A Mixture of Frailties - Robertson Davies (1958)

"Art's distillation; experience is wine, and art is the brandy we distill from it." So says Sir Benedict Domdaniel in A Mixture of Frailties, and the brandy that Robertson Davies offers us is a fine vintage indeed. Davies' work is hard to review in a conventional fashion, because the construction of it is so loving and so fully human that any discussion of simple plot and setting is completely inadequate. Davies' books are essentially long character studies, and his trilogies or quadrilogies even more so. That does not mean that nothing happens, since character is shaped by action, but rather what is important is not what happens but how it effects the characters - a subtle distinction, perhaps, but a crucial one.

To the plot then. A cantankerous old woman dies, leaving a complicated and onerous will which requires her executors to send a young local woman to train abroad in some form of art. The recipient of his largesse is a young local woman, Monica Gall, a singer of some potential. She is sent from her small home town in Canada to England to study. While there her horizons expand, she falls in love and is fallen in love with.

The book serves as an extended meditation on art, as evidenced by the quotation above, and how art can influence lives for good and for ill. An overarching theme is the power of the dead on the living. The will hovers above the entire story, as a faintly malignant force which helps Monica only as a way of controlling her family. Several characters die over the course of the book, and in one case the death frees Monica and in another binds her. Domdaniel comments on the duty interpretative artists owe to the creators of the art they interpret - for a conductor, as Domdaniel is, or a singer, as Monica is trying to become, that often means composers dead for decades if not longer.

As a result, the web of characters and their relationships are not like reality, but rather capture and heighten the essence of reality - they are a distilled brandy that delivers the characteristic taste of life with concentrated power. The impact is delivered with the loving and, I repeat, utterly human, style that marks all of Davies writing.

To be honest, this is not one of Davies' greatest works. Average Robertson Davies, however, is still very good indeed. If you have never read Davies, you have missed a great treat and A Mixture of Frailties is, if not the pinnacle of his art, still likely to be on of the better things you read this year.

Overall Grade: A-

(As a postscript, let me add a personal note. There are very few writers whose books I will buy based purely on the fact that they wrote it. Not only is Robertson Davies one of those writers, but I will often buy duplicates of them when I find them used, secure in the knowledge that I will find someone unfamiliar with him to whom I can gift it with a beneficient smile.)

1 comment:

colin said...

nice summary and review. i love davies' ability to unlock the doors to let us see inside the minds of his characters, to show their humanity and personal growth. this book was lovely.