Sunday, November 27, 2011

"What's Bred in the Bone" by Robertson Davies

My friend Brad gave this book to me, and I should’ve read it immediately. Instead it stood at the back of the line for a year while I read books inferior to it. Which is strange, since everything Brad has ever handed me to read has been exceptional. You’d think I would’ve learned by now. But then, I’ve always enjoyed saving dessert until last. 

And what a sumptuous read this was. 

This isn’t a synopsis of the story. I generally don’t read for plot anyway. I put less stock in it than I probably should. For one thing, I’d rather celebrate good style and a solid command of the language. Besides, the obligatory blurb on the back cover or inner jacket often serves only to frighten the bookworm away. 

Still, many read entirely for plot or genre. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. But consider: Brad and some friends and I once sat in a club together. One friend said, “What if people could talk only when quoting from a book?” I thought I was being clever when I replied, “I bet people would read more.”  But Brad topped it, saying, “And talk less.”

Imagine reading a book bursting with lines you desperately wished to utter at parties. Such as these: 

“Banking is like religion: you have to accept certain rather dicey things simply on faith, and then everything else follows in marvelous logic.” Or “Science is the theology of our time, and like the old theology, it’s a muddle of conflicting assertions.”

Oh, yeah. It’s an intriguing story. But to me that’s negligible compared to the rich language and absorbing conversations that move the story forward.  Consider:

“It’s wonderful to talk to you, my dearest, because you think medievally. You have a personification or a symbol for everything. You don’t talk about ethics: you talk about saints and their protective spheres and their influences. You don’t use lettuce-juice words like ‘extra-terrestrial’; you talk frankly about Heaven and Hell. You don’t blether about neuroses; you just say demons.”

The entire book – besides telling a wonderful story about Frankie and his life before birth and shortly after death (oops! was that a spoiler?) – is full of insight and potent adages like these: “Immoderate compassion will ruin you quicker than brandy.”

Besides maxims, however, Davies is a superb narrator. Consider this scene, but more importantly the way it’s told:

“There was a pond in a field across from Carlyle Rural, and in spring it was full of frogs. The game was to catch a frog, stick a straw up its cloaca, and blow it up to enormous size. As the frog swelled, there was a delightful apprehension that it might burst. There was an even more splendid hope that the boy who was blowing might, if enough funny things were said to him, stop blowing for a moment and suck and then – why, he might even die, which would richly crown the fun.”

Here’s a minor character that shows up only once in the entire novel and yet watch how well he’s introduced: “Dr. McOdrum was very important, but he worked in a mercilessly overheated, windowless little kennel in the basement of the big hospital, and was himself so pale and stooped and overburdened in appearance that he was a poor advertisement for his profession.”

I leave you with this amusing, but by no means best, episode from Davies’s book.  An exchange between the teacher and his pupil:

“‘Catholicism has begotten much great art; Protestantism none at all –not a single painting. But Catholicism has fostered art in the very teeth of Christianity. The kingdom of Christ, if it ever comes, will contain no art; Christ never showed the least concern with it. His church has inspired much but not by anything the Master said. Who then was the inspirer? The much-maligned Devil, one supposes. It is he who understands and ministers to man’s carnal and intellectual self, and art is carnal and intellectual.”

“You work under the wing of the Devil, do you?”

“I must, if I am to work at all. Christ would have had no time for a man like me. Have you noticed how, in the Gospels, He keeps so resolutely clear of anybody who might be suspected of having any brains? Good-hearted simpletons and women who were little better than slaves were His followers. No wonder Catholicism had to take a resolute stand in order to include people of intellect and artists; Protestantism has tried to reverse the process. You know what I would like, Corniche?”

“A new revelation?”

“Yes, that might come of it. I should like a conference to which Christ would bring all His saints and the Devil would bring all his scholars and artists, and let them have it out.”

“Who would judge the result?”

“That’s the sticker. Not God, certainly, as the father of both leaders.’”

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