By David H. Van Biema
March 10, 1986 12:00 PM

Robertson Davies has been observing things for some time now, and his observations are usually on the mark.

About the New York Times best-seller list, where his latest novel, What’s Bred in the Bone, recently spent a couple of months: “The Washington Post has one, and several of the important papers, but the New York Times’ seems to be the one that seizes the imagination. It’s the one that makes people buy books they have no intention of reading.”

About certain modern novelists, not himself: “They seem only to know two or three kinds of people, and two of them are the man who’s sick of his marriage and the woman who’s sick of hers, and they just wrangle and bitch and whine through to the end of a rather thin book.”

About the regrettable habit that some journalists have of referring to him as “Canada’s pre-eminent man of letters”: “A rather absurd title, and an old-fashioned one. It speaks of before the first Great War, when people lived in country cottages and smoked big pipes and wrote as a kind of gentlemanly pastime, and is not relevant today. A man who probably wears a monocle and spats and dines out a lot. That’s not like me at all.”

Well, here we must pause a moment. For Robertson Davies, 72 years old, Master Emeritus, Massey College, University of Toronto, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (London), holder of 18 honorary doctorates, does look as though at any minute he might pull on spats. A pipe would not seem out of place, nor does it strain the imagination to picture him with a monocle in place of the shaded lens that protects his right eye, which has a cataract.

There is a sense about Davies that he has wandered in from the 19th century. He wears a hound’s tooth jacket, buttoned around his waist even in repose, which with his clunky black shoes gives him the look of a country squire. His face, with its shock of white hair and beard in very un-’80s profusion, has been compared to Santa’s, a biblical prophet’s and George Bernard Shaw’s. His gold watch-fob weight (attached to a lovely antique timepiece) doubles as a letter seal and is embossed with the image of a fox and the legend “Tallyho!” Perhaps Davies is not a classic man of letters in the style of a Shaw or a Henry James but merely a superb novelist. Yet to use a term he would eschew, it is all terribly retro.

The same has been said of his books. Not that Davies’ eight novels are inaccessible. Ever since the 1970 publication of Fifth Business, a marvelous tale about a small town Ontario boy who grows up to become involved with magicians, millionaires, modern-day saints and two strange crimes involving a small, pink stone, Davies has enjoyed a large worldwide audience (the book is published in 12 languages) whose most enthusiastic members include young people allergic to the phrase “19th century.” At the same time, the critics like him. Equal parts theatrical and philosophical, rich in symbols both common and arcane, his work hints at an almost religious belief that there is an underlying sense to life. Wrote John Kenneth Galbraith in the New York Times Book Review: “He is one of the most learned, amusing and otherwise accomplished novelists of our time and, as I shall urge, of our century.”

But is Davies’ writing really of our century, or the previous one? Even his biggest fans will admit that his books hark back to something from an earlier era, something neither hip nor avant-garde, something that obviously bothered the reviewer who suggested that What’s Bred in the Bone might be “a masterpiece that is so tied to the codes and methods of an earlier era that it becomes an anachronism.” What does Mr. Davies say to that?

This. The hero of What’s Bred in the Bone, a man named Francis Cornish, is a great painter (as well as a spy, a miser and a sort of murderer). A great painter, but not, alas, in the predominant modern style of his own 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. No, he is a master in the late Gothic idiom, which went out sometime in the 1500s. Cornish is bereft. Shouldn’t he be able to express himself in the language of Picasso or Matisse? Perhaps, but perhaps not, says his mentor, a jolly art forger named Tancredo Saraceni. “You must find your inner vision,” Saraceni advises.

“But it doesn’t come out in the modern manner,” replies Francis.

“Yes, I understand that,” says the older man. “But I must warn you: Don’t try to fake the modern manner if it isn’t right for you. Find your legend. Find your personal myth…. For some artists, abandonment to the contemporary leads to despair.”

“Yes,” says Davies, “I was thinking about myself. I’m called a novelist of the 19th century because my books have a plot, they have a lot of characters, and they are more detailed in their writing than is customary. They have a philosophical basis and, something that isn’t very common in the modern novel, a moral basis as well.” And Davies finds nothing wrong with any of that.

What he objects to instead, whether in clothing or prose style, is the tyranny of fashion. “Notions of society at present are not necessarily the laws of nature,” he says (and even his voice belongs to another era; it is a pleasantly fruity tenor in the British theatrical tradition). “I feel the past is full of very rich treasures, which tend to get covered over with the passage of time, and that we must dig them up again.”

If one digs into the past of Robertson Davies, one runs into magic very early on. In 1923 Blackstone the Magician came to Renfrew, Ont. “He did the usual tricks,” says Davies, who was 10 at the time, “sawing a woman in half and so forth. But what interested me most was seeing him outside the theater, with a very painted-up, striking little woman—who I assume was his mistress—and two Great Danes walking down the street. This isn’t what you saw in Renfrew every day.”

