CanLit Challenge Book #24: The Manticore by Robertson Davies
Filed under: CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 4:24 pm on Friday, October 5, 2007

Book 24, The Manticore (1972) – Robertson Davies
From the publisher:
“Hailed by the Washington Post Book World as ‘a modern classic,’ Robertson Davies’s acclaimed Deptford Trilogy is a glittering, fantastical, cunningly contrived series of novels, around which a mysterious death is woven. The Manticore—the second book in the series after Fifth Business—follows David Staunton, a man pleased with his success but haunted by his relationship with his larger-than-life father. As he seeks help through therapy, he encounters a wonderful cast of characters who help connect him to his past and the death of his father.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia article on The Manticore
the Wikipedia article on the Deptford Trilogy
the Wikipedia article on Robertson Davies
the Wikipedia article on Jungian psychology

My thoughts:
I originally zoomed through this novel, reading it in one sitting. I really loved it, but of course, didn’t journal it or blog about it right away. So now I’m trying to do that seven (!) months later. I was ever my intention to read the whole trilogy through again and maybe I’ll have to do that to give a halfway decent ‘review’. But I’ll try to recall my initial thoughts as I look back over the novel (it’s been so long I barely have any solid impressions about the plot). I remember that before I started, I was a little reluctant to read about someone’s psychoanalysis and moreover, was a little disappointed that the book was about David instead of Boy Staunton. But in the end I was far from disappointed! It was fascinating hearing about the Staunton family and some of the events of Fifth Business from David’s point of view. This is the kind of book that draws one in and doesn’t let go until the end, which is remarkable for a story without a lot of plot, but rather a lot of biography. Davies is a master at this technique (found in both of the other books of the trilogy, Fifth Business and World of Wonders). The warped childhood, the early love gone awry, further insights about Canadian identity (especially her colonial British identity) are all played out yet again with different tonal emphases. I especially loved the story of Maria Ann Dymock:

Now, the cream of the story is this. Maria Ann Dymock must have been a girl of some character, for she bore the child in the local workhouse and in due time marched off to church to have it christened. ‘What shall I name the child?’ said parson. ‘Albert Henry,’ said Maria Ann. So it was done. ‘And the father’s name?’ said parson; ‘shall I say Dymock?’ ‘No,’ said Maria Ann, ‘say Staunton, because it’s said by landlord the whole place could be his father, and I want him to carry his father’s name.’
[…] But my dear Davey, you’re missing the marvel of it; what a story! Think of Maria Ann’s resource and courage! Did she slink away and hide herself in London with her bastard child, gradually sinking to the basest forms of prostitution while little Albert Henry became a thief and a pimp? No! She was of the stuff of which the great New World has been forged! She stood up on her feet and demanded to be recognized as an individual, with inalienable rights! She braved the vicar, and George Applesquire, and all of public opinion. And then she went off to carve out a glorious life in what were then, my dear chap, still the colonies and not the great self-governing sisterhood of the Commonwealth! She was there when Canada became a Dominion! She may have been among the cheering crowds who hailed that moment in Montreal or Ottawa or wherever it was! You’re not grasping the thing at all.
[…] Just a very rough shot at something the College of Heralds would laugh at, but I couldn’t help myself. The description in our lingo would be ‘Gules within a bordure wavy or, the Angel of the Annunciation bearing in her dexter hand a sailing-ship of three masts and in her sinister hand an apple.’ In other words, there’s Mary the Angel with the ship she went to Canada on, and a good old Gloucester cider apple, on a red background with a wiggly golden border around the shield. Sorry about the wavy border; it means bastardy, but you don’t have to tell everybody. Then here’s the crest: ‘a fox statant guardant within his jaws a sugar cane, all proper.’ It’s the Staunton crest, but slightly changed for your purposes, and the sugar cane says where you got your lolly from, which good heraldry often does. The motto, you see, is De forte egressa est dulcedo—‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’
—from the Book of Judges, and couldn’t be neater, really. And look here—you see I’ve given the fox a rather saucy privy member, just as a hint at your father’s prowess in that direction. How do you like it?

I also liked the epilogue bit, meaning the part at the end with Liesl and the cave.