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The Thoroughly Contemporary Robertson Davies

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Times Staff Writer

Robertson Davies is a 75-year-old Canadian writer with flowing white hair, beard and mustache, bright blue eyes and a very pink face. His portly bearing reflects the good food and drink he enjoys. He has kept the upper-class English accent he acquired while at Oxford half a century ago, and his diction and syntax have more in common with that time and place than the contemporary scene. His conversation is wide-ranging and his wit sharp, vast, sometimes bawdy and always learned--full of plays on words, literary allusions and very eclectic esoterica. He has what has been called a cult following among his readers, and his persona seems that of an elitist fuddy-duddy who has known comfort and privilege for a very long time.

The man does not look like a “women’s libber.”

And yet it is one of the many ways in which he is modern.

“Christianity has remarkably little to say about women. . . . Women cannot be expected to hold a wholly subordinate position. All this hullabaloo regarding women as priests is just a flea bite in a great struggle about what constitutes life in its fullness, about human balance.” Davies made those remarks while sitting before the fire in the den of the Canadian consul general’s house in Hancock Park where he and his wife of 48 years, Brenda Maddox, had been welcomed to Los Angeles, their first visit, with a luncheon.

Here on a tour for “The Lyre of Orpheus,” third novel of a trilogy that began with “Rebel Angels” and the best-selling “What’s Bred in the Bone,” he has, he said, been “running around like a mad dog since September.” He was spending just one day in Los Angeles and it was raining.

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His writings appear old-fashioned, if not downright medieval, in their esoteric bits from astrology, hagiography, magic, the occult, the marvelous, Christianity, history, intricate and tricky plots, interactions of bizarre and mundane characters. But they are also full of Jungian analysis, myth, the eternal questions and modern dilemmas.

Therefore, his feminism is no contradiction. He has a moral vision and social consciousness that are anything but static. Like his novels, Davies seems to accommodate a lot and it all dwells inside him in a state of lively coexistence. He seems comfortable with paradox. More than anything, perhaps, he is an original.

This is a man who does not drive a car, has “not much use” for computers and won’t use a word processor, having ascertained it would take him six months to master one and “there’s a lot I can do in six months without doing that.” He deplores the loss of ritual in the Catholic Church and says, of onlookers with Protestant backgrounds like himself, “some of these hippie priests with guitars give us the jumps.” Yet his mind is often on the future, and all that baggage he carries around from the past is what informs his vision of it.

“I have to dip into a notion of Plato’s that human history develops in 2,000-year sections. The 2,000 years of Christian influence seem to be coming to a conclusion. The next is not known, but the hint is there in the area of technology. I think we’re going to experience revelation of the marvelous in the next few hundred years.”

Turning to the Marvelous

As formal religion begins to lose its grip, he has often observed, people turn to the marvelous. At a simplistic level, people turn to popular astrology, teacup readings, card readings, superstition. That is not it, he says. Nor, necessarily, he said, is it the robots and computers of the future, since they are man-created and follow orders. They cannot tell us about anything important, he said.

“I think we’ll be evolving something new, although we won’t utterly desert Christianity. It has given us too much,” he said, adding that compassion was perhaps its greatest contribution. It bears remembering, he said, that at the time of Christ, the city of Rome did not have a single hospital.

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One of the problems with Christianity, he said, is that it “urges us to perfection and perfection is inhuman. Perhaps the new thing will be to understand that wholeness rather than goodness is the thing to aim for.”

As the human race steps into the next millennium, he said, if women were more equal, “they could get down to what is deepest in femininity. They can teach us. Men are more aggressive, combative. Women are not perfect, but when they fight, they fight one at a time. They do not get organized very easily. Men are too easily herded into gangs and armies. This may be one of the great blessings of the future. It could lead to a totally new concept of war and politics, or the forgetting of war altogether.”

Society is far from there, and he has devoted one devastating page in “The Lyre of Orpheus” to the place of the social wife. It is wickedly satirical description of “dogsbody jobs associated with art and music which wealthy volunteers are graciously permitted to do by the professionals,” and of the “great Ladder of Compassion,” on which diseases are ordered in terms of prestige.”

“Cheap labor!” Davies said of the whole business, leaning forward and raising his voice to outrage. “They’re getting them real cheap. Their reward will be some sort of vague social acclaim. It stinks, you know, the way in which women are exploited.”

Phrases like “Canada’s pre-eminent man of letters” abound now and the provincial novelist has an international standing. It nettles him, however, that he was not taken seriously in Canada until he was taken seriously in the United States with the publication of “Fifth Business” in 1970, the first novel of his Deptford Trilogy.

“It’s a fact Canada is obsessed with the United States. . . . It’s true we have a feeling that a greater degree of sophistication in art exists here than in Canada. And, until recently, it seemed there was a greater sophistication financially as well.”

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Running Against Tide

Mentioning the large real estate holdings Canadians have here, and Canadian ownership of “the big booze companies,” he said, “suddenly we realize we own a big piece of the action. We may wake up to the fact we are not entirely insignificant in the actual world.”

Such awareness is still running against the tide, and he tells one story, a true one, he says, that he labels “the essence of Canada.”

It involves the late Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who prior to heading the government was active in the United Nations and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for helping establish a U.N. Emergency Force after the 1956 Egyptian-Israeli war.

“A friend of mine was at a cocktail party in Vancouver,” Davies said, “when someone came running in, saying: ‘Have you heard the news? Mike Pearson got the Nobel Peace Prize.’

“There was silence and then one little old lady spoke up and said, “Well! Just who does he think he is?’ That’s Canada.”

America’s Ignorance

At the same time he has rather acerbic observations to make about Americans’ relative ignorance or indifference to “the rather large land mass north of the border” and has particular disdain for the weather maps he sees on American television news where there’s a vast blank to the north.

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Later that night he gently chided an amused audience of 300 seemingly devoted fans about that land mass to the north. He read to a packed house at UCLA’s Dickson Auditorium. A former actor with England’s Old Vic company, he is a performer and chose several very dramatic passages, full of dialogue and wit, to his audience’s obvious delight.

They loved it, as they had John Espey’s introduction of him. Espey, a retired UCLA professor, had been at Oxford with Davies in the late ‘30s. The two of them, Espey told the audience, represented fully half the membership of the Long Christmas Dinner Club, an elitist little Canadian/American group that named itself after a play of Thornton Wilder’s, and dressed formally for dinner several times a term, ate and drank a lot and played literary hoaxes on the English.

Such privileged pranks seemed a far cry from the circumstances and politics of the UCLA audience, but his fans savored the revelation.

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