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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 55

Robertson Davies

  34 Rose Marie was a charming and tuneful operetta by Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart, first produced in New York in 1924. It exploited to the uttermost whatever was picturesque in Canada—Rockies, Mounties, girls with piquant French-Canadian accents, lithe Indian girls who could do the Totem Tom Tom dance to a pitch of delirious perfection, and an incorruptible young man with a big chin who won the heroine after fearful vicissitudes of fortune. For Canadian audiences it had only one grave fault. The final scene was laid on Parliament Hill, and in the background the Houses of Parliament were shown in the dusk, with lights twinkling in their windows; Canadians always greeted this scene with boos and hisses, for they knew that under every one of those lights Haubergeon Hydra, in one of his innumerable guises, was plotting a new tax.

  35 These prices may provoke a smile. But in their day, when incomes were lower, they were considered steep. Figures change: facts of life do not. The hopeful stoking of women by beglamoured men has always cost a lot of money. Older readers may be reminded of the brusque estimate of sexual enjoyment given by an eighteenth-century nobleman: “The pleasure is fleeting, the posture ridiculous, and the expense damnable!”

  36 The words of Genghis Marchbanks should be heeded by the musical world; the concertina, invented in 1829 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, has been superseded by the piano-accordion, to which the concertina bears the same relationship as does the harpsichord to the piano. Works for concertina have been written by such composers as Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93), a Russian civil servant with a turn for composition, by the violinist Wilhelm Bernard Molique (1802-69), and by Giulio Regondi (1822-72) of whom Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians records that “the effect which he got out of so unpromising an instrument astonished the German critics.” Quite apart from the musical pleasure provided by the concertina, there is the fun of seeing the thing squirm in the hands of the player. It was also played with taste and feeling by Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930) the statesman and philosopher who was Prime Minister of Britain 1902-06. British Prime Ministers in this century have often been musically gifted. David Lloyd George (1863-1945) sang splendidly, especially Welsh hymns; Richard George Edward Heath (1916) is a gifted orchestral and choral conductor, and your Editor has sung under his baton as a member of the Balliol College Choral Society, an experience to be cherished though not particularly for musical reasons. Do I digress? Yes, I do. Shut up.

  37 There are now available rubber masks of U.S. Presidents, astonishingly lifelike, and Marchbanks always wears one on Hallowe’en; he likes to test how many of his fellow-Canadians fall down and grovel when confronted thus.

  38 Normally a fearless, not to say aggressive, creature, Marchbanks has a dread of waiters which he explains thus: in the Good Old Days, waiters were professionals—elderly men with bad feet, misanthropic expressions, and dress suits of incalculable antiquity. Nowadays waiters are likely to be very young, and of both sexes; they are obstreperously cheerful, give advice unasked about the food and slap it down on the table with the words “There y’go!” whereas the waiters of old said “Monsieur est servi” or even “Gott sei dank, der Tisch ist gedeckt!” Modern waiters are great sloppers of wine. BUT—and this is the point—modern waiters will not be waiters long; they are simply filling in between jobs, or as a relief from a university career; they are judges’ daughters, authors not yet discovered, actors of a talent to make Olivier blench. You never know where you will meet them again, so it is best to tip heavily and keep your mouth shut.

  39 Marchbanks is assured by Dr. H. W. Davenport, author of Physiology of the Digestive Tract (4th edition, 1977), that it is perfectly all right to gobble; food, however hustled into the hopper, will be mashed, melted and reduced to a nutritious goo once it is in the works. The late Queen Mary (1867-1953) was a notable gobbler. In royal circles the etiquette is that once the highest-ranking person at table has ceased to eat, the dishes are removed and a new course served, and it was said that the meagre appearance of the late Queen’s entourage was caused by the fact that they never had a chance to get more than a couple of mouthfuls before the Queen gave the slight nod that signalled the snatching-away of their loaded plates. Many of them had to eat biscuits in their bedrooms in order to keep body and soul together. There used to be a very fine rose named “Queen Mary” that was described in some nursery catalogues as “a gross feeder” until a complaint from the Daughters of the Empire brought about a more delicate wording.

  40 Children, following the example of their mothers, are beginning to assert their rights, or what in their wild imaginings they believe to be their rights. An instance has been recorded in the U.S.A. of a child divorcing its parents for neglect, which is probably sufficient grounds, but where will it lead when more advanced tots have taken up the notion? The idea of having to pay alimony to an estranged child strikes terror into the parental breast (one male, two female). Children are becoming a luxury beyond the reach of all but the affluent. What has become of the Old-Fashioned Child that slept on straw and was grateful for a bowl of table-leavings once a day? The Family Unit totters!

