Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Schoolteacher Dunstan Ramsay looks back over his life, intertwined with that of a childhood friend and inextricably linked with a madwoman he desperately wants to believe is a saint.

I had no idea what I was in for when I began Fifth Business, the first book in Canadian novelist Robertson Davies’s Deptford trilogy. I have an older paperback and the copy on the back just says, “the story of a rational man who discovers that the marvelous is only another aspect of the real.” As a one-sentence description, it’s just as vague as the one that I provided, because this book refuses to be categorized or summed up neatly.

That’s not to say the book is obscure or willfully difficult. It’s almost deceptively simple. Dunstan Ramsay begins his tale with the day that his best friend, Percy Boyd Staunton, threw a snowball that hit parson’s wife Mrs. Dempster on the back of the head, prompting her to give birth to her son Paul prematurely. Dunstan recounts his school days, his time as a soldier on the Front in WWI, and the academic pursuits that consumed his adult years. Percy Boyd Staunton remains in his life and grows up to be a wealthy industrialist. And as for Mrs. Dempster? According to town rumor, later confirmed by a nasty incident with a tramp, Mrs. Dempster was never right after that snowball. Dunstan can’t shake his feeling of obligation and guilt, and stays close to her for most of his life, discovering that there’s more to her than meets the eye, and wondering if she is, in fact, a living, breathing saint.

The voice that Davies creates for Ramsay is one that draws the reader in with its candor and accessibility, delights with its humor, and devastates with its insight into humanity. The narrative is fractal–on the surface it presents a smooth, curving line that promises an easy glide from start to finish. Closer inspection reveals that the smooth line is made up of hundreds of curves, recessing into infinity. Fifth Business could be read as a simple bildungsroman, or as a complex philosophical treatise on the relationship of the self to the world (and the world beyond). This is a novel that will bear repeated re-readings and will have something to teach me throughout my life.

I don’t want you to think that the book is Serious. It is concerned with serious things, deeply so, but it’s also marvelously witty and even comic in parts. Davies has a gift for phrasing; early on, Dunstan’s mother describes Mrs. Dempster as having “a face like a pan of milk.” I’ll give you a representative passage–Dunstan has just stolen an egg to practice a magic trick, and accidentally broken it open in his pocket:

But that egg led to a dreadful row with my mother. She had missed the egg–it never occurred to me that anyone counted eggs–and accused me of taking it. I lied. Then she caught me trying to wash out my pocket, because, in a house with no running water, washing cannot be a really private business. She exposed my lie and demanded to know what I wanted with an egg. Now, how can a boy of thirteen tell a Scotswoman widely admired for her practicality that he intends to become the world’s foremost prestidigitateur? I took refuge in mute insolence. She stormed. She demanded to know if I though she was made of eggs. Visited unhappily be a good one, I said that that was something she would have to decide for herself. (ch. 7)

Read this book. You will not regret it. I’ll definitely be reading the next 2 books.

22 thoughts on “Fifth Business by Robertson Davies”

  1. I’ve wanted to read Robertson Davies for a long, long, time. You’ve just pushed him to the top of my mental stack.

    Is this a good place to start with Davies?

  2. Oh, I definitely think so–it’s the novel he’s best known for, and I tore through it. Would love to hear what you think of it–I think it’s right up your alley.

  3. I’ve read quite a few blog posts on Davies and every single one of them recommended him highly. I really will have to try his books soon. (Of course, I say that about so many authors….)

  4. Thanks so much, Superfast Reader! I read Murther And Walking Spirits years ago, and have always meant to read another Davies novel. Now I know which one to try. My Candian workmates will be pleased.

  5. I enjoyed the book enough that I’m interested in the others, but like John Irving’s characters, I found Davies’s a little too over-the-top. I didn’t think I could relate to anyone.

  6. I haven’t read much Irving, just World According to Garp & Hotel New Hampshire. I found a lot more humanity in Davies than I did in either of those 2 books, though.

  7. Fifth Business makes my top ten, but so do Irving’s Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. You must read those two!

  8. I have been procrastinating reading this for eons now. Crap its boring. Sorry dont hate on me im 16 this stuff doesnt interest me!

  9. does anyone remember Dunston saying something like
    “it’s my duty to write about saints is a non catholic non bias way” something like that, i have to write an essay about it and i cant find it

  10. I recently read this book, and honestly, I don’t know what the big deal is. It wasn’t all that witty or even deeply philosophical. Robertson Davies likes to pretend that there’s some deeper meaning to his books, but I don’t think there is. The plot is terrible, the characters are all depressingly bad people and, well, there’s just nothing good about it. Dunny is a just plain awful person, and no one even cares. This book is a huge waste of your time. I reccomend that you don’t read it.

  11. I don’t know if we all read the same book here but this is on my list of worst books I’ve ever read. When I was done reading it i was 90% sure it was Dunstan who was insane and not Mrs. Dempster. Trash book, keep it in your bathroom in case you run out of toilet paper.

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