Friday, August 10, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #31: Robertson Davies (1985)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, the executive producer of On the Arts

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.



In the chapter on memoir in the Eighties, Mythologizing the Self, which includes interviews with Wallace Shawn describing the highly personal film My Dinner with Andre, D.M.Thomas exploring Freud and the Holocaust in his novel, The White Hotel and William Diehl discussing how he used pulp fiction to work out his violent impulses, the idea was to illustrate how the decade brought forth a few biographical artists who attempted to link themselves to the collective memory of the audience with the purpose of creating a shared mythology out of their experiences. Perhaps no writer could have done more to enhance that goal than the renowned playwright, scholar and novelist Robertson Davies. Besides bringing his personal fascination with Jungian psychology into his 1970 book Fifth Business (which would form the basis of The Deptford Trilogy including the 1972 The Manticore and, in 1975, World of Wonders), Davies continued to provide psychological inquiry as a means to examining academic life in The Rebel Angels (1981), the conclusion of which became the starting point for Davies's next work, What's Bred in the Bone (1985). This book which would then become part of The Cornish Trilogy, an examination of the life of Francis Cornish, an art restorer with a mercurial past, whose demons become part of a larger mythology. Since myth plays such a huge role in the dramas of Robertson Davies, we began the interview with the question of just how big a part destiny plays in shaping a character.


kc: How much would you say that character is destiny?

rd: Character is destiny to a tremendous extent. You are born with a certain hand of cards that you have to play. But the way in which you play them is extremely important. What happens to you is so much the effect of who you are and how you handle the experience that you get. For instance, I said to some students some time ago that it's a mistake to try and plan your career too carefully because much more interesting things could happen to you if you let them happen, than if you insisted in imposing some kind of pattern on what you wanted to do.  

kc: I think Northrop Frye wrote about you once that you weren't content with writing books that stayed within a particular genre or format, but rather you pushed against genre, maybe even found the means to recreate it.

rd: I really appreciate that. When I first started writing people said that I was a terribly old-fashioned writer and wrote like a Victorian novelist as if there had been no advance in the novel since before Henry James. I don' t think that's true. I try to do rather innovative things but they're not spectacularly innovative. I don't write in a peculiar language, or perform special tricks to make it seem new, but certain things I do write are new in their own way. What I do is allow the plot to emerge out of the character which might not be new except that I do it in my own way. 

kc: You begin your new book with an old proverb...

rb: Well, yes! 'What's bred in the bone will not out of the flesh.' What you have when you are born is something which is your hand of cards, or your destiny. It's not completely controlled but it is to some extent. I mean if you're born in Canada, it isn't as if you're going to live the same kind of life as if you grew up in Mexico. That's obvious. But the amount of freedom that you have is considerably restricted. I mean I could never become a great operatic soprano. We're born with a number of things we are never meant to be and with a number of things we have to discover about ourselves to become.  

kc: Maybe that's why your novels seem to be less about the collecting of facts and more about the accumulative power of self-discovery. 

rb: That's true. And at the beginning of What's Bred in the Bone, a man is attempting to write a biography of the principle character and the thing that has him almost defeated is that he cannot find out what he regards as most important. And he'll never find it out because it was concealed. It was within the man's life. Then I tell the man's life and what could not be discovered is to some extent shown to the reader.

kc: Francis Cornish is an art restorer. Did you have a particular interest in this area?

rd: Oh, I've always been interested in it all my life. There have been in the last forty years a surprising number of art scandals about art fakes, and fake old masters that were tinkered with. One such scandal in the mid-Forties involved a man named Han van Meegeren who had painted a number of pictures that were taken for the great Dutch master Vermeer. They were accepted as Vermeer's and galleries bought them, and experts even praised them. But then when it was discovered that they were all fakes, the experts high-tailed it and retracted their comments claiming that they thought all along ' there was something funny about them. In one of them [ed. Jesus Among the Doctors], they said they knew something was wrong because Jesus appears to look like Greta Garbo [laughs]. Now don't you think they would have noticed that from the beginning?

Han van Meegeren's Jesus Among the Doctors (1945) 
kc: Given your interest in Jungian psychology, you have a portion of the book where you talk directly about the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. It seems that you write about our desire to do things with a complete consciousness of what we're doing, but the unconscious is still always present in our actions. It's what you even call in What's Bred in the Bone, the most conscious. Why is it most conscious?

rd: It is what wells up from deep within us and often what we cannot resist. All of us live rather on the surface of our minds. A lot of our thinking and the ideas we express which we think are our best are not our best work. If you are an artist, what is best is what comes to you and cannot be resisted. Painters certainly have that view. If they are artists of any great talent, they paint pictures that they just can't help painting. They feel that they must do it. The real artist is the kind of man who has no choice. 

kc: What about Francis Cornish? Does he have a choice?

rd: He has too much choice [laughs]. He is an artist who is inhibited by some things which most people would regard as good luck. One of them is that he is very rich. So he isn't driven by necessity to work, but he's driven by his artistic impulse to work. But what I tried to deal with, but not completely, is that he's pulled two ways. He's brought up half a Protestant and half a Catholic. That is, half of his mind is rooted pretty much in the Middle Ages; the other half is pulled towards rationalism. This makes trouble in his life.

kc: Indeed. Even though I was baptised a Catholic, I never really went to Church, or even lived in a Catholic home. But when I examine certain behaviour patterns in my life I can still feel something of being a Catholic. Does that make sense?   

rd: Of course! It is not the things that you say and that are foremost in your mind. It is the things you are brought up to take for granted that shape you. Catholicism is something that is very much bred in the bone. That's what it was in Frances. He could not escape it. And it had very beneficial effects on some parts of his life and a difficult effect in others. 

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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