Adventures in Earnestness

fifthbusinessFirst off, a reminder to take a gander at Kirt’s choices for May Mystery. Secondly, a reminder to remind me never to try to write about a book as complex as Fifth Business at a really early hour of the morn.

Ramsay is a man twice born, a man who has returned from the hell of the battle-grave at Passchendaele in World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross and destined to be caught in a no man’s land where memory, history, and myth collide. As Ramsay tells his story, it begins to seem that from boyhood, he has exerted a perhaps mystical, perhaps pernicious, influence on those around him. His apparently innocent involvement in such innocuous events as the throwing of a snowball or the teaching of card tricks to a small boy in the end prove neither innocent nor innocuous. Fifth Business stands alone as a remarkable story told by a rational man who discovers that the marvelous is only another aspect of the real

I decided to join CBC’s monthly book club on goodreads and am re-reading Roberston Davies’ Fifth Business for the 4th time. I haven’t read this book in a good 17 years and I’m finding it interesting to see the differences in my interpretations. I first read this book when I was 14 or 15, again for my high school English class when I was 17, and again for a CanLit class when I was 20. While I haven’t gotten too far into it yet, it occurs to me now not just how much of this book I had forgotten in the intervening years, but how earnest a reader I was back in my youth. When I first read this book, I took everything the protagonist and narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, said at face value (Of course Mrs. Dempster is a saint and performs miracles!). In later readings, and especially this one, I find I’m reading this book more as a meditation on guilt and what it can do to human behaviour and beliefs.

This reading reminded me that my earnestness caused problems for me when I first read Tom King’s Green Grass, Running Water as well. I didn’t realize the book was as funny as it was until I went to hear Mr. King himself reading passages from the novel. There’s a moment in the novel when the main character (who is Native) is in the USA for a bit and accidentally gets caught up in a political rally for Native rights. He keeps trying to get through it as he needs to get to a business meeting, but the protesters won’t let him. At one point he tries to tell them he has to get to his hotel by saying “I have a reservation,” and one of the protesters says with seriousness, “Some of us don’t.” I’m actually cringing having to write this, but as a 19-year-old reader, I nodded soberly at this line, thinking I was all up in the Native Rights and stuff.  It wasn’t until I heard King read it that I realized it was meant to be uproariously funny. Sigh.

The question of how reliable Dunstan Ramsay is as a narrator comes up a lot in discussions of Fifth Business. My own personal thought early on in the re-reading is that part of the point of the book is to say that Ramsay is not lying per se, but is simply a man falling prey to the unavoidable pitfalls of writing a memoir: a general solipsism, being self-effacing in an attempt to hide the rampant self-idealization, the dramatization of events that, in reality, held no drama, and of course, the difficulty in telling “truth” when we are really only presenting our own, very limited perspective. Ramsay keeps telling us how he wants to avoid these pitfalls, but fall into those pits he does, repeatedly. So far, I think Ramsay is telling us what he has to believe is the truth. So far, I believe that it’s arguable whether Davies himself meant the statements about myth, saints and magic, but that Dunstan Ramsay writes in earnest. I still think that part of the joy in reading this book, at any age/level of cynicism, is the niggling suspicion it gives you that magic and a sort of faith can be found in this world.

Maybe that’s just my own earnestness coming out again? You know, this started out as something kind of funny about me, but despite the cringe-worthy moments it has induced, I sort of miss my depth of earnestness. Some cynicism, a large degree of sarcasm, and a hefty dose of lazy have left bits of my earnestness – in all its definitions – in the dust. And it’s not such a bad quality, to work with, to read with, to dance with, to feel with, or to simply live with.
Huh. Look at me, learning and stuff 🙂

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5 Responses to Adventures in Earnestness

  1. lauratfrey says:

    “I still think that part of the joy in reading this book, at any age/level of cynicism, is the niggling suspicion it gives you that magic and a sort of faith can be found in this world.”

    Yes! Any book. Any good book, that is.

    This also reminded me that I really like the phrase “in earnest.” Like asking someone “are you in earnest?” I would do that if it wouldn’t make me look ridiculous.

    5th Business is definitely on my rereads list. I haven’t read it since high school (were you in IB English too?)

    • writereads says:

      That really is what the best books do, isn’t it?

      And “in earnest” is a great expression. I think you should bring it back 🙂

      I was, indeed, in IB English. Good times. -Tania

  2. Naomi says:

    This is so well-written! And deep. But I have nothing to say, because I have never read this book (I know, I should have read it when I was on letter D, but Lauren B. Davis’s books were so good!). I will have to find some other time to read it.

    I also love the quote Laura picked out. And, I do find it fascinating how our reading changes over time.

  3. writereads says:

    Thank you 🙂
    I’ll have to read some of Davis’ books, now that you recommend them, but you HAVE to read some Robertson Davies at some point. He is just amazing.
    And I always wonder if it will be worth it to re-read a book when there are so many new ones out there, but I never regret re-reading a favourite. With a good book, you do always find something new in every reading. Do you have any books you re-read even semi-regularly? -Tania

  4. It is crazy to go back and read books you read as a teenager. I always realize just how much i missed. Looking back, it is surprising they ever assigned Davies to high school students. There is so much going on in his books, i just think that i was way too young to get it all. Maybe i still am.

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