The cunning man : a novel

by Robertson Davies

Paper Book, 1995

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking, 1995.

Description

Dr. Jonathan Hullah, a former police surgeon with "a high degree of cunning," is shocked when St. Aidan's Father Hobbes drops dead during church services. What made the good--and perfectly healthy--clergyman die so suddenly? To solve the mystery, Dr. Hullah whisks us on a fascinating tour of his own rich and highly observant life.

Media reviews

"This is a wise, humane and consistently entertaining novel. Robertson Davies's skill and curiosity are as agile as ever, and his store of incidental knowledge is a constant pleasure. Long may he continue to divert us."

User reviews

LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Robertson Davies is more than just a good storyteller. He is a literate storyteller who fills his novels with references to literature, music, art and science and does so in an engaging way while creating characters that are so interesting that it is difficult to put the book down. At least that has been my experience and my only regret is that I have read so few of his novels.
The Cunning Man is a clever story, part mystery, part bildungsroman, part family saga and a bit of a romance, that keeps you reading to find out how the life of Jonathan Hullah, the cunning and wise doctor at the center of the book, will turn out and how those of the characters whose drama fills his life will also conclude. The doctor is a cunning man in the sense used by Robert Burton in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, a seventeenth century compendium of information about the subject of melancholy. Thus the cunning man is a sort of wizard who is as much a doctor of the soul as he is a doctor of the body. From Dr. Hullah's early days learning from a wise Indian woman called Mrs. Smoke through his years in medical school and as medic in the army he develops both expertise in traditional medicine and sometimes mysterious abilities to look into his patients' souls. The result makes for a unique career. Throughout the story the reader is treated to the differences between high and low church Anglicanism, how one deals with a journalist in the family and, most of all, how the cunning man spins his web of masterful medicine through it all.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This is the last book Robertson Davies completed. It was meant to be the second book of a trilogy that started with Murther and Walking Spirits but Davies died before he could complete the third book. I'm sure it would have been just as fascinating as Davies' other novels.

Dr. Jon Hullah practises an unusual form of medicine where he diagnoses what ails patients that have bewildered other doctors. The good doctor is referred to as The Cunning Man hence the title of this book. His office is in an old stable that was part of the Glebe House (what I would call a manse and others might call a rectory or a parsonage) for St. Aidan's Anglican church. St. Aidan's is very high Anglican and the pomp and ceremony of the services are what attracts Hullah. Also his close school friend, Charlie Ireland, is a priest of the church. Hullah served as a field doctor during World War II and there he met his aide/helpmeet/nurse/receptionist, Inge Christofferson. An accredited nurse Christofferson is also a skilled masseuse and Hullah's patients often benefit from her ministrations. The Glebe House is now owned by two English lesbians who left England precipitously when one was about to be married. Chips and Dear One (as they are most frequently called in the narrative) are artists and try, somewhat in vain, to raise the level of art in Toronto. These are the main characters in the book which is written as a sort of diary by Dr. Hullah.

There is quite a bit of humour but philosophy and religion are the main ruminations for Dr. Hullah. Having now read The Merry Heart which is a collection of Davies' essays and speeches from 1980 to 1995 I can see that there is a lot of autobiography in this character. There is a common thought game that asks people to choose a certain number of people to have dinner with and the guests can be alive or dead and fictional or real. I am sure the fictional character would have been fascinating to have to dinner but I would choose the creator to have at my dinner table.
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LibraryThing member Porius
I'm always flabberghasted when I think about Davies' accomplishments. Family man. Newspaperman. University man. Novelist. Lecturer. How did he manage all these things? And with such unrivaled competence. The CUNNING MAN is a work of art by a man who knew just about all there was worth knowing. A man of information, knowledge and finally great Wisdom. I attended a handful of his lectures and I can tell you that he was a spell-binder from start to finish. One went away from these lectures reflecting on the fairness of this great man. In many ways Davies was a 19th Century man. There is no doubt that he could hold his own with the likes of Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold, or just about anyone from that century of Titans. It might be blasphemous to say but split the stick and there is Davies.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
I think that Robertson Davies was really a literary alchemist, with a rare facility to transmute the base metal of daily life, through gentle application of his own blend of arcana, to create the purest storytelling gold. I had the privilege of meeting him once, just a few months before he died, when he appeared at a signing event arranged by the sainted Muswell Hill Bookshop. Of course, I was familiar with his appearance from the small photos that adorned the backs of his books, but somehow, I was still surprised that he sported quite so charismatic a mage-like appearance. By then looking slightly frail, he still effortlessly commanded the room, and I and all of my fellow acolytes were soon swept into epiphanic rapture as he read some pre-selected passages in his tremulous voice. This was like encountering Anthony Powell’s Dr Trelawney at the height of his powers, and I would not have been surprised if he had started his talk by declaring that ‘The Essence of the All is the Godhead of the True’.

