The Fifth Business Diving Bell

Apparently, if left to his own devices, Kirtles would make this an inspirational quotes blog. Who knew? If left to my own devices, I’d turn this into an exceedingly earnest PicMonkey extravaganza. In all seriousness, I thank my bestie for carrying my load last week when I was too ill to carry it myself. “When you can’t walk, you crawl. And when you can’t do that, you ask someone to carry you.” Now, onto the business at hand, the Fifth Business.

Fifth Business…Definition

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business. 

We open the story with this definition of the title, a fake definition created by Davies. Dunstan Ramsay, a man is his 60s, decides to write the story of his life in a letter to the headmaster at the school where he teaches after reading an insipid and insulting article where a young man reduces his life in celebration of his retirement . Ramsay starts the story with the moment that informed most of his life, and throughout the rest of the novel we are left to figure out what role he plays throughout different times in his life to different people, and who plays what roles to him. What follows is a story about friendship, guilt, perspective, performance, wonder, miracles, ageing, and faith which attempts to illuminate and disrupt our preconceived notions about all of the above. AND it does all of this while remaining witty and eliciting excitement about the world around us. I re-read this book as part of the CBC book club on goodreads, which has been a great experience! Which is all to say, go read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. Step away from the twitters, and the jobs, and the funny cat videos and just go immerse yourself in awesome.

Now, what is this about diving bells? A little while back, Rick at Another Book Blog stole the idea of Literary Diving Bells from Peter Damien over at Book Riot and I shall now in turn continue the thievery.

A “Diving Bell,” if you don’t know, was an old-timey way of going underwater with an air supply, in the days before we had any type of oxygen tank. A big metal bell would go down on the end of a long line, heavily weighted along the bottom. It would hover just over the seabed. Then a diver could swim down, go inside of the bell, and take a breath, before swimming back out and exploring. When out of breath, it was back into the bell. It was crude, but remarkably effective. — Peter Damien

Where a literal diving bell allows its user to immerse him or herself in inaccessable environments underwater, literary diving bells allow readers to explore eras, authors, and genres they aren’t yet comfortable with.  – Rick

So, to what end will I use Fifth Business as an LDB? Well, it’s a diving bell in a sea full of Jesuits – great title for a wacky children’s book, don’t you think? What rhymes with Jesuit…?

Right, so I’m fascinated by the Jesuits. Perhaps a weird thing to write, but exploring ideas of faith, both religious and secular, from a fairly secular point of view is something I’ve always wanted to do. Faith as a concept interests me, faith in ourselves, in science, in a divine plan – why does it play such a huge role in human psychology and history? And, the history of those religions that appear to encourage exploration and intellectual rigourousness has also been of interest to me, such as that of the Jesuits. The Jesuits in Fifth Business are presented by quiet, studious types and one very rambunctious senior named Padre Blazon, and these characters reminded me of my desire to get a few more Jesuits into my reading life. But religion and faith are not subjects I tend to bring up in conversation at dinner parties. There’s a level of discomfort that surrounds these topics for me. And, I gotta admit, that while I judge no religion,  more than any other cover (YA, cheesy Fantasy, etc), covers with names of religions in big letters are not ones I love carrying around with me in public. If we’re to use LBDs to help us into uncomfortable waters, then I think these waters are sufficiently uncomfy for me.

So, I’ll use Fifth Business to spring me into the following three books over the next yoda knows how long, and see what happens. I’d love to hear about other LDBs that have existed in your lives!

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Fiction. 
In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Mary-Doria-Russell-The-SparrowPuerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being “human.” Words like “provocative” and “compelling” will come to mind as you read this shocking novel about first contact with a race that creates music akin to both poetry and prayer.

The First Jesuits by John W. O’Malley. Non-Fiction
John O’Malley gives us the most comprehensive account ever written of the Society of jesuitsJesus in its founding years, one that heightens and transforms our understanding of the Jesuits in history and today. Following the Society from 1540 through 1565, O’Malley shows how this sense of mission evolved. He looks at everything–the Jesuits’ teaching, their preaching, their casuistry, their work with orphans and prostitutes, their attitudes toward Jews and “New Christians,” and their relationship to the Reformation. All are taken in by the sweep of O’Malley’s story as he details the Society’s manifold activities in Europe, Brazil, and India.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. Fiction
A visceral portrait of life at a crossroads, The Orenda opens with a brutal massacre and theorenda kidnapping of the young Iroquois Snow Falls, a spirited girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation’s great warriors and statesmen. It has been years since the murder of his family and yet they are never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter and sees the girl possesses powerful magic that will be useful to him on the troubled road ahead. Bird’s people have battled the Iroquois for as long as he can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous threat from afar. Christophe, a charismatic Jesuit missionary, has found his calling amongst the Huron and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to the new world. As these three souls dance each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars and a nation emerges from worlds in flux.

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7 Responses to The Fifth Business Diving Bell

  1. Naomi says:

    I just bought the whole Deptford Trilogy at a book sale on the weekend, with plans to read it someday, but who knows when that will be. But it’s the intention that counts, right?
    And, the first thing I thought of when I read about your fascination with Jesuits, was that I should recommend both The Orenda and The Sparrow, but then I scrolled down further and saw that you already had that covered.
    I’m with you on the fascination of religion and faith in history and in the present. I love reading novels about religions I am unfamiliar with, especially, which is why I liked The Marrying of Chani Kaufman so much. Another one that comes to mind right now is The Last Runaway by Tracey Chevalier (which is about Quakers).

    • writereads says:

      Intention totally counts! 🙂
      Awesome that I’m on the right track with The Sparrow and The Orenda! Thank you.
      And I HAVE to read Chani Kaufman soon – both you and Tanya have totally sold me on it.
      I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one fascinated by these things 🙂 -Tania

  2. lauratfrey says:

    I was thinking The Orenda (and Black Robe, but The Orenda’s better) before I saw it on the list.

    I keep hearing crazy good things about The Sparrow too.

  3. First, I so have to re-read Fifth Business. When I’m back in Canada over the summer I’m going to pick up the copy i stole from my high school.
    Second, So has everyone read The Sparrow except me? I hadn’t even heard of the book a year ago and now people can’t stop talking about it and it came out in like 1990!! I bought it a couple of weeks ago. My husband has read it, so now it is my turn.

    • writereads says:

      I’m glad to hear of your book stealing exploits and your intention to read Fifth Business again.
      That’s been exactly my experience with The Sparrow as well! A few months ago, I had never even heard of this book that was published 20 bloody years ago, and now it’s everywhere I look. Needless to say, I pay attention to these signs in the universe and went out a got a copy straight away. The first couple of pages are quite engrossing, but I must put it down to read Sweetness, I must!!! 🙂 -Tania

  4. I read The Sparrow for a university course and it went over my head, but we talked about it so much in class that things became clearer when I re-read it afterwards. I thought it was brilliant, but no guarantee I would understand the book if I read it today. 🙂

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