Robertson Davies, Fifth Business (1970)

Fifth Business

Author: Robertson Davies

Title: Fifth Business

Format: Paperback

Pages: 257

I have become aware of the existence of Robertson Davies and his books solely through the glowing review by Chris from Calmgrove – and I’d like to thank him, because reading Fifth Business was an experience I absolutely wouldn’t want to have missed. As we’re in the middle of Robertson Davies Reading Week organized by Lory over at Emerald City Book Review to commemorate the author’s 106th birthday on 28th August, I thought I’d join the effort and put out there my review as well – for the work of Robertson Davies indeed deserves wide appreciation. And while I endeavor to write a proper review of the novel, be prepared: it will be pervasively whimsical, tangential and digressive, thus reflecting the very nature of Fifth Business.

First, however, the title. Fifth Business, in the words of the author, refers to

“Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement” Hence, “the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business”.

Who is this Fifth Business in Davies’ novel about fate and faith, guilt and redemption, jealousy and love? His name is Dunstable Ramsay, and his fate – as well as fate of several other people – is irreversibly sealed at two minutes to six on December 27th 1908, when a snowball thrown by his lifelong frenemy Percy Boyd Staunton misses him and hits the back of the head of Mary Dempster instead, thus prompting a premature birth of Paul Dempster. An irrelevant thing, snowball, even if iced and weight down by malice and anger, which put a stone at the center of it. And yet, in the mind of Dunstable Ramsay, it is the Prime Mover, the one thing that puts into motion all major events of his life: it stands behind his moral and philosophical growth, acutely felt guilt freeing him from the bounds of strict Presbyterian upbringing; behind his growing separation from his parents, resulting ultimately in the transformative and traumatizing experience of war, at the end of which he is born again, under the name Dunstan; it propels him toward the academic career, so far from the small Ontario village he grew up in, and toward the interest in Catholic saints; it is even behind his choice of lifelong loneliness, his inability or reluctance to find a partner rooted in the experiences of childhood; finally – the snowball is responsible for the adventure of his life, in which he meets the most famous illusionist and magician of his time, Magnus Eisengrim.

We learn about Ramsay’s life, and the lives of others, inextricably linked with his own, through his own narrative: for Fifth Business is de facto a confession. A life story of a mature man, who recalls his long, quietly bountiful years in an attempt to imbue them with meaning – and to receive some form of recognition, the need’s expression prompted by a perceived slight from a younger, ignorant “ineffable jackass” from the college Ramsay spent his whole life at. And while Ramsay portrays himself in a humble vein, diminishing the importance of his own agency in the events he describes, as well as the merits of his work, in what I’d describe as a very Anglo-Saxon manner, he simultaneously – wittingly or not – reveals also his less than stellar qualities: stubborn pride, an insatiate craving for being recognized and appreciated, deep hidden veins of resentment and jealousy, an inability to compromise, and a tendency to idealize himself, easily forgiving his own trespasses but keeping tight to others’ transgressions.

The confession, spun artfully like an old parable of misdeed, guilt and revenge, is directed to the college’s headmaster: another subtle hint that Ramsay’s character might be more complex that he himself is willing to admit, and that the loneliness he willfully chose might in the end be taking its toll on him, whether he’s prepared to admit to it or no. And that’s how the whole novel is constructed: in layers of meaning, each subsequent stratum less and less tangible, less and less reliable, until we begin to question not only Ramsay’s self-appointment as Fifth Business, but even his recollection of events. His tale constitutes a subtle triumph of the subjective over reality: in Fifth Business his memory, his vision makes the reality. And if it’s too streamlined, too simple, too neat? Well, that’s where the fun begins :).

