Books: Then and Now
Review: The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks by Robertson Davies
By: Richard E. Gower
Robertson Davies (1913 – 1995) wrote three books over a twenty year (1947-1967) period in the arguable guise (he refuted this) of a curmudgeonly alter ego, Samuel Marchbanks. The Diary, the Table Talk and a Garland of Miscellanea were combined between a single pair of covers in 1985 as: The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks. Miscellanea, or a good part of it, was published earlier as: Samuel Marchbanks’ Almanack.
Davies, besides being a newspaper editor and an academic, was also a one-person tour de force in the worlds of literature and and theatre. He wrote fifteen plays, critiques by the ream and completed three sets of novels as trilogies (he was working on the fourth, with two books completed, when he died). Readers today unfamiliar with his public persona will need to get a sense of it however, to fully appreciate his written work with the Marchbanks marque.
If you had ever seen Davies, had heard him speak or had read his novels, one almost had the sense of a being a voyeur when reading the Marchbanks books. You peeped in at Davies from behind a curtain and you found him rumpled, irascible and prickly with irritation. Instead of the dignified author, erudite professor and bon vivant, here instead was a grown-up enfant terriblé, a cultural and political provocateur and, occasionally (as far as the social mores of the times would allow), an irreverent, naughty and salacious imp.
This is all to say that while Davies was unfailingly polite and respectable, when Marchbanks ran with his scissors, you didn’t know whose ox might get gored. And that, of course, is what I always liked about him, then as well as now. He delighted in poking a finger in the eye of convention. And fair warning: like martinis and pickled herring, he is an acquired taste.
I happened to mention to an acquaintance recently that I was re-reading The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks so I could do a book review about it.
He said: “Never heard of it. And why would you read a book twice?”
Me: “I’ve got books that I’ve read more than twice. Some three or more times, as a matter of fact.” (this deflection because I wasn’t actually able to come up on the spur of the moment with an answer that seemed rational, even to myself, in the face of what would surely be a debate around the practical).
Acquaintance: “Why read a book more than once when there are so many books printed that you’ll never get to read all of them anyway, even once?”
Me (still temporizing): “Well, sometimes I go back and read them again to look for a reference, or maybe a specific quote.”
Acquaintance: “Oh, that’s not really reading them twice then.”
Me (stubbornly): “Sometimes I’ll read the whole thing again. It depends on the book.”
Acquaintance (dubious): “Seems like a waste of time to me.”
Me (shrugging): “Well perhaps, but as it’s my time to waste, I elect to waste it doing something that gives me pleasure.” And so to truth. Depending on one’s mindset, this book has within it the hydraulics to lift the reader high up above the everyday, in its sheer sauciness.
The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks covers the spectrum of life’s humdrum and prosaic events as well as its divertissements, frustrations and other minutiae encountered in the day to day, because that’s how Davies set it down. Much, if not most, of the material was gathered from a regular column he began writing as a newspaper editor, under the Marchbanks pseudonym. Some of it was in the form of diary musings so one might well regard this work as a cracked or funhouse mirror-reflection of his world view. And therein lies a great part of its charm.
Marchbanks struggled with the technology of his time. His ongoing battle with his furnace might seem anachronistic to a society that takes central heat for granted but substitute computer for furnace and his frustration becomes clear. On the solution for an appliance gone amok: “Woke feeling like a piece of pemmican; my electric blanket had dried me out during the night.” He fills the bathtub with water and: “..leap into it. There is a sizzle and a suck and all the water has disappeared but I am back to my normal size…”.
Animals were both a source of wariness and warm regard for Marchbanks. He writes of the uncertainties when casting them in theatre productions: “… in the Play Scene [Hamlet] it was the dog’s duty to leap at the throat of King Claudius. Often the dog-actor missed his cue, or wagged his tail at the gallery, or licked Claudius affectionately; such dog –hams were given short shrift by the critics of the day..” . He perhaps saw cats as like-minded conspirators in dissent: “Cats don’t mind being worshipped, but they refuse to be organized.”
Marchbanks detested bureaucracies and bureaucratic language: “Today, for instance, I heard a man refer to a motor car as a ‘transportation unit’. A vile phrase! It might mean anything. A horse is also a transportation unit, and so is my wheelbarrow.” And his take on food and drink was invariably jolting. On being served strong tea by friends who told him: ‘Tea is no good to us unless it will trot a mouse.’, he contemplated: “It occurred to me, in a horrible revelation, that they probably kept a mouse in the kitchen for testing purposes, and I lost all my thirst at once.”
But just as one cannot read Mark Twain easily today without an acceptance of history as something always needing improvement, there are elements of The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks that are best ignored and skipped over. Marchbanks (Davies) undoubtedly had his character flaws (don’t we all?) as he was prone to some of the common prejudices of that period, but put those in context without judgement, and the book is still a great read. If you have an imagination, it should put a smile on your face. REG