Fifth Business

Fifth Business

Robertson Davies, 1970

6 min read Filed under: book club

I liked Fifth Business, and it was worth the read. Undoubtedly, for me, it was also a strange read. I had attempted to read it a couple of years ago, but I found that it started a bit too stuffy for me to feel like I could get immersed in it. This time around I was a bit more dedicated and a bit more determined and I was able to jump into the story without too much trouble. I’m not sure what strangeness I’m referring to. Maybe by the end of this write-up I’ll have a little more idea.

Fifth Business is a Canadian novel. Most of it takes place in Canada. And I can't help but feel compelled to come at it from a more analytical perspective, for it. This might be because I studied Canadian literature in university, and I suppose it's something of a habit. What's more, the main character is also something of an academic: a writer, a researcher, and a headmaster/teacher. I suppose that makes it easy for me to reflect that perspective when engaging with this text.

However, with these book club entries, I would rather not be doing that. So for now, I'll reflect on a few things that stood out in the novel.

Why is this story being told?

The narrator (Dunstan Ramsay) in the text is writing a memoir in the form of an epistolary text to the now-present headmaster who has succeeded him where he had worked the majority of his career. Why is Ramsay doing this? Because he has found that his farewell text published in the College Chronicle was offensive and idiotic, and he feels the need to write about his life. This is maybe where I felt like things got off to a bit of a strange start. It’s difficult to imagine writing anything personal to anyone who took my old job, these days.

With that said, I think using this format to express the experiences and critical moments of Ramsay’s life does work well enough in this case.

The Little Canadian Village

The narrator's depiction of their village (as well as their understanding of the clichés of small villages in Canada) is engaging and entertaining. Not having grown up in a small town, I do wonder about the nuances and intricacies of relationships, gossip, and interpersonal conflict, in a town so small. I believe that the town the narrator, Ramsay, grew up in was based something off the author's own small village where he grew up.

Concerning saints and sects

A large portion of the novel follows Ramsay's exposure to and exploration of the world of saints. The beginning of this thread is Paul Dempster’s mother, Mary Dempster. The narrator's retelling of his growing up often references much of the differences and contention between different sects of Christianity. Frankly, despite growing up religious myself, a lot of this was lost on me. While the book was published in the early 70s, the period depicted is the early 20th century (pre-World War 1) when religion was a much more powerful and present institution.

This is where the book lost me most. I wasn't interested in Ramsay's explorations into Saint hunting in Europe, nor his navigation of personal religion. At most, these portions of the book remained interesting purely from a historical standpoint, in which I was reading a fictitious representation of someone's relationship with religion and ideas about religion.

Women in Fifth Business

How women are portrayed in this book troubles me. I'm not exactly sure how to approach talking about it. I’m unsure if the narrator is being portrayed in a flawed manner or as someone who is representative of a time and place, or if the author is inserting some of their perspectives through the narrator. Can’t know, I guess.

I primarily noticed that women do not have voices in this story and are often either talked over or not even referenced when a conversation is happening in their presence. It feels as though women in this story can fall into one of a few different categories. There are either the irregular and uncontrollable (Mary Dempster), the mannish (Liesl, Denyse), or the meek (Leola).

Leola is talked about and "fought over" between Boy and Ramsay throughout earlier parts of the novel. Despite hearing about her, we never hear from her. She does not have any lines of dialogue until well into the novel, during an uncomfortable scene in which Boy is presenting erotic photographs of Leola to Dunstan (with Leola present):

"Boy, please Put them away or I'll have to go upstairs. I don't want Dunny to see them while I'm here."
"Leola, I never thought you were such a little prude."
"Boy, it isn't nice."
Nice, nice, nice! Of course it isn't nice. Only fools worry about what's nice. Now sit here by me and done on the other side and be proud of what a stunner you are."