  41 The police, at this time, travelled in white cars, and were uneasy when they had to leave them, as they had become fixed in a sitting posture. It was later that the black-and-white car, called a Holstein by the derisive taxpayers, came into use.

  42 Younger readers may wonder what a telegram was. Long ago it was possible to send messages by an electric or magnetic transmitter, publicly owned and operated for the public convenience; wires charged with electric current connected all centres of civilization—even quite minimal civilization—and messages were conveyed along them by breaking the circuit with a key which indicated letters according to an understood code, devised by Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1892); such messages might be delivered to the recipient within an hour of being dispatched and were a great convenience to everyone. Special forms, handsomely printed, called Greetings Telegrams, were available for all great festival occasions. There were even Singing Telegrams, delivered by a youth who warbled a tuneful message at your very door. But in the Atomic Age, when we are able to put men on the Moon and otherwise astonish ourselves, the telegram has fallen into such disarray that to send one is to court service even worse than that of the postal system, once another source of pride and convenience.

  43 After long cogitation I think that Thunderbelly must use this word to mean Turnkey, the prison guard who has charge of the keys. Complete scholarly scruple, however, moves me to say that the word is used in the underworld to mean an instrument which, inserted in a keyhole, will turn a key which has been left in a door, and considering the company he kept, we must assume that Thunderbelly was aware of this meaning. The word was also at one time used to identify the instrument used by a dentist to extract a tooth, by twisting, but as Thunderbelly neglected his teeth he was probably not aware of this. I think I have now covered the scholarly ground in this explanation.

  44 Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian social philosopher, who became a Theosophist and then founded the Anthroposophical movement; his doctrines combined excellent common sense, forgotten folk-knowledge, and woozy speculation in a bewildering gallimaufry.

  45 The editor feels obliged to explain, for younger readers, that the cost of living—and especially of elegant living—has risen vertiginously since Marchbanks wrote these words. Twenty-five dollars for an ounce of perfume! Nowadays it costs $125 merely to smell the wrist of the elegant creature who sells perfumes, and vouchsafes you a maddening sniff, warmed by her person, before demanding a price that cracks the plastic on your credit card.

  46 Attempts are being made to do something for authors by establishing a Public Lending Right, which would provide the originators of works of literature, or some facsimile thereof, with a fee whenever their books were borrowed from a Public Library. But as the establishment of the scheme is firmly in the hands of Haubergeon Hydra and a coven of librarians, the outlook is not rosy.

  47 Richard Wagner (1813-83) was
a musical genius of the first order, but a whimsical fellow and never more so than when he lured Cosima, the wife of his friend and supporter Hans Guido von Bulow (1830-94) to desert her husband’s bed and board and become his mistress, thereby creating one of the Great Messes of Musical History. Cosima was the daughter of Franz Liszt and accustomed to domestic dishevelment, and she survived it all triumphantly, living until 1930 when she died at the age of ninety-two. Her Diaries, in two volumes, extend from 1869 until 1883 and they give us a chilling sense of the constant surveillance under which Wagner lived. As Robert Louis Stevenson feelingly remarked, “To marry is to domesticate the Recording Angel.”

  48 This material, called “shorts,” might be a travelogue about the habits of beastly foreigners, or a gem from the National Film Board, probably called How The Pussy Willows Got Their Fur Coats.

  49 Nowadays, in the Age of the Minibuck, it would be more like $250,000.

  50 DIONYSUS FISHORN, brother of Apollo Fishorn the playwright, I did not follow Marchbanks’ advice but has made for himself a distinguished career as a Misunderstood Genius. His five novels, every one written on a grant of some kind, from somebody-or-other (gratefully acknowledged in the introductory pages of each book) have sold, in all, slightly under 10,000 copies, have not adventured beyond the confines of Canada, and are to be found, in almost mint condition, in the larger public libraries. However, he has been a boon to young academics, who write articles about his symbolism, his symbology and even his symbiosis, and quarrel delightedly about him in the university quarterlies. They are agreed on one thing: he beats the socks off writers who are more widely read, and this is the sort of publicity that keeps the grants coming.

  51 What, no grants? Marchbanks has always maintained that a writer should have a job that brings him an income apart from his writing. If he cannot manage that, he should take care to be born into a family that can make him an allowance, or leave him some money. Samuel Johnson was able to take a pension from his government without feeling obliged to show unseemly gratitude, but Johnsons are few. Grants to authors are best confined to those who, by reason of age or misfortune, must have them, and public subventions are best confined to the performers, rather than the originators, of works of art.

