One-Half of Robertson Davies - Robertson Davies (1977)

This book, subtitled "Stories, Lectures, Secular Sermons," is a collection of speeches written by Davies over the years to be delivered at various occasions - after dinner speeches, eulogies or memoriams, graduation addresses and the like. As such they cover a wide range of topics, each one suitable to the audience, whether it is undergraduate writing students or an association of professional architects. Each individual piece is short, or at least shortish, and although the subject matter is diverse the wit and humanity of Davies shines through in each piece.

Davies, as I have written before, is a very human writer. Whether you feel about his characters, they are unmistakably human, partaking both of angel and devil, in a way that literary creations often fail to do. Davies is a keen observer, an accomplished and erudite writer, and possessed of a great affection for the grand but often messy creatures that make up mankind. All of those qualities shine in these short, primarly non-fiction pieces. (In addition to the speeches, there are a few ghost stories written for Gaudy Night celebrations at Massey College where Davies taught.)

The book is broken up into a few sections, poetically named "Garlands and Nosegays" (tributes and memorials), "Giving Advice," Jeux d'Esprit" (mostly ghost stories), "Thoughts About Writing," and "Masks of Satan" (meditations on the nature of evil). The result is a range of insights into a fascinating man. The book is ideal for bedtime reading or casual browsing, since the individual pieces are short; one can dip into the well of words and then drift gracefully off to sleep in the company of a great mind.

While the book stands on its own, it is most interesting to those who are familiar with Davies' literary output (which is highly recommended). The reflections of the man inform the fiction and vice-versa. However, traveling the other way would be a fascinating journey as well. I can hardly imagine anyone who could read the piece entitles "The Conscience of the Writer" without wishing to see the "speaker" put his principles to work. For that matter, I find it likewise difficult to imagine that any fan of literature would not also wish to seek out those whom this writer himself esteems. Indeed, it was after reading the piece entitled "Gleams and Glooms" that I sought out the works of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, the Irish writer of uncanny stories who died in 1873. I have not regretted that quest. (LeFanu's work is available via Project Gutenberg.)

In short, the book is thought-provoking, charming, amusing and warm. It serves well as either an introduction to Davies, or an accompaniment to his fiction. In either case, it is highly recommended.

Overall Grade: A-

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