We learn a lot about Dunstable; Fifth Business is, after all, a classic example of Bildungsroman – notable especially for prolonging this period of Bildung long into adulthood and what the narrator himself portrays as old age. Ramsay is a wonderfully complex, ambiguous character, full of virtues and vices, honestly lying, confounding himself and the reader while fully believing that he reveals his inner truth: an unwitting magician, an illusionist spinning his tale in closer adherence to the values of myth than reality. Yet the story of his life would be woefully incomplete without the lives of others: Mary Dempster, Ramsay’s fool saint whose three miracles propel him along the way toward discovery of the intangible, Percy Boyd Staunton, Ramsay’s lifelong friend and enemy, loathed and needed in equal measures as a Jungian shadow, the opposite twin illuminating every life choice, and Magnus Eisengrim – none other than Paul Dempster, remade and renamed as Reynard the Fox’s nemesis in a long, painful journey.


I would also like to mention Padre Blazon, a century-old Jesuit priest, Ramsay’s guiding light in the meanders of life. He is such a powerful presence, life-hungry and life-appreciative, and a wonderful direct counterpoint to another Jesuit from the quintessential Bildungsroman: Naphta from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I bring up Mann’s masterpiece for a reason: I see Davies’ Fifth Business as a dialogue with The Magic Mountain; where Hans Castorp’s story ends, Dunstan Ramsay’s begins: the fields of World War I form a point of divergence between the two narratives, the timelines going backward and forward, altering reality in their wake.

In Ramsay’s and Blazon’s last exchange, they discuss the nature of aging, and a spiritual way to come to terms with oneself and the passage of time:

“I have not yet found a God to teach me how to be old,” I said. “Have you?”

“Shhh, not so loud. The nuns must not know in what a spiritual state I am. Yes, yes, I have found Him, and He is the very best of company. Very calm, very quiet, but gloriously alive: we do, but He is. Not in the least a proselytizer or a careerist, like His sons.”

Davies’ writing is beautiful, poignant and precise, flowing with poetic grace. I was instantly captivated by this novel, the recurring themes of truth and illusion, of the constant search for the intangible, metaphysical meaning of life. Fifth Business is a wonderful balancing act between mature, conscious appreciation of naïve joy, forgiveness and human deservedness of happiness, and worming guilt, abrupt violence – physical and psychological, resentment and bitterness. It is enchantingly honest and wondrously misleading, like a perfect magic trick.

Score: 10/10

44 thoughts on “Robertson Davies, Fifth Business (1970)

    1. Oh, it is, but admittedly it’s a slow going affair, more focused on philosophy of life and character study than action… It was so exquisitely well-written, however, that when I finished it and started reading The Boy and His Dog at the End of the World I DNFed that book for its ham-fisted approach to literary style 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Huh, interesting! I loved The Magic Mountain, but admittedly I did read it years ago, when I was much more impressionable 😉 My favourite of Mann was always Doctor Faustus, though.
      As for Fifth Business, I’m pretty sure it’s worth a try – an incredibly complex, subtle, multi-layered aesthetical and philosophical rumination clad in a deceptively simple story… I’m tempted to compare it to Nolan’s Prestige in its obsession of magic and hidden layers, but only to the first half of the movie, as it the only part worth anything – the twist made my teeth ache 😛

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I get it, though, to be clear, there are no lengthy treatises nor lectures – it’s all pretty subtly interwoven into how the main character/author’s alter ego is presented; what he talks about and what he doesn’t, what matters to him etc. I too am bored out of my mind if, say Bakker starts espousing his philosophical musings 😉 Here it flows naturally, more like an invitation to consider certain questions with the author than an overt presentation of his views.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, I don’t know – your tolerance for saints is probably lower than mine 😉 but you might find yourself surprised – there are layers to the novel you’re invited but not forced to explore, and there actually is a fair bit of straightforward life story in it as well. To be fair, though, you may not take to the main character, who’d in all probability irritate you much more than he did me 😉

          Liked by 1 person

            1. LOL!
              Then don’t grab The Boy and His Dog at the End of the World – I got so pissed off and then bored out of my mind by the main character/narrator that I find myself unable to reach the halfway point of this book. A very surprising DNF!