I think there is a certain level of nuance in this scene in both Dunstan's internal reaction to Boy's disturbing power plays, and his reference to the story of Gyges and Candaules, that gives credit to the narrator.

Even still, the narrator's opinion of women is never particularly positive. And while Ramsay holds a certain reverence for Mary Dempster, that may only be because he places her on the level of being a saint, while other women are either objects or unpleasant gargoyles (as he refers to Liesl at one point).

Later in the novel, Percy Boy meets his second wife, Denyse. She is an example of a woman who has to take on masculine characteristics to be taken seriously in the business and political world. The narrator recognizes these efforts of Denyse and her advocating for the voice of women. But he never really liked her.

On the other hand, I think the relationship between Ramsay and Diana Marfleet, the nurse who acted as his caretaker, demonstrated more of an eye-to-eye mutual respect.

The discussion with Liesl

The confrontation between Liesl and Ramsay was striking — it felt like the novel was building up to something like this — where another character directly calls out Ramsay:

That is your privilege, you pseudo-cynical old puss-cat, watching life from the sidelines and knowing where all the players go wrong. Life is a spectator sport to you. Now you have taken a tumble and found yourself in the middle of the fight, and you are whimpering because it is rough. (255)

You are a decent chap to everybody, except one special somebody, and that is Dunstan Ramsey. How can you be really good to anybody if you are not good to yourself? But you—there is a whole great piece of your life that is unlived, denied, set aside. That is why at fifty you can't bear it any longer and fly all to pieces and pour out your heart to the first really intelligent woman you have met—me. That's to say, and get into schoolboy yearning for a girl who is as far from you as if she lived on the moon. This is the revenge of the unlived life, Ramsay. Suddenly it makes a fool of you. (229-230)

This is just a subsection of a beautiful, well deserved ripping apart of Ramsay by Liesl.

The concept of "Fifth Business" is introduced early in the book, and becomes a lens that Ramsay uses to understand and approach relationships in his life. Whether he is ambivalent in accepting a Victoria Cross medal after World War I (for something he feels he accidentally accomplished) or being accosted by Boy for his peculiar academic interests (and so making him unfit for the perpetual role of Headmaster) — I imagine Ramsay sees himself as far from being a hero as possible.

And that might be refreshing, if strange—to encounter a story in which the protagonist isn’t fitting our heroic conceptions of protagonist. Instead, the narrator is an accoutrement, a fifth wheel, on the sidelines, supporting cast, etc. Still, Liesl’s confrontation is condemning in its last part: This is the revenge of the unlived life. It’s a vicious adjudication. Was Ramsay disallowing himself to live in the spotlight and believe himself his very own grand figure? There is an impression that the unlived life is the life that happens to Ramsay, rather than Ramsay pursuing and happening to life.

In contrast, Percy Boy is the "hero" of the story in Ramsay’s life, by nature of his financial and romantic successes, among others. Boy goes so far as to provide insider tips to help Ramsay avoid the 1929 stock market crash.

Using the lens of Fifth Business, there are fewer dramatic and moving moments in which Ramsay finds himself; his memoir has splashes of intense and powerful moments, but there is plenty of drudgery in there. Ramsay isn’t on stage all the time, unlike the nationwide known Percy Boy Staunton. Those crucial moments — the last show of Eisengrim after Boy’s death, or the confrontation with Liesl, bring about dramatic punches — where Ramsay is, sometimes literally, on stage.

I’ve left out of this write up discussion of many other parts of this book that I found striking: Ramsay’s relationship with Padre Blazon, the trauma and abuse of Mary Dempster (and her unique perspectives on fear), much of the stuff on Saints, pretty much anything on Paul Dempster (or rather, the notable Eisengrim), Ramsay’s false history he wrote on Eisengrim and so on.

I don’t think I’ll read the next two books that are part of this trilogy, although I was immersed enough to wonder about the trajectory of some of the other characters. Fifth Business was more readable than I initially thought and it does stand well on it’s own.