Saturday, April 14, 2018

Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies

"Nitwit!" said Cobbler.  "Your first book won't be a success.  Don't make marriage conditional on the success of a book, or your mother dying, or anything unlikely of that sort.  Put first things first.  Get married, and plunge into all the uproar of baby-raising, and loading yourself up with insurance and furniture and all the frowsy appurtenances of domestic life, as soon as you can.  You'll survive.  Millions do.  And deep down under all the trash-heap of duty and respectability and routine, you may, if you're among the lucky ones, find a jewel of happiness.  I know all about it, and I assure you on my sacred honour that it's worth a try.  Come on!  You know how all this will end up.  You'll act on instinct anyhow; everybody does in the really important decisions of life.  Why not get some fun out of it, and forget all the twaddle you'll have to talk in order to make it seem reasonable, prudent, and dull."

On Halloween, a notice appears in the Salterton Evening Bellman announcing the impending marriage of Solomon Bridgetower and Pearl Vambrace on November 31st.  Of course, there is no such date, and no such marriage; someone is playing a practical joke on Solly and Pearl that will end up nearly consuming the entire town by stirring up a whirlwind of old hatreds and resentments.  Pearl's father Walter, a proud, self-important man last seen playing Prospero in The Tempest, is so enraged to think that someone would libel him by suggesting his daughter might marry the son of his oldest enemy that he threatens to sue the Bellman, and it's editor, Gloster Ridley.  Thanks to a clerical error, no one's sure who placed the advertisement, and both sides are sure that the key to victory lies in being the first one to find out.

Solomon and Pearl, like Walter, are characters that return from Tempest-Tost, the first in Davies' trilogy of books about the town of Salterton.  Also returning is Solly's domineering mother and Humphrey Cobbler, the spirited but unconventional organist at the local cathedral who once again acts as the voice of life amid the powerful structures of conventionality.  To these Davies adds a new profusion of satirical people: the fastidious bachelor Ridley, who harbors a dark secret, a charming but vindictive voice coach, a fusty and antiquated newspaper columnist who writes about toothpicks and walking sticks (cough George Will cough), a reporter writing the Great Canadian Novel, and my favorite, a psychiatrist whose idea of correcting the human psyche is to make it as normal as possible.  His name, of course, is Norm.  One of my favorite scenes occurs when he takes it upon himself to explain the Oedipus complex to Walter Vambrace, who is a Classical scholar and knows much, much more about Oedipus:

"Now, Professor, let's not get extreme.  When I was talking about Oedipus I was talking symbolically, you understand."

"I do not profess to understand psychological symbolism, Mr. Yarrow, but it does not require much training to realize that Oedipus is a symbol for incest.  Isn't that what you imply?"

"Oh, now just a minute.  That's pretty rough talk.  Not incest, of course.  Just a kind of mental incest, maybe.  Nothing really serious."

"Fool!" said the Professor, who had been growing very hot, and was now at the boil.  "Do you imply that the sins of the mind are trivial and the sins of the flesh important?  What kind of an idiot are you?"

The cast of characters isn't as delightful, or highly individuated, as those in Tempest-Tost, but they make the novel exceedingly fun nonetheless.  It's just one of the many ways that Davies' work reminds me of a classic meaty Victorian novel, along with its sort of old-fashioned realism, its scorn of postmodern tricks, and its obsession with the traps of conventionality.  It's such a pleasure to dig into a novel like that.  Is there a late-stage speech that will spell out the themes in the terms of the title?  You bet there is:

"In the Prayer Book you will find a special plea to be preserved from it, appointed for the first Sunday after Easter: 'Grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve Thee in pureness of living and truth.'  The writer of that prayer understood malice.  It works like a leaven: it stirs, it swells, and changes all that surrounds it.  If you seek to pin it down in law, it may well elude you.  Who can separate the leaven from the lump when once it has been mixed?  But if you learn to know it by its smell, you find it very easily.  You find it, for instance, in unfounded charges brought against people that we dislike.  It may cause the greatest misery and distress in many unexpected quarters.  But those things which it invades will never be quite the same again.  I assure you that you will always have the greatest difficulty in isolating the leaven, once it has set to work."

And like a Victorian novel, the conflict must end with marriage.  Davies cleverly keeps Solly and Pearl themselves off the page until halfway through the novel, when they emerge as the central figures, along with Ridley, who are caught up in the "leaven of malice."  I think it's obvious from the very first page that the practical joke has to end by actually nudging Solly and Pearl together.  But it becomes even more obvious when the two end up tied together in one of those awful party games, hosted by Norm the psychiatrist, and when during charades Pearl somehow knows that Solly is trying to express Lincoln's famous phrase, "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool, some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."  It's like an especially funny version of the game played by Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina.

But like in the best romantic comedies, the fact that you can see it coming from a mile away doesn't take anything away from how satisfying it is to watch it happen.  In the end, Solly and Pearl are destined to resolve their families' enmity and flout the ruinous powers of malice.

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