Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies

He had the voice of God (if God trained at the Old Vic) and enough of the look to pass muster. That magnificent Canadian Robertson Davies was born on this date in 1913. His novels were big, erudite, slightly old-fashioned (but with postmodern sensibility informing Dickensian narratives), and usually published in threes. The Deptford Trilogy was probably his most well-known, but I prefer, if only slightly, The Cornish Trilogy, and especially What’s Bred in the Bone, which some of you will recall having inflicted on you in my classes. No apologies. He was two-thirds of the way through his fourth trilogy when he died. That’s eleven big, meaty novels, not bad for a guy who came to fiction writing in middle age after careers in the theater and journalism. 

Jean Rhys

August 24 was a bad day if you were Rome. Pompeii and Herculaneum vanished in A.D. 79, and the Visigoths sacked the city in 410. On the other hand, it was a good day if you were Robert Herrick (1591), who wrote “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” telling them to “Gather rosebuds while ye may,” or the Gutenberg Bible (1456), or A. S. Byatt (1936), or Jean Rhys (1894–or 1890, proving that old bluesmen aren’t the only ones with dubious personal histories). She published several novels and books of stories in the twenties and thirties, then went silent for nearly thirty years.

When she broke out again, in 1966, Wide Sargasso Sea was a stunner: the backstory of the woman who would become “the madwoman in the attic” or Jane Eyre notoriety. As such, it was the first significant novel to do that postmodern thing of directly engaging earlier writers. Before The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Jack Maggs or Flaubert’s Parrot or any of the rest of them. In other words, most of my reading list these last decades. By 2004, there would be two novels on Henry James in the same year. The SAME YEAR! You want someone to credit or blame? Jean Rhys.

Borges and Myself

Today is the birthday of Jorge Luis Borges (1899), the godfather of “magic realism,” whatever that turned out to be. When I was in graduate school, the academic journal we put out interviewed him. I was out of town and missed the event itself but had the misfortune to return in time to help transcribe the interview. His English was perfect but very heavily accented as only that of a native Argentinian could be, very lispy on the “s” sounds. At one point, he said, “Her name, I regret to say, was Oothoon.” We labored for hours trying to figure out what the devil he actually said. Which was, I regret to say, Oothoon. She’s a character in William Blake’s The Daughters of Albion, not exactly one of his greatest hits. That’s my Blake story and I’m sticking to it.

Philip Larkin

Powell Amis Larkin HillaryAIt’s the birthday of Philip Larkin (1922), the great poet of unhappiness. He once said that “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.” I was in the bullpen grad assistant office in my second year in the program when my dissertation advisor burst into the room, read “High Windows,” and sailed out again, cackling. The poem, and the book sharing its title, had just appeared a year or so earlier. It has frank mentions of sex and the chief Anglo-Saxonism for the act, and when Roger had vanished, my Victorianist colleague opined, “I don’t think that language is appropriate for poetry.” Neither did Larkin, which is why he used it.

The picture above is of novelist Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis, Larkin, and Hillary Amis. Kingsley started as a poet, wound up as a novelist, Larkin as a novelist (first two books were novels), wound up a poet with four slim volumes over four decades or so. It’s enough, and some of it is way beyond good.