Review of World of Wonders by Robertson Davies
World of Wonders
by Robertson Davies
Yay, Ramsay is back! Not that David Staunton was a terrible narrator, but I will always, always have a soft spot in my heart for that irascible old teacher, descended from Scots and obsessed with saints. And now here he is, back to narrating the book. Sort of.
Although Ramsay is technically the narrator, he is consigned to the frame story, and Magnus Eisengrim (or Paul Dempster, back when he was from Deptford) takes centre stage. World of Wonders is notable if only for the fact that most of the paragraphs begin with an opening quotation mark, as the majority of the story gets retold via dialogue—almost a monologue, in fact, though there are crucial points where the listeners to Eisengrim's tale interrupt and interject.
The book takes its title from the carnival that abducted Paul on that fateful day back in Deptford. This event, combined with the interest in prestidigitation that the young Ramsay had awakened, would set Paul on the trajectory for the rest of his life. We get to learn what makes Magnus Eisengrim so different from anyone else, especially when it comes to his utter lack of a formal education and his ignorance of any culture or literature that is not Biblical. Much as various characters entered and exited the lives of Dunstan Ramsay and David Staunton in the first two books, each one shaping the narrator in some way, we see the effects each character in Magnus' autobiography have on his own life.
Yet I should not neglect the frame story. Ramsay explains that they are all at Sorgenfrei, Liesl's estate, to finish filming a biopic about the famous French conjurer, Robert-Houdin. Magnus happens to be portraying Robert-Houdin, and they determine that it would be best if he provides some subtext, in the form of an autobiography. Magnus is at that point in his life, Liesl observes, where he is feeling confessional, and so they gather around him to hear his tale. We hear an interesting life story, but we also get a meditation on the art of autobiography.
I think it's fair to compare the Deptford trilogy to the works of John Irving, in that both Davies and Irving tend to focus on recounting the lifetime of a single main character, subsuming plot to the character's own development. However, the Deptford trilogy is a lot more meta and self-aware. In Fifth Business and The Manticore, this is particularly obvious in Ramsay's discussion of saints and David's flirtation with Jungian psychoanalysis. Now with World of Wonders Davies focuses on how we perceive ourselves, and, in particular, how we tell our life stories. Throughout Magnus' confession, his listeners interrupt him to discuss not only what he tells them but how he tells it, how he portrays his younger self and how he editorializes the story. It just so happens—through one of those miracles of coincidence owing to an author's creative license—that the producer of the film, Ingestree, knew Magnus in one of his previous lives. Magnus recognized this the moment he saw Ingestree, but Ingestree only realizes it as Magnus starts telling his story. So we get a parallel account of parts of Magnus' life through Ingestree's eyes. Each of them potrays the other in a rather unflattering light, and each admits his own past self was an ass. Whether you wish to believe such contrition or choose, instead, to believe that each is secretly fuming at how the other portrayed him is ultimately up to you.
So the art of autobiography is ultimately an unreliable one. That probably isn't a big shock, but Davies does explore this theme in a masterful way. And he connects the main story and this theme to the overarching plot of the trilogy. Other reviews insist that the central question—the "mystery," if you will—of the Deptford trilogy is, "Who killed Boy Staunton?" I have to disagree, however, because I just can't get worked up about that. The Deptford trilogy is not a mystery series, and while the question is of interest to some of the characters, it's of little relevance to us as readers.
No, what I find more interesting is how the death of Boy affected the other characters: David, Ramsay, and even Magnus. In the coda to A World of Wonders, Ramsay broaches the question again as he, Liesl, and Magnus are having a nightcap in bed. They discuss Liesl and Magnus' roles, for Liesl was the voice of the Brazen Head of Friar Bacon that answered the question David shouted in that crowded theatre. Magnus was probably the last person who saw Boy Staunton alive, for Boy gave him a ride back to his hotel after Ramsay introduced them on that fateful night. And Magnus recounts what Boy said about Ramsay. I really liked hearing that, because it provided access, albeit second hand, to a narrative perspective we had lacked so far: the voice of Boy Staunton himself. Ramsay portrays him in an unflattering light in Fifth Business, and as much as I love Ramsay, he is hardly an unbiased narrator. It was good to hear another perspective on my favourite character in this series, especially one that suggests alternative motives for why Ramsay introduced Magnus to Boy and why he had kept that stone for so long.
Ultimately, the trilogy is not about answering, "Who killed Boy Staunton?," though in the end, it does answer the question. It is instead an incredibly intricate, interconnected telling of lives, love, and relationships. It has a subtext grounded firmly both in Jungian analysis and in interesting perspectives on the flexibility of art, autobiography, and education. Each book in the trilogy is amazing in its own peculiar way, and though I think Fifth Business remains my favourite, its dominance is by a small margin. The Manticore was a fascinating look at psychoanalysis and how our mind casts others as characters in our own stories. World of Wonders continues this autobiographical theme, always questioning its own premise for existing: that of a single, central character relative to whom everyone else has a mere supporting role.
This is the type of book where there are few passages I feel like quoting outright, mostly because they are not as profound when taken out of context, but I wish I could somehow distill the entire book into a quotation-sized passage for others to read. It's just that good, that essential—by which I mean, this trilogy conveys emotions and meaning that seem obvious when one encounters them, but that, until one encounters them in this form, might never occur to one at all. World of Wonders and the rest of the Deptford trilogy is a labour of love that in turn has taken on a life of its own. What Davies has done here is what literature should do, what it does best: tap into something deep, dark, and true about the human psyche and dredge it up for the world to see. He has exposed us, all of us to the light of introspection and critical thought. His characters are neither good nor bad but complex quagmires of passions, obsessions, recriminations and doubts; they are people, and through them we think more about ourselves.
I started re-reading Fifth Business because I remembered liking it. I had read the other two books, but they had not left as much as an impression. Now, having finished the entire trilogy for a second time, I cannot overstate my appreciation of it enough. This is a work I consider a truly timeless classic, and I am very glad I took the time to re-experience it at this stage in my life. In a year, or five years, or a decade from now, however long it is before I re-read it again, I suspect I will get something different out of it. I am certain, however, that its importance and significance to me will not diminish.