I think it would be fair to say that this was not Robertson Davies’s finest novel, although that still leaves considerably scope for it to be very good. Similar in narrative form to ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’, it begins with a stark account of the death of a close friend of the narrator, in this case, an Anglican priest who succumbed to a seizure while assisting the celebration of mass at a High Anglican church in Toronto. The narrator is Doctor Jonathan Hullah, and the priest had been one of his lifelong friends, first encountered when they both attended a classy boarding school in Toronto in the years between the First and Second World Wars. One of their teachers is Dunstan Ramsay, himself the narrator of Davies’s ‘Deptford Trilogy’ and also a peripheral character in ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’ and ‘The Lyre of Orpheus’, and a character whom I have always thought of as an archetype for Davies himself.

In the days following the death, Hullah is approached by a local journalist (who happens also to be the fiancée, and subsequently wife, of his other close schoolfriend), who is eager to build up a picture of the dead cleric’s life, and in particular the truth behind stories from earlier in his life in which he was considered to have wrought a miracle. The novel takes the form of Hullah trying to set straight his memories, in order to avoid any risk of misrepresenting his friend.

This gives Davies the opportunity to recount a potted history of Canada’s cultural life from the nineteen-thirties onwards, and allows him to loose his own acute (and occasionally stinging) barbs at a number of politically and socially prominent figures. Although Hullah is a doctor by profession, he is, like so many of Davies’s protagonists, a Renaissance man, with a deep insight into the arts (especially the theatre), theology and philosophy, and we are given a glittering romp across the academic disciplines.

This was the last book that Davies published. It has close resonances with ‘Murther and Walking spirits’ and is widely believed to have been the second volume in what would have become yet another trilogy. We will never know how that would have worked out, but it may explain why I felt that there was something missing. ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’ works perfectly, both as a self-contained novel, but also as the pivotal novel in ‘The Cornish Trilogy’. With ‘The Cunning Man’ I was left feeling that there were underlying themes that were not properly resolved. That is not to say that it was not a very good, entertaining and satisfying novel, which it was, but I feel we have been robbed of its full splendor … unless, of course, that was all part of the great mage’s scheme. I certainly wouldn’t have put that ast him.
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LibraryThing member iayork
Great Cast of Characters: Robertson Davies' "The Cunning Man" purports to be the Diary or Case Book of a doctor--Jonathan Hullah--who moves from the wilderness of Sioux Lookout to Toronto, Canada.

But it is much more than that. It turns into what the narrator, Hullah, says he wants to avoid, a Bildungsroman or Novel of Development: in this case the development of Hullah's character, but also the development of Toronto and Canada itself, from a wild-and-wooly backwoods place to an cosmopolitan, but very quirky, society.

The cast of characters is brilliant.

Hullah himself is interesting, if a little stuffy. But Pansy Todhunter, one of "The Ladies," whose letters he quotes in full, is a wonderful offset: slangy, funny, malicious, hearfelt.

Charlie his never-quite-holy priest friend is fabulous: tormented and visionary and fanatical and sad.

Mrs. Smoke, the cranky Indian shamaness who saves the 8-year-old Jonathan by magic spells and awakens him to The Other.

Darcy Dwyer, the aesthete banker who opens him to music and the visual arts, but also ruthless inquiry and even espionage.

Lt. Commander Daubigny, the high-school teacher with a multi-national and even cannibalistic past.

Even Esme, the relentless young reporter with whom Hullah becomes, shockingly, smitten.

All are wonderful in themselves, yet emblematic of larger elements of a changing society.

