Monday, February 4, 2013

Fifth Business

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies was one of the books on the list of books that my Mom had left that she had wanted to read.  It is the first of a trilogy (The Deptford Trilogy).  It was published in 1970, first in Canada, then in the United States.  The author was a Canadian and the story takes place in Canada.    Mr. Davies was born in 1913 and died in 1995.  I read a bit about him on Wikipedia and he sounded like a very interesting man.  His life also sounded a great deal like the life of Dunstan Ramsay, the  main character of Fifth Business.

 Dunstan Ramsay was a man who was raised in a small Canadian town.  The first line of the book is the following:

"My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5:58 o'clock p.m. on the 27th of December, 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old."

And that began the story of Dunstan Ramsay and his lifelong involvement with not only Mrs. Dempster, but with Percy "Boy" Staunton.  Dunny and Boy were throwing snowballs at each other, when Dunny ducked and a snowball with a rock in it accidentally hit Mrs. Dempster. As it turned out, the rest of Dunstan's life was irrevocably influenced by this one event. As Dunstan's life went on, he went off to fight in WWI and came back a wounded veteran, who had lost a leg, and was decorated with the Victoria Cross.   He settled into teaching young men for the rest of his life. The book is actually a letter/report to the Headmaster of the school, written by Dunstan because he "was deeply offended by the idiotic piece that appeared in the College Chronicle..."  that was written about Dunstan upon his retirement.  Dunstan felt that the piece left the impression that he was a senile, doddering old fool, rather than the author of many books and other accomplishments.  So he wrote this letter/report to correct the record and tell that story of his life.

What is "Fifth Business"?  Here is how it is defined by one of Dunstan's friends in the book:

"You don't know what that is?  Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep up in Europe you must have a prima donna-always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something, and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.
So far, so good.  But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and his is usually a baritone, and his called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex.  And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell , or may even be the cause of somebody's death if that is part of the plot.  The prima donna, and the tenor, the contralto, and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business!" 

And she tells Dunstan that he is Fifth Business.  It is the perfect description of him and his life. 

The book was rather slow reading at first, but picked up as it neared the end.  I will go on to read the other two of the trilogy at some point this year.  I was glad that I read it.  Good book, Mom.  I think that you would have enjoyed it!

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