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March 1, 2007 / Jake Seliger

Robertson Davies: Man of Myth

I’ve continued moving through the Davies oeuvre and even into an authorized biography called Robertson Davies: Man of Myth by Judith Skelton-Grant. It doesn’t appear to be available in paperback in the U.S., and I retrieved it from the stacks of the Seattle Central Library, which are too new to be properly dusty yet. The biography probably hadn’t been moved since it was first placed, and it will probably be years before someone moves it again.

Grant’s biography shares the strengths and weaknesses of most literary biographies in that the writer of the biography is not as captivating and imaginative as the work of the subject even as she helps illuminate the subject’s works. Admirable parts of Man of Myth are written in the plain style employed by Davies in fiction but put to nonfiction uses here. The biography started slowly due chiefly to Davies’ parents lack of color or interest except as they related to him and fueled the family drama in his novels. Their stories are only remarkable in that they somehow produced Robertson. Once he appears seriously on the scene the biography starts to canter at stories about his school days and run when discussing his novels.

Davies’ life provided important fuel and theme: “When suffering boredom from [Upper Canada College], Davies had thought desperately: ‘there’s got to be something better than this.’ He’d wished that reality were sharper, brighter, more intense emotionally, more splendid… at bottom he was sure that he was missing something; life must be more vivid than it seemed.” Many of us feel this way at times, I suppose, and I’m certainly one of them, but I also often think it when reading biographies—if only they could be brighter and more vivid. The biography isn’t as splendid or as emotionally deep as Davies’ novels, which he sees as describing his own spiritual and intellectual development better than a biography of the events of his life ever could. To Grant’s credit she makes the biography a study in the development of both, but even so it can only supplement the novels in a mean way and captures only a small part of the man.

Grant says: “Facts—even his own facts—do not come alive for him until they are transformed by imagination. Striking the balance, establishing a distanced context, checking for accuracy—such exercises hold little appeal to him.” In this paragraph Grant suggests that novels are Davies’ form of autobiography, and that one can track the most important part of his growth—his imagination—through reading them, rather than through the dry facts of his life. Davies’ does not rank among the debacherous and fascinating, as artists sometimes (but do not always) do.

As for Davies’ literal life, something better did come along in the form of fiction, but it only came along through work. The need to work at something as a way of creating identity and exploring the self is a constant theme in Davies’ novels and an implicit theme in Man of Myth. Sections of it also offer insight on Davies and his creative process in a way far deeper than the innumerable people inquiring about where authors “get” ideas, as though they can be picked up at the grocery store with milk and vegetables on the way home from work. Davies talks about the transformation process and the way unleavened fact holds little appeal to him. Yet the process itself I do not describe here, and Davies does not or cannot fully describe because there is a mythological element to it. Unlike, say, building a house, the process of a novel cannot be fully described, and so any reader looking for such a thing will be disappointed, just as those questioners at author events are.


I find writing about Davies difficult because his novels feel like they resist literary inquiry, which seems so banal and pale next to the stories. This may be in part by design; Davies was an academic at Massey college for many years, and “he raised a few hackles in advocating that people should read less, that they should read feelingly rather than critically, and that they should read only what they like.” In other words, he was an academic for a time but also a rogue or outsider, and wrote, whether consciously or not, in a style that makes him unpalatable to contemporary literary criticism. Maybe this is part of the reason he is not better known in the United States, where I have never heard of him in classes or elsewhere. He also links himself to the past in a way likely to make modern academics uncomfortable:

“Painting, fiction, and faking,” a lecture given in 1984, describes how Davies believes the modern artist has a problem because the artists “have lost access to an important resource… the shared myth and religion whose wisdom has captured imaginations and commanded belief across the western world from the time of the ancient Greeks until the present century. The stories of the classical and Judaeo-Christian heritage gave earlier artists a vocabulary that their viewers understood, in which they could frame their most profound insights. Lacking this shared language, modern artists paint the things that arise from their unconscious in a multitude of private forms. In such circumstances it is easy for an artists to fake inspiration, while the viewers, confronted with this multiplicity of new symbols and forms, are faced with extraordinary challenge.”

The process is explicit in The Lyre of Orpheus and What’s Bred in the Bone, two books in which artists make what seems new old, in a manner of copying that is not stealing but rather working within a style of old masters. They are clearly explanations of Davies’ own methods, and his work is no doubt rich in commentary about itself that I was unaware of prior to reading Man of Myth. For that reason the biography is worthwhile, even if parts of it lag and Davies’ novels are of more interest in learning about his life and art than what he did outside of writing.

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