Instructive, thoughtful, funny. A wonderful read.
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LibraryThing member jtho
Most of the time I enjoy Robertson Davies. His books seem a bit old-fashioned and stuffy sometimes, but this adds to the enjoyment. However, for The Cunning Man, it just seemed old-fashioned and stuffy to me, and I couldn't help but feel I would have enjoyed the book if I was reading it 30 years ago, but not so much now. The narrator goes a bit off-track here, and I didn't find him, or even most of the other characters, very interesting or amusing.… (more)
LibraryThing member pamplemousse
Another of Davies' books set in Toronto, with closely-observed characters, sparkling dialogue and complex plotting. Not quite as good as his best, but very worthwhile.
LibraryThing member BraveKelso
This was Davies' last novel. It is an intellectual,but not literal autobiography of the thinking man, a penetrating look at religion and the arts in Toronto, and a tender history of Toronto. His discursive style distracts.
LibraryThing member yooperprof
I really liked the opening narrative "hook" in the first paragraph of this, the last novel of Canadian master Robertson Davies. "Should I have taken the false teeth? In my years as a police surgeon I would certainly have done so; who can say what might be clinging to them, or in the troughts that fit over the gums?" But unfortunately reading the next 470 pages turned out to be quite a long haul. Perhaps Davies - who was in his ninth decade when "The Cunning Man" was published, was simply unable to gather together all the diverse threads of what had the potential to be another magnificent tapestry in the manner of "The Salterton Trilogy."

This book is told almost entirely through the first person narrator Dr. Jonathan Hullah. (The letters from a lesbian artist who is Dr. Hullah's neighbor are a welcome break, even if it is never properly explained how they came to be part of his text.)

My problems with the book are largely based on the fact that I found Hullah to be basically unbelievable as a character and as a witness to the events and personalities he describes. He comes across - whatever Davies' intentions - as a bore and prig, rather intelligent in many ways but full of deceit about others and about himself. I kept on hoping that he would receive his "comeuppance" but alas it never came.

(This could be a "textbook" example of the difficulty of writing a novel of significant length with an utterly unreliable narrator. By contrast, I think Iris Murdoch managed to pull it off in what may be her finest book, "The Sea, The Sea.")

This book is nonetheless of some interest as a summary of Robertson Davies' literary and cultural creed, and includes some amusing bits about religion, theatre, and provincial society - even if he does "lay it on a bit thick" at times. Interesting for what Davies had to say about Toronto, and Canada! Definitely a "late" work, though.
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LibraryThing member Condorena
I loved this slow philosophical meandering story and I hope to read some of the authors earlier works.
LibraryThing member R0BIN
A disappointment. This book came very highly recommended but the whole time I was reading, I kept thinking "Are we going anywhere with this?" There were several interesting characters but they just kept wandering around. Chips' letters from Glebe House were brilliant but I found the fake footnotes describing her illustrations incredibly annoying.… (more)
LibraryThing member JasondinAlt
Much good material, but not as good as Davies other works.
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Davies is a master craftsman who intertwines humor with his superior knowledge of human nature. His characters are complex and drawn with an eye for detail. His plots are full of the scandals from which all our lives are constructed. Most of his books (like this one) are first-person narrated and therefore subject to the petty foibles, idiosyncratic jealousies etc. of perceptual bias of their narrator.… (more)
LibraryThing member isabelx
Canada isn't nearly as bad as Ernest says, just about thirty years behind the time artistically and what he says about being bourgeois and uncultured and narrow and pious could just as well be said about Nottingham or any of a dozen places we know and keep away from.

While "Murther and Walking Spirits" tells tales of a Canadian Methodist family, the second book in the unfinished Toronto Trilogy concerns a very different form of protestantism, as it concerns the clergy and congregation of Saint Aidan's, an extremely High Church Anglican parish in Toronto. The story is told by Jonathan Hullah, the Cunning Man, best friend of Brocky Gilmartin, lover of Brocky's wife and and godfather of his son Gil (the protagonist of "Murther and Walking Spirits"). Jonathan is a doctor who becomes involved with the church when he sets up his practice in the grounds of a house next to the church and finds that another of his old schoolfriends is a curate there. His landladies are a lesbian couple, both artists, and part of the story is told through letters from one of them to an old friend in England, whom I gradually realised was Barbara Hepworth the sculptor. In fact Chip's lively letters and the descriptions of her humorous illustrations were the best part of the book. I preferred "The Cunning Man" to "Murther & Walking Spirits" because it had more of a plot, a couple of mysteries to keep me interested, and some interesting characters.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
Davies has the fine touch a real storyteller. A mixture of philosophy, human emotions and religion, this novel combines the doings of a doctor, priest, professor and a couple of lesbian artists. I found the first two parts a little long but necessary to introduce the third part - a real masterpiece of original thought and compassion. The fourth part I found a little unpredictable - I'm not sure how well it fits in the spirit of the book - but it makes this rather long tale interesting to the last page.… (more)

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