TOPICS > Nation

Remembering Robertson Davies

December 4, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Robertson Davies, who died this weekend at the age of 82, was a novelist, playwright, journalist, critic, educator, and more, a Canadian who achieved an international reputation as a man of letters. Perhaps his most well-known novels are two three-novel collections published in the 1970s and 80s, the “Deptford” and “Cornish” Trilogies. Davies’ work often focused on moral conflicts and themes, a subject he discussed with Robert MacNeil in a 1987 NewsHour interview.

ROBERT MACNEIL: You have not wanted to reject the label “moralist” as a novelist. Are you consciously trying to deliver a moral message? Is there a coherent, moral message that you’re aware of trying to impart?

ROBERTSON DAVIES, Author: Yes. I’m trying to deliver a coherent, moral message, but it’s not perhaps what a great many people would think of in that way. I am not preaching. I am not saying you do this, or you’ll get yourself in trouble. I am just saying it looks very much as if certain kinds of behavior led to certain results, and if you put your hand in the fire, you will be burned, and if you behave in a way that is an attempt to be just and decent and good toward your contemporaries, various things will happen to you, not necessarily all of them good. But what I am really trying to do and what I think a moralist generally does is to point out patterns in human behavior which are inexorable; they are archetypes of behavior, and I’m not saying that they’re either good or bad. I am simply saying they are so.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on Davies, we’re joined now by a man who first reviewed his work, and then came to know him well, John Kenneth Galbraith, a columnist and author. Mr. Galbraith, thanks for joining us. When you wrote your first review of Robertson Davies’ work back in 1982 for the “New York Times,” you predicted that his novels, you said, would rank with the very best work of this century. What is it about his writing that makes him so special in your view?

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH, Economist and Author: Well, this extraordinary combination of information, knowledge, perception, and imagination. He carries imagination to just enormous lengths, absolutely wonderful.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean, imagination?

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: Imagination, well, his last–one of his last novels, his leading character dies very early in the novel, almost on the first line actually, and continues to live and to guide the world and get revenge on some people through the whole length of the novel. It takes some imagination to have a dead person as your principal character.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, it does. Many of his novels were set in the small town Canada of his childhood and your childhood, I gather, and yet, would you say they were much deeper and broader than that? I mean, his characters–well, talk to me about that, about the world that he, he drew.

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: We were actually born about 15 miles apart in that huge country. We didn’t know each other, but there is no doubt as to what Robertson Davies did. If I may slightly change the answer, he took down–he opened an enormous window–that’s between the United States and Canada and in Canada and the rest of the world. So he became the possession not of Canadians but of the whole literary world, of all people who read good novels.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you say his novels were almost like 19th century novels, i.e., I mean, the characters had sort of very rich inner lives, it was very complicated, good plotting?

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: There was a 19th century quality about it, but also Robertson Davies was very much a man of the 20th century, and very much a man of his own life and times. His villages, his towns, his poli–his academic colleagues, his scientists, his psychiatrists have a very present quality. They couldn’t have existed in the last century.

MARGARET WARNER: He was very interested in psychology. How do you see–and Jungian psychology, I gather–how does that play out in his novels?

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: Well, this is something beyond the reach of my competence, as a matter of fact, but his early work was very much influenced by psychiatrists, by Jung, and this has been a current all through his novels. I must say that I react to it very much as an amateur, rather than as a professional critic.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, you talked about his imagination, and he did have this fantastic mythic quality to some of his characters. I guess I don’t usually think of that as part of the Anglo- Canadian heritage. Where did that come from?

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: Oh, that came out of the whole literary world of which he was a part. Some of it–a lot of it went back to his ambition in the theater. He was at the “Old Vic” for a couple of years. He was always involved somewhat with the theater and with theatrical ambitions. He tried several plays which were notable failures actually, and–but it was the theatrical imagination which also ran through his, his fiction; there’s no doubt about that.

MARGARET WARNER: And what was he like? You came to know him. What was he like as a person?

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: Well, he was a wonderful friend. Actually, there’s still some distance between Toronto and Cambridge. I lost–I last saw Robertson Davies when he came down to a birthday party for me a couple of years ago. He was wonderfully warm-hearted, wonderfully articulate, completely interesting, one of the bright lights of one’s life.

MARGARET WARNER: And did he have this imaginative quality in himself, I mean, as a person?

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: In his conversation, no doubt. His conversation could take you from this world into the next world, or anyplace that you–that he decided that you might want to go.


JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: But also he could be very rigorously academic. He was–we show–are reminded that he spent much of his life as, a large part of his life as master of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Galbraith, I’m sorry, we’re going to have to leave it there, but thank you so much.