It is unknown what Renfrew, one of the models for the hard-working but narrow-minded Scots-French-Polish town that forms the bleak backdrop for the first part of What’s Bred in the Bone, made of this spectacle. But Davies’ imagination was not standard Renfrew issue. His Welsh-born father, Rupert, edited the town paper, and his mother was a great reader who, despite the family’s nominal Calvinism, acted in amateur theatricals. Thus, when their third son engaged in un-Renfrew-like pursuits such as conjuring (“That ended soon; I was a coin-dropper and an egg-breaker”) or reading most of Everyman’s Encyclopaedia (12 volumes), they humored him. At age 14, Davies was sent off to boarding school. “If you can survive boarding school,” he says now, “nothing you meet later in life will surprise you, because you’ll see every kind of politics, monkey business, evil and sexual sin.” Fascinated, he went on to Queen’s University in Ontario and Balliol at Oxford, where his thesis on Shakespearean drama won him high honors. He also continued to pursue side interests such as music, hagiography and criminology. Observations of other campus goings-on—Oxford’s nascent Communist cells and a high-stakes, homosexual poker game that eventually was linked to a bizarre murder—would find their way, 50 years later, into What’s Bred in the Bone.

At the time, however, Davies was planning a career in theater. He was thrilled when the legendary British director Tyrone Guthrie saw him in a student production and invited him to join the venerable Old Vic as an actor-dramaturge. Thrilled, at least, until Guthrie evaluated his long-range promise: “He told me he thought I’d never be much of an actor,” reports Davies. “But he said, I might work out a nice little line in grotesques.” Despite this assessment, Davies became Guthrie’s protégé. One night, while playing a grotesque in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he chivalrously offered to help the stage manager, a young Australian named Brenda Mathews, with cues from the Mendelssohn score—”thus,” he says, “gaining my unwholesome grip on her.” They were married the next year.

…And out of jobs. Davies had thought of striking out on his own as a director in England, but in September, 1939 the war closed London theaters. Davies returned, with bride, to Canada, where he worked first as a literary editor of a politics and arts journal and then, at his father’s urging, as editor-publisher of the family-owned Peterborough Examiner in Ontario. “I didn’t want to go there,” he says today. “I thought it would be an awful place.” But he stayed for 20 years, and in addition to upgrading the paper, he raised three daughters and monitored every bizarre murder, act of hillbilly incest and closeted family skeleton in the region. “Endless stuff about life and the way it works,” he says today. “People think I’m such a fancy fellow. They think I have lace underwear and drink port. I have been among people who would make your hair stand on end. And this is where I find the stuff I put in my books.”

Ah, yes. His books. While in Peterborough, Davies sought for a way, at least in writing, to participate in the bigger world of which he was by now very much a citizen. He produced 12 plays in the ’50s and ’60s, and three early novels were generally reviewed as showing promise. Then in 1961 Davies’ life was again disrupted. An old friend, philanthropist Vincent Massey, convinced him to run a graduate college Massey was founding at the University of Toronto. Davies was delivered from the daily responsibility of managing a paper, but amidst the frenzy of starting the school he did no novel-writing at all.

In 1967 Massey died, as did Rupert Davies at 87. In 1971 Tyrone Guthrie followed. Davies’ reaction to these occurrences, if a bit surprising, will not be unfamiliar to those who have met his fictional heroes. “You see,” he says, “they were my fathers. They died and suddenly I was free. I could do exactly what I pleased.” Between 1968 and 1975, he wrote Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders.

Davies filled these books with country crime and city crime, saints, magicians, murder and small town boys who grew up to be famous men. And suddenly The Deptford Trilogy, as it was called, made Davies famous as well. “This small masterpiece,” novelist Anthony Burgess wrote of The Manticore, “should be read not only for itself but as an earnest of the kind of fiction that Canada, after long gestation, was perhaps destined to produce.” Davies’ gestation as a writer had been long too. He was 59 years old.

“No, actually, that’s John the Baptist. The fellow on the right is Jesus. His hair is usually parted in the middle. John’s is usually made to look rough.” In Davies’ comfortable Toronto condo hangs an exquisite collection of religious icons, which he says draw him “not only because they’re fascinating examples of a school of primitive art, but because they have a weight of faith and power behind them.” Whereas he can always pull the grotesque side of his novels from real-life observation, their gentler, philosophical and even mystical tone owes much to such religious images, as well as to Davies’ exposure to the writings of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. Jung theorized that certain meaningful symbols (including the cross, mandala and most mythical figures) bridge the gap between man’s conscious and unconscious minds. Davies found this and other Jungian notions “immensely to my taste.” Not only does he use them in his books (The Manticore describes a Jungian analysis), but he is himself an executive of the Analytical Psychology Society of Ontario, and his eldest daughter is a practicing children’s analyst in London.

“I realize I am an old man,” says Davies, “but I don’t want any time off. I was brought up in a sort of Calvinist background where you must not become vain, not fall in love with yourself, and resolve to do better with the last breath you draw.” Accordingly he retreats four days a week to his and Brenda’s country house an hour from Toronto and spends six hours working on the final book of his current trilogy (Bred was the second, 1982’s The Rebel Angels the first). There is a one-man reading from his works for Ontario’s Guelph Festival to prepare and his cataract to be removed—both before fall, when the couple will tour Scandinavia and pay their annual visit to London. They especially enjoy the British theater season, and there is a shop in Oxford which, says Davies, “looks after your fountain pen and grinds nibs properly.”

It’s hard to imagine Jay McInerney or Donald Barthelme concerning himself with something as archaic as a fountain pen nib. But Davies doesn’t mind. “Johann Sebastian Bach, when he was living, was always being criticized because he wrote in the style of ‘yesterday,’ ” he says. “His sons were the swingers, the up-to-date fellows. But you see, now they’re played sort of as a matter of interest, because their father was such a great musician.

“The old boy doesn’t seem old-fashioned now.”