  52 Plato would no doubt say that the Nine Muses are all women, and that should be enough for them. But in the present day, when equality is the watchword of all truly advanced thinkers, Marchbanks thinks it is altogether too much for them, and that four-and-a-half Muses should at once be redefined as men. If halving a Muse proves difficult, perhaps one Muse might be classed as of indeterminate sex, and Urania, Muse of celestial phenomena and astronomy would split nicely down the middle.

  53 Or did, but nowadays Censors are an endangered species and their mating grounds (very secret) have to be protected from predators whose battle-cry is Show All and Say All. Of course literary artists have always shown all and said all, but not in the bleak terms the enthusiasts demand. To call up in the reader’s mind some shadow or dim vision of an erotic act or scene is to do him an inestimable favour and the best writers have always been dab hands at it. Yes, even the great Victorians if you read them sensitively. But there are many people who, unless all the heat and sweat and smell o’ the drink is set down in detail, feel nothing and what they feel when they get their desire will not please them long; for with pornography, as with brandy, the draught must be ever stronger if it is to produce an effect.

  54 This was the late Sir Tyrone Guthrie (1900-1970) whose sneeze was known to bring down plaster in rooms of spacious dimensions, and frequently stopped theatrical performances in full spate.

  55 When a very young man Henry James (1843-1916) suffered what he described as “a horrid even if an obscure hurt” which his biographer, Leon Edel, has been unable to identify more accurately. But it looks as if it was something that kept him pretty much out of the toils of women, whom he was therefore able to observe with a clear eye, and embody in some of the finest and most searching portraits of their sex in literature.

  56 Marchbanks was also unlucky in his judge, who was none other than the renowned Mr. Justice Sucklethug, known to the criminal world as Ol’ Daddy. Sucklethug believed implicitly in the goodness and perfectability of mankind, and to him felons and even murderers were lost lambs, unfairly persecuted by society. He was deeply prejudiced against all prosecutors, including the Crown itself, and was famous for the light sentences he imposed upon criminals of the deepest dye. “Go, and sin no more,” he would say to the prisoner, when dismissing him, and when the prisoner turned up after having sinned again, Sucklethug would be moved to tears by his plight. It is small wonder that he was all for Dandiprat and trampled Marchbanks beneath his feet. It is widely predicted that when Sucklethug dies, his monument will be erected by the Mafia itself, and will excel even that “statue in pure gold” which commemorated the romance of Romeo and Juliet.

  57 Alas, this was the last message to reach Marchbanks from his old friend. A few days afterward, Thunderbelly died in jail. The warden, writing to Marchbanks, identified his illness as “psoriasis of the liver.”


  OF COURSE such a book as this must have an envoi in which the author takes farewell of his work, and begs the public to accept it in a kindly spirit. It is simply a matter of literary good manners. I—Davies—would be glad to write it myself in the tone of gentle regret which is thought proper to an envoi, speaking of the happy relationship between its contents (portions of which have been known to the public since 1947) and the Reader, and bespeaking his goodwill for this new and (because of my labours as editor and explainer) greatly improved version. But ever at my back I hear, Sam’s noisy yammering, loud and clear.

  “Author?” he shrieks. “Author! Are you attempting to palm yourself off as the author of this florilegium of my work? You have nipped and tucked and stuck in footnotes as if the Reader were imbecilic, but you have originated nothing. I am the author—the sole begetter—of this volume unless the word author has suddenly become synonymous with hack-editor. If there is any envoying to be done I shall do it myself. So, Davies, stand aside; and Reader, hang on to your hat!

  “I say as Walt Whitman (not a bad fellow, though a noisy writer) said—

  … this is no book,

  Who touches this touches a man

  —and that man is myself, Samuel Marchbanks. Of course Davies has done some editorial work, and very lucky he is (poor daub) to be associated with me. But let us have no misunderstanding about who is the real writer. Davies never had an original idea in his life that I did not hiss into his ear.”

  Can I deny it? Not with a clear conscience. Marchbanks and I have struggled through a literary life like two men in a three-legged race. And as anyone who has ever run a three-legged race knows, the only way to manage is to keep thrusting the two linked legs forward, leaving the two single legs to catch up as best they may.

  To put it more elegantly, one of us is the writer and the other is the Doppelgänger, and who is to say which is which? As Marchbanks put it when I met him for drinks at the Crank and Schizoid, we are The Canadian Brothers, and like those far-off Corsican Brothers we are seemingly individual but mystically united, forever.

  So, hand in hand, me bowing gracefully with my free hand on my heart, and Marchbanks exhorting and haranguing to the last, we bid you, our Reader