunstan, making him just one of the book’s “twice-born” characters), from the age of ten to the time of his teaching retirement. It’s the first of The Deptford Trilogy, but easily stands alone.
The various stages of Dunstan’s life are marked not so much by what he does, but by who he meets: Eternally glossy millionaire (and “lifelong friend and enemy”) Percy Boyd Staunton, his own personal “fool-saint” Mary Dempster, world-famous conjurer Magnus Eisengrim, eccentric old Jesuit priest Padre Blazon, and (my favourite) the monstrously ugly but preternaturally wise Liselotte Vitzlipützli (or Liesl).
What sets this apart from other life stories is that Dunstan himself is not made out to be the star. He’s told by Leisl that his role in life is not to be the hero, but to be the Fifth Business, based on the idea that operas must feature a hero, heroine, villain, villainess, and one more character – a fifth, who plays a supporting role to the more glamorous characters but is nonetheless essential to the story.
Davies uses these kinds of Jungian metaphors all the time, and for me, they help to make the story bigger and more mysterious. Even better, they allow me to think of my own life in larger, more theatrical terms. The story’s best mystery comes right at the end, and can be summed up with the line, “Who Killed Boy Staunton?” (here’s a tip: just whisper that into the breeze to get in good with any Canadian Lit buff).