Monday, July 27, 2015

#99: The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies (1913-1995) is one of those names I've always heard mentioned but never got around to reading.  A prolific popular/literary writer from Canada, The Cunning Man (1994)is the last finished work of a career spanning five decades.  It takes the form of a case-book turned memoir of the elderly Doctor Jonathan Hullah, a Toronto transplant originally from the small town of Sioux Lookout, as he is spurred to recollection by a journalist doing a series on the Toronto of yesteryear.  The main event, the event that spurs the journalist's questions and is returned to again and again throughout the novel, is the death of Ninian Hobbes, the beloved Anglican priest who died in the middle of service, just after taking communion.

Hobbes's rector was Charlie Iredale, one of Dr. Hullah's two best friends growing up.  Their childhood friendship makes up a big part of the novel, as does the peculiarities of Dr. Hullah's practice, in which he typically treats the patients that other doctors just can't stand anymore. Davies uses both of these to illustrate the growth of Canadian identity and Toronto particularly.  Of seeing how Charlie's parents interacted with them, Hullah remarks "I assumed that this was the English manner of upbringing.  Maturity and individual judgement were expected and encouraged.  It was not the Canadian way.  Certainly not as I knew it." (120).  And of the cold practicality of the medical students, he notices that "The genteel tradition was on its last legs in Canada; its legs had never been particularly strong..." (140)  The issue of faith is dealt with frequently, Hullah finding his equal and opposite in Charlie, as well as lengthy discussions of art and philosophy with other characters.  Davies manages not to let this be boring, which is a very real danger when you have characters sitting around and expostulating.

The novel spans about seventy years, from the beginning of the 20th century onwards.  Hullah serves as an army doctor in WWII, mainly treating victims of friendly fire.  Always interested in the literary (Hullah frequently quotes poetry throughout the novel), he involves himself in the art community when he returns to Toronto to set up his practice, although the city isn't always interested in art.  "The imperceptive, unselfconscious city prospered under its soggy blanket of shallow middle-class morality and accepted prosperity as evidence of God's approval." (143)

I really liked The Cunning Man, although the continuity seemed a bit off, but that may be due to the form.  It's often hard to accept that Davies was writing this in the 1990s, because his diction seems to come straight from the 1920s, though it works with the character. As a pseudo-memoir, there are some avenues that should have been delved deeper into, and I think the non-chronological formation of the text (e.g. parts being written at different times) ends up getting convoluted.  But despite these issues, the novel works, the characters are complex and interesting, the story is usually captivating.

Just the stats:

Published: 1994
Nationality: Canadian
469 Pages (Penguin Trade Paperback Edition)
Other Appearances on ML list: Davies' Fifth Business is #40 on the readers' choice list.


  1. Robertson Davies is a wonderfully interesting writer. In some ways, he's a stylistic throwback to the late 19th century, but with Freud and Jung also in there. I strongly recommend his earlier novel, "Fifth Business."

    Let me pick one minor nit. You wrote "The novel spans about seventy years, from the beginning of the 19th century onwards. Hullah serves as an army doctor in WWII." Surely you meant the beginning of the 20th century (the 1900's)

  2. I did mean 20th century, thanks for catching that.

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