              Liked by 1 person

  1. What a wonderfully complete review this is, Ola, so much more in-depth in terms of psychology and philosophy than I aspired to, both expansive in its breadth and incisive in getting to the meat of it all.

    And you make clear how readable the text is, Victorian but without the obscurity that this period’s literature can present. You make me want to read it all over again!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Chris, your kind words are very much appreciated! 😀

      I absolutely adored this novel, it was a breath of fresh air in its literary elegance and conscious understatement – and so thank you for recommending Davies to me!

      Now onward, to The Manticore 😉


  2. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Fifth Business’ when I read it sometime in the 1980s. I must say I don’t remember much about it except for that powerful opening scene with the snowball. I probably took all the jungian stuff with a shovel of salt. I also liked the two other books in the trilogy – ‘The Manticore’ and ‘World of Wonders’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for visiting, Josie!
      I did enjoy that bit of Jung, in Fifth Business to be honest: Percy was for Dunstan a great reminder of what he was and what he wanted/didn’t want to be.
      I definitely intend to read the two subsequent installments in the trilogy!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. buriedinprint

    I echo Chris’ enthusiasm above: this is a difficult book to encompass and you’ve done a lovely job, especially as a new-to-Davies reader!

    One of the elements that I value about his work is the way that one can simply choose to fall into the story…or one can pull at the threads and reread it a dozen times and not feel as though you’ve properly appreciated all the allusions, layers, complexities. He leaves it to the reader to choose the kind of reading experience they want.

    I think your comparison to Mann’s novel is apt. But, having said that, I feel like the strong narrative pull in Davies could pull in a willing reader more quickly than Mann’s quiet style. Sometimes Davies just makes you laugh aloud! (And then cover your mouth and look around, like “Was that SUPPOSED to be funny?” *giggles*)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much!

      I absolutely agree: this is an incredibly thoughtful book, designed, structured and executed with loving care and patience – just like the magic tricks Davies was so fond of.

      Thank you! And I agree again – compared to Mann, whose book was very self-contained and directed inward, Davies creates a complex story arc, taking the reader through Ontario villages to WWI battlefields, Great Crisis in Canada, college environment, Jesuit libraries, to Mexico and finally to the illusionist domain, onstage and off. And yes, there is an undercurrent of humor, little jabs of conscious making fun of oneself, much appreciated in the sonorous poetry of the narrative. That’s why I loved Padre Blazon so much! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, looks like the whole trilogy was translated… The first book is called “Cinquième emploi” but from a quick look it seems it may be difficult to find a copy.


      1. buriedinprint

        Sometimes one can find, in translation, omnibus editions more readily rather than individual volumes (I’ve found that on occasion). I don’t have the translated title but I hope you’re able to locate what you need. It would be hard to read him in English if English was a second language IMO because there are so many old-fashioned terms.

        Liked by 1 person

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  7. A fantastic glowing review, Ola! This almost seems more mesmerizing than the book itself. I love how complex it sounds and all the dichotomous elements that can be found within a character. Sounds like I’m going to have to add this trilogy by my fellow Canadian onto my reading list now.


    1. Thank you, Lashaan!
      I absolutely loved this book, even though – or maybe because – the main protagonist is such a flawed, not entirely reliable person. It’s definitely a fascinating read, and the prose is an absolute delight. I haven’t read many other books written with such a literary skill. I’d love to read about your impressions of it one day!
      I mentioned it to Dave, I think, that after this book I tried to read Fletcher’s The Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, and I just couldn’t – and I think Fifth Business is partly responsible for that. There’s a truly vitriolic review coming up the pipeline… 😛

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    1. It’s an absolute wonder – and I agree with Washington Post’s assesment of the time that it can assuredly be called a ‘modern classic’.

      What I found most fascinating is that the main protagonist and narrator is a deeply flawed person – and yet, through Davies’ literary magic, we as readers understand him and emphatize with him on a very humane, compassionate level.


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