Monday, November 12, 2012

My Letter From Robertson Davies

I know at least one thing that Robertson Davies did on June 9, 1987.  He wrote (well, probably dictated) a letter to me.   

I have been moving pictures around these last months and this letter, in the cheap plastic box frame in which it has been housed for 25 years, just came up for rotation.  I re-read it yesterday and got quite choked up.  Davies once said: "A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight."   Likewise, a great letter.  

I was thrilled at 22 to have a little notice from the great man.  At 47 I am touched by the kindness he showed to an earnest and rather ridiculous 22-year-old.

I can't remember just what I wrote but his response refreshes my recollection. I finished my B.A. at old McGill in the Spring of 1987.  My "Honours" essay (the scare quotes are for the English/Canadian spelling and for what I imagine was the quality of the essay) was about the way Davies' sets up his characters for their punishments or rewards in his famous Deptford Trilogy.  (Goodness and badness are complicated matters there - much to do with spiritual courage and psychological honesty rather than any outward do-goodism).   I felt deep sympathy for Davies' worldview (and still do). When I finished the paper, I was compelled to write to him about it and to tell him how much his books had meant to me.  Good, kind, wise man that he was - I found this in my Schenectady mail box a few weeks later.  

He is responding in the first paragraph to what I said to him about my feeling for McGill.  I went there following a freshman year at the State University of New York at Binghamton.  I loved McGill - an English Colonial dream of a university - from the moment I set foot on the campus.  Binghamton was an important experience too, but a (foolishly) romantic girl who thought college = Brideshead Revisted could not find a lot to love in the Rockefellerish prevent-a-student-riot aesthetic of the buildings and the pragmatic good-value-seeking student body.  Not a clock tower or a grey stone in sight and no one who would have wanted to pay for one even if available.  (Many very bright people were there, though, and I know that is really more important but, as noted, I was a little deluded).

Robertson Davies died in 1995 and it seems to me that he is fading (unjustly) into obscurity.  I re-read his best and most famous book, Fifth Business, this summer.  His observation about the benefit of a lifelong involvement with a good book was wholly borne out.  
After I re-read the letter yesterday, this relic from a the pre-internet age, it seemed to me almost a duty to share it.  I hope you will like it too.

As a few of your regular-stoppers-by know, I have been engaged for years in writing a book of my own.  (Coming January 2013-Watch this space!).  A central character is my own Professor Davies - Morgan Davies, that is, a time traveler with a biography wholly different from R. Davies, but very much inspired by his example - and looking just like him.


Jenny said...

Well done you, for having the guts to write him, back then! Most people wouldn't take the time. His letter to you is priceless. You're lucky. And by the way, I do agree that buildings/environment do matter. I too think that college = Brideshead Revisited! LOL Jenny D.

Kim Velk said...

Hey Jenny - Great to hear from you. I guess I have always been capable of being pushy at a remove... I hope you are well.

Nan said...

This is really very moving. To think of such a man spending that time to write back to you. So very kind. So very thoughtful of the new generation coming up. Thanks very much for sharing this.

My college campus didn't look a thing like BR, but nonetheless when I was inside those classrooms I was taken away by the literature I was taught.