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book review

One of the main threads of A Celtic Temperament is Robertson Davies’s experience adapting his novel Leaven of Malice into a play.

Sunday Feb. 7, 1960, Peterborough Ont.: Robertson Davies takes to his diaries. "Spend much of the day reading Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz for the Governor-General's Literary Award," he writes. "Much talent but a derivative and ill-planned work. Brenda and I rearrange furniture in the living-room with excellent effect and banish the gold sofa. Result, room much unified."

Isn't this perfect? One imagines a fountain pen, a plate of biscuits, Gabriel Fauré on the stereo. Both Mordecai Richler and the gold sofa dispatched in the same paragraph, but fairly, and with a certain fondness for both: the Canadian way. Then to bed. Robertson Davies, we're told, kept diaries all his life, but the selection just published as A Celtic Temperament cover the years 1959 to 1963, before the most famous novels, when he was best known as a critic, playwright and editor, and they're delightful: written mostly pronoun-free (bought milk, wrote opera etc.) they reveal little more than the banalities of a privileged life in letters, but they're fun, whimsical, attentive: like the books. September, 1963: "The problem this diary now proposes is – what to record? Minutiae or only the big things?" Of course this is a mission statement, not just for the diaries but for the books: minutiae are the big things, in Robertson Davies's daily life and in the small-pond big-fish stories of Francis Cornish and Simon Darcourt and all the petty demons and angels of the fiction to come. Write big about the smallest things: That's how it worked for Dostoevsky and Dickens, and Davies took notice.

There's no dirt, little gossip. He has trouble with lumbago. He and Brenda, his wife, to whom he was devoted, dine at the University Club in Toronto, or rather they "sup," without irony. He likes Bergman films and reads Jung, writes about his dreams, even the saucy ones, has drinks with his friends the Ignatieffs, meets 12-year-old Michael, the future failed politician, declares him a nice boy. Evenings are spent at the theatre: "To the O'Keefe to see The Unsinkable Molly Brown by Meredith Wilson, which seemed to promise well in the first half but went to pieces in the second," he writes. "As always in that vast warehouse, everybody screamed, and any nuance the thing might have had was lost. Tammy Grimes has an urchin charm but the rest of the cast was as obvious as cornflakes." There's a lot of this: sniffing at mass culture and the modern, or what passes for both in Toronto in the early 1960s. But it's playful not pompous and earned through writing that, while informal, still wears a jacket to dinner. I knew a reviewer in the 1980s at campus radio who said she'd happily read Timothy Findley's grocery lists. The same applies here: eloquence lights up dull moments, of which there are many, but who cares, it's Robertson Davies: "obvious as cornflakes." The smart writer will steal that.

The diaries, though slapdash, are built around two main narratives: Davies's experience adapting his novel Leaven of Malice, a Leacock award-winner, for the stage ("my mind is a yeast of schemes to make a play of it,") and taking the show on the road; and the establishment of Massey College at the University of Toronto where he served as its first master. The Massey College years are of interest to those who are interested in Massey College, in how the furniture and place settings are acquired (spoiler alert: they came from Eaton's) but the story of Love and Libel, the play adapted from Leaven of Malice, is a comparatively ripping yarn. The author goes to Ireland to work on the script with the great director Tony Guthrie: wretched weather, Guthrie's farmhouse is a rustic terror, there's congealed butter and cigarette butts in the washing-up sink. Little work gets done.

But a script emerges. Casting is a nightmare, rehearsals worse. Dennis King, a washed-up English star of musical theatre is the star, alongside Canadian actress Charmion King whom Davies finds charming but weak. Dennis King sulks and begs for better lines. Everyone has opinions about how to improve the play and none are shy about sharing them. Soon they pack off for Detroit, Boston and finally New York by train, where Love and Libel will either swim or sink like a rock, probably the latter. By nights Davies takes to his hotel room with a rented typewriter to make the revisions, and the tale as he tells it in the diaries reads like his fiction: characters with more heart than talent, too much whisky and fretting, inevitable doom, but always the delicious minutiae. The play bombs in New York and is never spoken of again.

Davies tells the story of his own worst professional flop with humility and high spirits. That's the tone of the diaries: it's a great, serious, whimsical, comic life all at once, and worth writing down. Good for us that he did so.

Tom Jokinen is a writer and radio producer in Ottawa.