World of Wonders by Robertson Davies

The premature baby of Fifth Business was kidnapped by roustabouts, grew up a circus performer, and has grown into the greatest magician in the world. His life story offers the final piece to the question posed in The Manticore: “Who killed Boy Staunton?”

Robertson Davies’s masterful Deptford Trilogy deserves to be on more must-read lists. I discovered it thanks to Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, and can say that Davies’s writing not only warrants Prose’s close reading, it actually provokes it in the reader. Davies intimately marries story and language with sorcery worthy of his creation, the famed illusionist Magnus Eisengrim of World of Wonders, fooling you into believing you’re reading a simple story simply told, when in fact, over three books, Davies has pulled off epic spectacle through linguistic pyrotechnics. The works are that well hidden; the machine that skillfully crafted. There’s nothing obviously showy about his writing, yet the overall effect is more explosive than fireworks.

On an emotional level, the Deptford trilogy is exceedingly masculine, to the point where I can’t say I exactly connected with the characters and their journey. Of all the stories Davies tells, however, I was most enthralled by Magnus’s accounts of growing up among a traveling band of vaudevillians and circus folk. It’s such a fascinating world, particularly as Deptford doesn’t shy away from portraying its seamier side. And young Magnus, kidnapped and spirited away, is in a wonderfully rich predicament. Knowing what we know of his parents from Fifth Business, his account is infused by the specter of double tragedy. You can’t help but imagine what would have been if he hadn’t gone to the circus that day.

In each book, Davies employs a conceit to justify why the story is being told; positing a teller and an audience. In Fifth Business, it was Dunstan Ramsay’s attempt to write a hagiography of Magnus’s mother, whom he believed to be saintly in her feeble-mindedness. In The Manticore, he had Boy Staunton’s grown son enter Jungian analysis to tell his tale. In World of Wonders, Magnus’s tale is coaxed from him by Jurgen Lind, a great Swedish filmmaker who has cast Magnus to play Houdini in a biopic for the BBC. When Magnus mentioned that there is always a gap between autobiography and the truth, Lind seizes upon this notion. In lieu of Houdini’s truth, he will use Magnus’s truth to create the subtext that will give his film depth and truth.

As Magnus unfolds his tale, the tension between the telling and the truth grows ever more apparent, and it turns out that Davies is in fact interrogating the very structure he’s chosen for each of the three books. At one point, the characters debate point-of-view in art as it relates to truth. Liesl, the erstwhile lover of both Magnus and Dunstan says,

“Which man’s life are you talking about?” she said. “That’s another of the problems of biography and autobiography, Ingestree, my dear. It can’t be managed except by casting one person as the star of the drama, and arranging everybody else as supporting players. Look at what politicians write about themselves! Churchill and Hitler and all the rest of them seem suddenly to be secondary figures surrounding Sir Numskull Poop, who is always in the limelight…

This business of the death of Willard: if we listen to Magnus we take it for granted that Magnus killed Willard after painfully humiliating him for quite a long time. The tragedy of Willard’s death is the spirit in which Faustus LeGrand [alias Magnus] regarded it. But isn’t Willard somebody, too? As Willard lay dying, who did he think was the star of the scene? Not Magnus, I’ll bet you. And look at it from God’s point of view, or if that strains you uncomfortably, suppose that you have to make a movie of the life and death of Willard. You need Magnus, but he is not the star. He is the necessary agent who brings Willard to the end. Everybody’s life is his Passion…

Herein lies the crux of the Deptford Trilogy. History is subjective; yet subjectivity is really all we have. Not even a great filmmaker like Lind can create God’s point of view; as his cinematographer puts it, it’s all just a trick of the light. But I don’t get the sense that Davies is a relativist, or that this notion provokes despair. In World of Wonders, Davies gives his most disempowered protagonist an audience who fights with him, refuting him and even despising him, and that’s where hope and ultimately truth emerge.

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