Fifth business

by Robertson Davies

Book, 1977



Call number


Call number



[New York] : Penguin Books, 1977.

Original publication date


Physical description

266 p.; 18 cm

Local notes

Ramsay is a man twice born, a man who has returned from the hell of the battle-grave at Passchendaele in World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross and destined to be caught in a no man's land where memory, history, and myth collide. As Ramsay tells his story, it begins to seem that from boyhood, he has exerted a perhaps mystical, perhaps pernicious, influence on those around him. His apparently innocent involvement in such innocuous events as the throwing of a snowball or the teaching of card tricks to a small boy in the end prove neither innocent nor innocuous. Fifth Business stands alone as a remarkable story told by a rational man who discovers that the marvelous is only another aspect of the real.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lkernagh
Not much I can say that hasn't already been said by others. Davies has a wonderfully accessible writing style. He brings lofty topics like religion, sainthood, philosophy and morality to his story without going all "high-brow". He also has a way with words that I found engaging... I felt as though
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Ramsey was laying plain his life story directly to me, like a conversation between two people sitting around a kitchen table over a cup of coffee. Don't get me wrong, though... this is anything but a simple, straightforward story. Davies knows how to write in a way that kept me wanting to read more so it came as no surprise to me that I managed to read the entire book in the course of three evenings. I love the idea of the 'Fifth Business' - that one cannot make the plot work unless there is a odd member of the cast that has no rival/partner but carries the twist of the plot as he is the one who know a secret the others do not - and can understand why Davies chose this as the title for his story.

Robertson Davies is undoubtedly one of the pillars mentioned whenever a conversation of noteworthy Canadian authors comes up and it is that reputation of lofty acclaim that always held me back from attempting to read any of his books... I was afraid his books would be filled with topics that would go over my head, making me feel inadequate as a reader. I no longer have those thoughts/fears. I now happily and excitedly look forward to reading everything Davies has written.
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LibraryThing member kidzdoc
The first novel in The Deptford Trilogy concerns three men, Dunstable Ramsay, Percy Boyd "Boy" Staunton, and Paul Dempster, who grew up in the fictional Canadian town of Deptford, which is based on Robertson Davies' home town of Thamesville, Ontario. Their lives are linked by the events on one
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fateful day in 1908, when young Percy throws a snowball in anger at Dunstable, and instead hits Paul's mother, who is pregnant with him, causing her to go into premature labor that evening. The novel is narrated by Dunstable, in the form of a letter about his life to the headmaster of the school that he has taught in for years and recently retired from. The lives and loves of Percy and Paul are integral to his own life, so we learn about them, and how the three influenced each other, for good as well as bad.

The three men lead fascinating lives, and each finds success in a different fashion, although none escape from personal tragedy. The novel is full of twists and unexpected turns, and it was very well written and a definite page turner. Instead of describing what happens to the three and possibly spoil the surprises I would suggest that you read the literary treat that is Fifth Business for yourself. I own The Deptford Trilogy, and I eagerly look forward to reading the remaining two novels, The Manticore and World of Wonders, later this year.
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LibraryThing member glammonkey
What is fifth business? The extra man in the story, neither hero nor villain. He is the man with no female counterpart, the one who moves the story along without it every really being his story. This is the life story of Dunstan Ramsey and his relationships with Mary Dempster, her son Paul, Boy
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Staunton and the mysterious Lisle. Starting in small town Ontario at the turn of the last century and spanning the world and seven decades, this is an amazing narrative experience. The characters are vivid, the prose is perfection and the story just evolved as I read. A completely wonderful book. Five stars and a maple leaf.
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LibraryThing member actonbell
This is the story of Dunstable Ramsey's life, written out in first person and addressed to the headmaster of the school where Ramsey had spent about forty years of his professional life. After all these years, Ramsey leaves behind this testament with the simple desire that someone understand what
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he had lived for.

