At 5:58 p.m. on the 27th of December, 1908, a young kid throws a rock-laden snowball at his friend, and hits a minister's wife instead. She is very pregnant at the time. She falls to the ground... and that's apparently enough to launch Robertson Davies into one of the most intricately woven stories you will ever read!
This inauspicious first-page scene carries forward the weight of not just one book, but three.
In a 1992 lecture, Davies said that the last book in this trilogy could be summed up by saying... "you never can tell."
The Deptford Trilogy braids the diverse lives of three main characters who achieve their respective fame in wholly different ways. One, as a schoolteacher/hagiologist; one as an entrepeneur/financier; and the other as a master magician/illusionist. Each book focuses in its order on the above mentioned characters respectively. But the theme of "you never can tell" is consistent throughout.
In the first of the three books, FIFTH BUSINESS.... [this is where the errant snowball incident occurs] oh, where does one even begin?.... this snowball is going to cause atmospheric disturbances halfway around the world! To say that the resultant story is about the life of schoolteacher Dunstan Ramsay and his relation to the prematurely born, snowball-induced Paul Dempster, is akin to saying Niagara Falls is a precipice over which some water falls. Both things are so much MORE, and both need to be seen and experienced to be appreciated.
Davies said that he began writing Fifth Business “because for many years I had been troubled by a question: to what extent is a man responsible for the outcome of his actions, and how early in life does the responsibility begin?” The book addresses this very question..... profoundly, it does. And it is magnificent. A work of art, that is all I will say.
In the second book, THE MANTICORE, we follow David Staunton, the son of Percy Boyd Staunton, in his travels through Switzerland. David is traumatized by the death of his father [which takes place in Fifth Business] and undergoes Jungian analysis in the care of the attractive therapist Johanna von Haller. The book is really almost like a journal of this treatment, and the progress and regress that he experiences. But again, the above mentioned Niagara Falls analogy is apropos here. There is no way to exaggerate the genius of the interwoven fabric of this story. It is a gem.
But my favorite is the third book, WORLD OF WONDERS, where we powerfully re-acquaint with Paul Dempster, who has now become Magnus Eisengrim, the world’s most accomplished magician. Magnus tells his story of the intervening years, [since the fateful snowball] beginning with his grim childhood in rural Canada to his years as a day-laborer and mechanic to his eventual triumph on the international stage. Dunstan Ramsay takes over the final section of the novel and retells the story of the errant snowball, thus bringing the trilogy full circle.
It is brilliant how Davies disperses these characters all over the planet and then brings them back together, and while these reunions sometimes totter on the very edge of the overly contrived (or improbable), they always seem to fall back on the near side of believability. He literally stuffs the envelope of circumstance without lapsing into the absurd. We are left with the sense that the events of these stories could have happened to anyone... yet these events are, in themselves, so magnificent!
Does this mean that each of our own simple lives have similar potential for greatness?
I believe Davies would answer with a resounding "Definitely!"
He once said, "You never can tell where something quite extraordinary and unexpected will come about. In a little Ontario village three men may be born so closely together that their lives run parallel courses, who may influence the world in quite different ways."
He shows us in The Deptford Trilogy how (seemingly) insignificant beginnings can lead to tremendous endings. In fact, nothing that happens in life is insignificant.
I can't imagine anyone wading into Fifth Business and wanting out before they finished World Of Wonders.
In fact, forget the wading in. You will be more like falling off an edge, into the mist.
What is meant by the term “fifth business”?
Those roles which, being neither those of
Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain,
but which were none the less essential to
bring about the Recognition or the denouement
were called the Fifth Business in drama
and opera companies organized according
to the old style; the player who acted these
parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
-- Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads --