Forty-five years ago today, Peter Gzowski, hosting This Country in the Morning on CBC Radio, met Robertson Davies for the first time.
The interview, a transcript of which appears in Conversations with Robertson Davies, begins:
PG: I welcome now, with great pleasure, Robertson Davies, a man whom I’ve been reading for years and have not had the pleasure of meeting until this morning, and the first question I had to ask him as he arrived in the studio was “How does one address the Master of Massey College?” because my experience with that title is almost totally from the novels of C. P. Snow where people are always calling one another, or calling the master “Master,” but you don’t say that outside the college?
RD: Well no. It’s silly, I mean it implies particularly, I think, to Canadian ears, a type of superiority which I would not dream of [chuckles] assuming and it’s just that I don’t like Principal or President or Provost or whatever it was, and I was called the Master of Massey College because it was one of the few academic titles left when I got there.
Later in their conversation they are joined by the psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff, from the Clarke Institute, and the topic turns to coincidence, something that lurks as a constant theme in Davies’s work:
VR: You know, I would be very stupid to reject what you say out of hand because I think that much of what you say is true, and one has after all, only got to see in one’s own life the kind of novelist’s devices at play, the coming together by accident of things that you just wouldn’t have dreamt of, and I often find myself saying to someone that coincidences are so colossal that they would be rotten in a novel.
RD: Yes, yes. Exactly.
VR: Or you know, when one is in a personal situation, and one says gawd, this is badly written because it’s so trite, because literature reflects back, and yet, I must persist with as much politeness as I can that one of the devices after all in the novel is to prevent this coincidence, coming together too neatly, appearing to resolve too quickly. Oddly enough, the novelist, and particularly a fictive account of a life, has to be much more—here I am teaching my—to put it mildly—my grandfather in all sorts of ways to suck eggs—but it would seem to me that one of the technical problems in reporting a life is in fact not to make it come out too neatly.
PG: So you can’t have reality.
VR: That’s precisely it. That in fact you know Francis Bacon, the painter, for example, when he’s finished something that looks too real, goes across and quite arbitrarily just scratches up the surface because the paradox is that reality is the enemy of that necessary enclosed world which is a work of art.
RD: Yes. I think you’re entirely right. Shakespeare says something about that in one of his plays. Someone says if this were presented upon the stage now, I would condemn it as an improbable fiction and it is true that if you want to present life as an effective sort of realistic representation of life, you must not be so daring about coincidence as fate is. But Jung wrote so interestingly about this in his theories about synchronicity, and so forth, that I have been greatly tempted to have a bash at it [Laughs].
That bash is what so drew me to Davies in my twenties, where I essentially stopped my studies and sat down to read his entire canon.
Ira Glass memorialized the younger Rakoff, who died five years ago, at age 47, in an episode of the program produced shortly thereafter; Glass began:
One of the first times I met David Rakoff— this is before he started writing stories for the radio— he invited me to sit in the window of a department store with him. He was playing Sigmund Freud in a Christmas display window at Barney’s, and he was seeing patients in the window. David sat in a chair. I lay on a couch.
My mom was the therapist. David’s dad was a psychiatrist. We’d both been therapy patients ourselves at some point or another. And so it was easy for us to play this simulacrum of psychiatry with each other. I don’t remember what we talked about. It was so long ago. But I remember very clearly the feeling of it.
David, gently asking leading general questions like a real therapist would— how are things going? Why do you think you said that? It was easy to talk to him. And unlike the real Sigmund Freud, he offered advice. And it was surprisingly cozy.
Though one wall of the room that we were in was this plate glass window that faced Madison Avenue, the space was narrow and cocoon-like. The muffled street noise that leaked through the window made it feel more womb-like if anything. People on the street couldn’t hear what we said to each other. So it was both public and intimate. I left feeling close to him. I left wishing we could do it again.
And we did, in a way. Nearly everything he ever made for our radio show was a personal act, made in close collaboration for public consumption, performed behind a plate glass window of one kind or another. This week marks the fifth anniversary of his death. He’d been on This American Life 25 times. The first time was in 1996, just two months after we went on the air. The last was just three weeks before he died.
Also from Conversations with Robertson Davies, here Davies addresses death, speaking with Tom Harpur:
Robertson Davies: By preparation for death I don’t mean folding your hands or going around forgiving a lot of people you don’t want to forgive: it’s preparing for a richness, a good and glorious end.
Tom Harpur: But how does one prepare?
Robertson Davies: You have to come to terms with yourself and your place in the scheme of life – something a good many people don’t want to do. In the last century we have extended the normal life-span. Many seem to believe that this means we have extended the period when they should enjoy the things they enjoyed in youth. But, I don’t think they realize that we’ve also expanded the period of life when we can learn to think, feel, and experience the largeness and splendor of life.