His story gets off to a dismal start, as he is raised in a very rigid fashion in Deptford, a small village in Canada. Ramsey starts his memoir with the story that informed the rest of his life--or rather, it was his interpretation of the events of this fateful afternoon and the guilt he carried around with him that affected him forever. There is another boy involved in this story, Percy "Boy" Staunton, and the two of them make perfect foils.

While Ramsey lives an almost monkish life, Staunton grows rich and very well-known. While Ramsey is a scholar quietly publishing books on his subject, Staunton is hosting and attending lavish parties and building a business empire. That their friendship survives seems surprising at first, but it gradually becomes apparent that they do have their own form of symbiosis.

This is a fascinating story, in which Ramsey wrestles with his own life's meaning and duties. Some of the interesting characters he meets while studying in Europe (on sabbatical) do much to help him out. A memorable quote from a character named Liesl:

"Do you know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business. 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 he is usually a baritone, and he is 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! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices. Are you Fifth Business? You had better find out."

Without ruining the plot, there are corresponding characters in Ramsey's story, and it doesn't give too much away to say that Percy Staunton is certainly the villianous one. Also, there is a mystery of sorts that will be solved at the very end.

I'm leaving out a very important character entirely, so the future reader has something to discover. One of the things that made this book such a pleasure to read was the dialogue Ramsey has with some of the most vivid, engaging characters I've read in a long time.

Check this one out! It's the first book in The Deptford Trilogy, and it is highly likely that I will read the other ones, as well.
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LibraryThing member browner56
Over the years, I have thought a lot about the difference between fiction and literature. Every devoted reader undoubtedly has his or her own definition of that demarcation, but here is mine: Fiction—good fiction, at least—can be nothing more than an entertaining and satisfying story, but a
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work of literature rises well above that. Indeed, literature teaches you something that you did not know about yourself or the world at large; it is like a mirror that you hold up to reveal things that are both enlightening and, often, a little surprising. Of course, the best literature also tells a really good story. Like everything I have ever read by Robertson Davies, ‘Fifth Business’ is good literature.

The novel records the history of Dunstan Ramsay, a man destined to be a supporting player in the lives of others. (In operatic terms, “fifth business” refers to a character considered necessary to the plot, but not central to it.) The first volume of the author’s celebrated ‘Deptford Trilogy’, it is written as a memoir released after Ramsay’s retirement from his position as a master at a private boy’s school in Toronto. Covering much of the last century, the story begins when 10-year old Ramsay dodges a snowball thrown by his friend and rival Percy Boy Staunton, which hits Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of the local minister. The force of the blow has severe consequences as it brings about the premature birth of Paul Dempster and causes Mary to lose her grip on reality. Much of the ensuing narrative revolves around Ramsay’s life-long remorse over his role in this singular event.

What follows amounts to an account of what becomes of Mary, Boy, and Paul (who transforms himself into Magnus Eisengrim, a world-famous magician), as seen through Ramsay’s eyes. Along the way, we also learn a considerable amount about the narrator, including his reclusive nature, his service as a war hero, his passion for chronicling the lives of saints, and his role as Staunton’s confessor and confidant as the latter rises to a position of wealth and political prominence. Ramsay’s relationship with Mary is particularly poignant; he considers her to be a saint for three “miracles” he associates her with, but is greatly conflicted as he observes her slow, heart-breaking descent into madness. He also serves as the catalyzing force that brings Boy and Eisengrim together as the book reaches its dramatic conclusion.

Davies wrote such wonderfully compelling stories that it is easy to overlook how much his prose had to teach us. Beyond its rich details on topics such as hagiography, mythology, illusionism and Jungian psychology, what I found most striking about ‘Fifth Business’ was its great insight into the nature of responsibility and guilt. In fact, so much of what transpires in the novel can be viewed in terms of Ramsay’s struggle to resolve the issue of the point at which responsibility for one’s actions begins, a lesson he appeared to learn very late in life. This book is an almost perfect marriage of great story-telling with a rich set of insights into what it means to be human; it is exactly what literature should be and one to be savored again and again.
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LibraryThing member skavlanj
A Trilogy

I think I would rate this book lower if I hadn't known going in that it's the first book in a trilogy, and would view the weak ending differently - unsatisfactory - after an engaging, well-told story. I find it worrisome that Fifth Business is on the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You
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Die list but the successive volumes are not, because it deserves to be and I want the next novels to be just as good.

