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By J. Bottum


The Temptations of Robertson Davies

"Robertson Davies: Man of Myth"

By Judith Skelton Grant

Viking

787 pp.; $35

When a man has character, the hardest temptation to resist is the temptation to become a character, and the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies was never a man to resist the temptation very strenuously. Indeed, Judith Skelton Grant's biography makes clear that Davies set out early in life to become a character and to fashion himself into a type of the Edwardian eccentric--complete with broad-brimmed hat, monocle, and walking stick. "Unless someone pretty desperate comes along," declared a 1937 Oxford student magazine about his time at university in England, "Robertson Davies looks like being the last of the real undergraduate 'figures.' " Davies's death (on Dec. 2, 1995, at age 82) makes only harder the task of distinguishing the man from his persona--and in some sense, one doesn't want it done. What his many admirers want to remember just now is the outrageous anecdotes and theatrical poses that made his life as fascinating as his fiction.

Judith Grant, one of Davies's most devoted admirers and the editor of two collections of his newspaper work, is happy to oblige. Her biography contains little critical analysis of Davies's fiction. Indeed, the kind of strong mixture of literary criticism with biographical fact that we expect from definitive biographies of writers is missing from Grant's account, with the odd result that his novels come to seem like things that happen to Davies rather than things that both derive from and explain his life. What Grant has included in her biography, however, is an abundance of good stories from Davies's many careers: as the last of the Oxford aesthetes, as a stage manager at London's Old Vic theater, as the newspaper columnist who created and popularized the curmudgeonly Canadian commentator "Samuel Marchbanks," as a hopeful young playwright, as a disappointed middle-aged playwright turning to novel-writing, as a relentless practical joker, and, finally, as the colorful ...

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