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Review of The Manticore by

The Manticore

by Robertson Davies

5 out of 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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The Manticore begins by betraying us. Dunstan Ramsay, that incorrigible saint-chasing old man who provided the heart and soul and voice of Fifth Business, is no longer our narrator. Instead, this is the story of David Staunton, the son of Dunstan's lifelong frenemy, Boy Staunton. At the end of Fifth Business, Boy dies, and now David has gone to Zurich seeking the wisdom of a Jungian analyst to make sense of his behaviour since his father's death. Partly an exploration of the psychology of Jung and partly a work of biographical fiction akin to Fifth Business, The Manticore is a journey into David's past and into his psyche.

The analysis is both more and less than a framing device. It allows Davies to depart from some of the entrenched conventions of the modern novel, rendering David's narration in the form of journal-like entries interspersed with script-like dialogue between himself and Dr. von Haller. The events intersect tangentially with those of Fifth Business, providing at times a different perspective on characters familiar from the first book. Probably the most interesting differences are David's thoughts on Ramsay himself, of course, as well as how David perceives his father's character. However, this is not just a retelling of Fifth Business; after all, David was a minor player in that book, barely on the reader's radar and notable only, really, because he happens to be Boy's son. The Manticore gives David his own history, fleshing him out as a person, and also gives him his own voice, one quite distinct from Ramsay's.

Though this is the "Deptford trilogy," the return to Deptford in this book is brief and not all that notable. The village is not depicted here so much as mentioned as a milieu for some of David's boyhood experiences with his grandfather and his ever-present nanny/housekeeper/maternal figure, Netty. Indeed, places and locations are much less prominent in The Manticore than they were in Fifth Business. I'll hazard that this is because David, telling this in the form of his analytic journey, is focusing on the people of his past, not the places. The characters, though always at arms-length from us, are much more important than where they are or what they're doing. And in this case, because we are interested in learning how David projects his own thoughts and feelings onto other people, the somewhat surreal quality of the other characters is not a problem but an advantage. This is one of the few times where a character is actually allowed to be an archetype rather than a three-dimensional person.

As von Haller guides David through his analysis, she points out how the people in his life have assumed various aspects within his conscious and unconscious mind. His sister, Caroline; Netty; his mother, Leola; his stepmother, Denyse; and his first and only love, Judith, have all at times carried the role of the Anima. His law professor, Pargetter, is the Magus, and onto Netty's brother David projects his own Shadow. The characters in The Manticore morph from people into Jungian archetypes before our very eyes.

I'm hesitant to comment on how Davies incorporates Jung, because all I've learned about Jungian philosophy has been through the Deptford trilogy. So it's entirely possible Davies has gotten something wrong. With that caveat in mind, however, I quite enjoy the Deptford trilogy as a vehicle for Jungian philosophy. I imagine alone the subject might be rather dry, whereas this is a kind of "case study" that provides more suitable material. Davies also includes a subtle tension between Jungian and Freudian methodologies: he overtly pans the latter at certain points, but one of the "subplots," if you will, concerns David's ongoing sexual abstinence. If The Manticore were written using Freudian analysis instead, this would likely be the centrepiece of the entire book. And while David's sexual life is important to understanding him, it's only one part of the puzzle.

I have to admit that I find Jung's psychology more appealing than Freud's, as much as I find any psychology appealing (which is not very). I mean, it asks us to look at the people in our lives in terms of archetypes and deconstruct how we project our desires upon them, interpreting them to fit into roles we define. This is very literary way of viewing the world, and hence appeals to me, a lover of literature. Archetypes are always very mythological, which recalls Ramsay's syncretism of history and myth and his obsession with saints. Just as, in Ramsay's view, history consists of repeating patterns of myth, each person's life consists of repeating patterns of archetypes, as we project these archetypes onto our new acquaintances. There's a very comforting dualism at work here between the psychology of the individual and the psychology of the society. Not being a student of psychology or well-versed in Jung's theories and his critics, of course, I don't know how well they stand up to further scrutiny. For the purposes of a novel, however, they are quite compelling.

For all his endorsement of Jungian psychology, though, I think Davies injects a healthy amount of psychological agnosticism into The Manticore as well. By that I mean, he rather slyly advocates for making one's own decisions and having the courage to analyze oneself when appropriate. He reminds us that Freud, Jung, Adler, et al all had to begin somewhere:

Davey, did you ever think that these three men who were so splendid at understanding others had first to understand themselves? It was from their self-knowledge they spoke. They did not go trustingly to some doctor and follow his lead because they were too lazy or too scared to make the inward journey alone. They dared heroically. And it should never be forgotten that they made the inward journey while they were working like galley-slaves at their daily tasks, considering other people's troubles, raising families, living full lives. They were heroes, in a sense that no space-explorer can be a hero, because they went into the unknown absolutely alone. Was their heroism simply meant to raise a whole new crop of invalids? Why don't you go home and shoulder your yoke, and be a hero too?

That's from Liesl, who reprises her role as sceptic and Devil's advocate. Jung's archetypes did not just spring forth from the head of Zeus fully-formed; no, he developed them over time through his own reflection and introspection. Hence, any psychology theory is not the end of the framework of one's analysis; it's only the beginning. It provides tools and training to start an individual down the long road, where the journey lasts a lifetime and the destination is always beyond the horizon.

If The Manticore has one flaw, it's that it's not Fifth Business. Such is my admiration for the first book in this trilogy: I have a hard time giving The Manticore five stars, though I think it's quite worthy of each and every one. I understand why Davies chose to depart from the voice of Ramsay in this book, and David is a competent replacement—but he's not Ramsay. He can't be. And though I know it's not rational, this not-being-Ramsay is a stumbling block in my enjoyment of this book.

But I got over it. I had to. The Manticore is both a companion and a sequel to Fifth Business: it revisits and continues events from the previous book, while providing a whole parallel biography that's rich in its own way. While it's not necessary for you to have read Fifth Business to read The Manticore, I don't see why you would skip the first book. Similarly, if you read Fifth Business it's possible to stop and never open this book—but in that case, I think you would be making a mistake. It's not that they are meant to be read together, but the books of the Deptford trilogy are like the movements in a single, encompassing symphony. Each is its own piece, exquisite, but it's the sum total of all three books that elevates them from excellent to truly remarkable. The Manticore builds upon the themes begun in Fifth Business, and all the while it tells us the story of another man attempting to make sense of the death of his father.


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