Taking care of Fifth Business

It’s downright Jungian. No sooner do I read Geoff’s post on Fifth Business — the first volume of the “Deptford Trilogy,” from Canadian writer Robertson Davies — than a one-volume set of the Deptford books arrives at the store, along with a one-volume set of the next cycle, the Cornish Trilogy.

I don’t know what Davies would have had to say about the Internet, but his presence is all over YouTube in some pretty surprising ways.

If you’ve read the Deptford cycle, you know it takes off from a single incident — a snowball that misses its target and hits a pregnant woman — that turns out to be the watershed for several lives. Fifth Business focuses on the boy who ducked, Dunstable Ramsay, who becomes a teacher. The Manticore focuses on Percy Boyd Staunton, the overprivileged mama’s boy who threw the snowball and went on to become a wealthy creep. World of Wonders follows the career of the boy born to the woman, who went into premature labor after being hit by the snowball. Jungian archetypes are a significant theme linking the three books. Let this young man explain it for you:

Davies is a great writer, and Fifth Business remains one of my favorite Davies novels if only because it was my introduction to his work. But the use of mythological/psychological themes  that gives heft to his novels can undercut them as well. Each of the three completed trilogies that are the core of his work has one novel in which the thematic machinery grinds a little too loudly. Of the Deptford books, for example, I found The Manticore pretty slow going, and the finale of the Cornish novels, The Lyre of Orpheus, puts its players through their Arthurian paces far too obviously. (The performance of the Hoffmann opera, however, goes a long way toward dispelling any annoyance.) If I had to choose, I’d say the Cornish books are the pick of the litter: The Rebel Angels is the equal of any of the Deptford novels (I still nurse a crush on Maria Theotoky, even if she doesn’t exist), and What’s Bred in the Bone can only be described as a tour de force.

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