She herself was a victim of that lust for books which rages in the breast like a demon, and which cannot be stilled save by the frequent and plentiful acquisition of books. This passion is more common, and more powerful, than most people suppose. Book lovers are thought by unbookish people to be gentle and unworldly, and perhaps a few of them are so. But there are others who will lie and scheme and steal to get books as wildly and unconscionably as the dope-taker in pursuit of his drug. They may not want the books to read immediately, or at all; they want them to possess, to range on their shelves, to have at command. They want books as a Turk is thought to want concubines – not to be hastily deflowered, but to be kept at their master’s call, and enjoyed more often in thought than in reality.
– from Tempest-tost, by Robertson Davies
You won’t be surprised to learn that my tastes are pretty obscure to the family, meaning that all but my nearest and most dear would not dare give me a book for Christmas without it having been prescribed by the list that I compile usually too late in December to allow any of the items to be ordered in time for the great unwrapping. This year I drew a blank on:
Adam Dant Have a nice day!
JG Farrell The siege of Krishnapur
Clare Messud The last life
Joseph O’Neill Netherland
Rosemary Sutcliff The silver branch
Paul Verhaeghan Omega minor
But the folks did well to lay their hands on Joanna Kavenna’s Inglorious, Jonathan Lethem’s You don’t love me yet, Murakami’s After dark, Ben Goldacre’s Bad science, and Peelie’s The Olivetti chronicles. Robertson Davies’ Murther and walking spirits also appeared on my draft list – I fancied reading some more of him, having enjoyed The Cornish trilogy some considerable number of years ago. I went off to find my copy of that trilogy on one of the many bookshelves around the house to remind myself what else he had written, and what should I find nestling next to it but a copy of that very novel about murder and ghosts. So I started reading and slowly – disconcertingly – the realisation dawned that I had read it before. Not for the first time, the years and the ever-accumulating piles of text that have passed under my eyes and into my consciousness had compacted any memory I had of it quite flat (a novel by Jeanette Winterson, obviously I forget which, suffered the same fate). The bookshelves revealed that I also owned The Salterton trilogy, so I moved on to reading that. I am pretty sure that its text is new to me, though at times the story nags me with its familiarity; there’s no déjà vu but somehow I know where each section of the trilogy is heading. Perhaps this is the result of two more or less logical imaginations locking together in pleasurable combat rather than because the reader has forgotten hearing a dramatisation on the radio a decade or two ago.
Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge. You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.
The ghost of Richard Yates will spend eternity dwelling upon the irony of Revolutionary Road having its readership boosted by the starry trio of Mendes, Winslet and DiCaprio; I doubt the ghost of Robertson Davies will ever experience a similar sort of bittersweet gratification, despite the obvious televisual adaptability of his comedies of manners. Nothing like as bleak and acerbic as Yates’ work, and far more forgiving of human frailty, The Salterton trilogy nevertheless suffers a little by reflecting the 1950s mores it gently sends up. From the vantage point of the 21st century the majority of Davies’ characters are as ridiculous as they are well-drawn. But when authorially he drops the sense of superiority for which he chides the less self-aware members of his cast, then wisdom, wit and sympathy come together in a way that has as much to say about life as Yates.
One final, irresistible quote from Tempest-tost:
“My eyes are turned outward, toward the world,” said Freddy. “Yours are turned inward, toward yourself. In the innermost chamber of your spirit, Gristle, you kneel in constant adoration before a mirror.”
Griselda smiled lazily, and threw a fish sandwich at her sister.