"There needs to be a place where people come together, freed from their possessions and temporarily free of their houses and their identities to some extent and where they can be in semidarkness and tell the old stories. It was at this bar where I saw a guy tell his life story. And when he was done, he felt better about his life." - J.R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar


Fifth Business

Robertson Davies

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 22, 2014
Category: Fiction

Enough reality for one week. Fiction beckons…

Do you know of the great Canadian writer Robertson Davies? You’d remember the look. Bearded. With an ascot. Though he died in 1995, he seemed like a character out of the 19th century, an actor in a dramatization of Dickens.

Davies did not need that eccentric self-presentation to get attention. His books made him a legend in Canada — and, thanks to "Fifth Business", around the world.

And it all started with one image.

In 1960, Robertson Davies conjured a Christmas scene in a small town in Canada.

One ordinary thing happens: A boy throws a snowball at another boy.

“That was all there was to it,” he’d later recall, “but it came so often and was so insistent that I had to ask myself, Why is that boy doing that, and what is behind this, and what is going on?"

It turns out that there is a rock inside the snowball that Percy Boyd “Boy” Staunton throws at his friend Dunstan “Corky” Ramsey at 5:58 in the afternoon on December 27, 1908. It misses Ramsey — and hits Mrs. Dempster, wife of the Baptist parson, in the back of the head. She is extremely pregnant, and, when she falls, she goes into labor.

Her son, Paul, is born prematurely and must fight for life. Mrs. Dempster is said to be “touched”.

“Corky” Ramsey, age 10, is forever wracked with guilt because of the secret he cannot reveal: “I was perfectly sure, you see, that the birth of Paul Dempster, so small, so feeble, and troublesome, was my fault. If I had not been so clever, so sly, so spiteful in hopping in front of the Dempsters just as Percy Boyd Staunton threw that snowball at me from behind, Mrs. Dempster would not have been struck. Did I never think that Percy was guilty? Indeed I did.”

“Boy” Staunton forgets the incident entirely. But not forever….

The Modern Library judged “Fifth Business” 40th on its “reader’s list” of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. Its fans rate it higher. Robertson Davies is, for many readers, #1. And the story doesn’t necessarily end with this, Davies’ best novel. “Fifth Business” is the opening shot in the “Deptford Trilogy,” which fills 875 pages. So brace yourself. You may find yourself going right on to “The Manticore” and “World of Wonders.” Davies has that power. [To buy “Fifth Business” from Amazon, click here. To buy "The Manticore," click here. To buy "World of Wonders," click here. To buy "The Deptford Trilogy --- all three novels in one brick of a paperback --- click here.]

What is "fifth business"? No one seemed to know, so the publisher asked Davies to explain it at the start of this book. He produced this:

Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.

His source: “purportedly Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads.” In 1979, the book’s Norwegian translator couldn’t find the citation. And Davies had to reveal: He made it up.

In plain English: Fifth Business is a name given to a character who is "neither hero nor heroine, confidante nor villain." In short, a character of apparent unimportance. And yet this character is "essential to bring about the recognition" — he’s an agent of fate, one of those messengers sent to bring a single catalytic message. You’ve seen him in your own life: the guy who shows up one night and drops in your ear an insight you desperately need, the woman whose small act of kindness turns you in a new direction.

Here, I believe, that character is ”Corky” Ramsey, a comparative non-entity. And this is his life story. Kind of a turn-off — how compelling are the memoirs of a bachelor schoolmaster retiring after 45 years of service as a history teacher at a Canadian boys school? Just from your own experience of the men and women who taught you, you’d have to say: Not very.

In fact, Ramsey has had a magical life. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it completes the story of that snowball.

It turns out that ‘Fifth Business” is not just Ramsey’s memoir. In 272 brisk pages, it covers World War I, sex and love in the 1920s, investment strategies before the Crash of 1929, a magic trick that spawns a career. It’s a psychological thriller, and much more. It begins in the now and opens into the extraordinary. In a deceptive way, it’s a study of life itself — the large panorama, seen whole, encompassing both daily life and the realm of marvels. And that is why, for readers who like books that work on several levels, this is a completely addictive novel.

Even better, “Fifth Business” is the opening shot in the “Deptford Trilogy,” which fills 875 pages. So brace yourself. You may find yourself going right on to “The Manticore” “World of Wonders.” Davies has that power. [To buy “Fifth Business” from Amazon, click here. To buy “The Manticore,” click here. To buy “World of Wonders,” click here. To buy “The Deptford Trilogy — all three novels in one brick of a paperback — click here.

Short takes

Kickstarter: The Joan Didion Documentary

I’m beyond conflicted here — Griffin Dunne, a friend for 40 years, will direct the film of my novel, “Married Sex.” But if I’d never met any of the Dunnes, I’d be interested in “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” the first-ever documentary about Joan Didion. And — on its merits — I’ll happily cough up a contribution to this Kickstarter. Read about it here. Contribute here.

Lori Lieberman: Killing New York Softly

Lori Lieberman says she likes “nothing more than walking my dogs and eating a good chocolate chip cookie,” but if you’ve ever heard or seen her, you know that is just false modesty. This is the woman who wrote the poem that became “Killing Me Softly.” She’s loved in Europe. On Saturday, November 8, it’s New York’s turn — she’ll be performing at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. For tickets, click here.

Staging the Scene: Pick-Me-Ups for the Home

When my family travels with Christina Green Gerry and her kids, no sooner have we lugged our suitcases into a rented house than she moves a few things around. Invariably, the rooms look… better. Now she and her friend Stephanie Moulton are making a business out of pepping up apartments and homes. At Making Home, they “stage” residences to help them sell faster; they also fill empty spaces. If I were an unmarried Wall Streeter with no time to give to a new apartment or beach house, I’d just hand them the key; ditto if I wanted a Hamptons rental that looked just a bit smarter than the rest. They’re New York based, but I’d bet they’d travel a reasonable distance — you wouldn’t have to send the jet.

Reader Mail (Advertisements for myself)

From Paul Zengilowski

My children will turn 19 and 21 in a few weeks and the birthday gift choice falls to me. My wife and I bought them books by the bushel when they were young — some they chose, more often though, we exercised our parental prerogative. That stopped as they entered their mid-teens and felt more confident in their choices than in ours.

I’ve not bought them books in years — with two exceptions. The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias, was a high school graduation gift. Knowing that having the money talk with them would be fruitless, I passed on to them my financial bible. I’d read it when it was first issued and it has served to keep me mostly on the financial straight and narrow over the last 30 years.

The second exception is their birthday present for this year: The 100 Essentials. Should they read only those two books, I’m confident they’ll enter adulthood with important and foundational knowledge that will serve them well.

from Marcie

You recommended Queen’s Gambit to me when I asked for the most grabable book you could think of. I loved it. It’s difficult to articulate precisely what the dark magic of that book is, but I found it fascinating — the characters, all of them, were like no others I’ve encountered. The relationship between Beth and her adopted mother was so subtle. I love that Tevis never capitulates to cliché or sentimentality. Elegant. Thank you for urging me to read it.