Fifth Business is the story of Dunstable Ramsey and his friend and nemesis Percy Boyd Staunton, who we witness grow from mischievous boys in small-town 1908 Canada to old men. Across their fifty year journey, they harbor a secret which altered the lives of the Dempsters by causing the premature birth of their only son. Dunstable will spend his life attempting to, if not rectify, at least pay penance for the consequences of his and Staunton's actions. He will lose a leg and be disfigured during the Great War (an extremely well-written section of the novel) and end up unmarried, teaching history at an all-boys school, where he goes by his shortened name Dunstan.

But Dunstan's life is not a lonely, academic existence. He is a hagiographist; he spends his vacations traveling the world researching the lives of saints, about whom he writes multiple best-selling books. Even though he professes to not be religious, he expends a great deal of thought and discussion on Christianity in an attempt to have Mrs Dempster canonized for the three miracles she performs. The book's most challenging concept is that a man can be lead to Christ through his sinful interaction with her.

In his travels Dunstan also encounters the now-grown Dempster son, a world-class illusionist who still bears the emotional scars of his childhood. I usually object to these types of fantastic coincidences, but in this story they fit perfectly within the narrative and enrich its complexity.

You will not drown in Fifth Business's details but keep google handy so that you'll understand several of the historical and mythological references (e.g. Cauldron of Ceridwen). They add depth to an entertaining, thought-provoking work worth reading.
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
It’s a fictional memoir of Dunstan Ramsay, born in a small town in Ontario, not an exceptional figure, neither a villain nor a hero, more Fifth Business- which is to say a nevertheless essential figure, for whom a boyhood happening dictates how his whole life will unfold.

In many ways it’s a
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perfect novel which works its magic through an excellently executed plot seamlessly weaving a great dose of reality and satire with Jungian psychology, and mythology and its archetypes with its bearded ladies, magicians and saints. It is all told in intelligent, witty and elegant narration, and dazzling enough masterful storytelling.
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LibraryThing member sageness
This has been on my to-read list for years and somehow I managed to be completely unspoiled -- to the point that I had no idea what it was about, even. I think he ticked every single trope of Canadian literature, and, interestingly, for a book ultimately about three men, the women characters all
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feel like fully realized people instead of mere wallpaper. Very satisfying.
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LibraryThing member eas7788
Not objective on this one. Loved it when I read it as a teenager and apparently when I read it in 2005. The long sentences, more elevated diction, authoritative narrative voice -- not what I read that much these days but in this book I love it. Sexist and racist (by omission: one barely mentioned
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person of color) but given the identity of the protagonist and his era, that's to be expected. I love the story of it, and the long monologues, and the discussion of big ideas.
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LibraryThing member dulac3
4.5 stars

Robertson Davies is one of my literary heroes. At a time in my youth when I had been engulfed with ‘Canadian Literature’ that was, in my humble opinion at the time at least, depressing, uninteresting, and decidedly parochial, here was a man who wrote stories with verve, humour,
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erudition and a view to the wider world. _Fifth Business_ is the first book of Davies’ Deptford trilogy, a series of books that centre around people from the fictional small town of Deptford, Ontario. Sounds parochial already, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more. The main character, and narrator, of this tale is Dunstan Ramsay, a man who seems to have been destined to exist on the periphery of the life he is now looking back on. Sharp-tongued and intelligent, Ramsay has let himself fall into the role of school-teacher at an all-boy’s private school, unencumbered not only by a wife and children, but also by any truly close friends. The closest he has is Percy Boyd “Boy” Staunton, the golden boy of Deptford and frenemy of his youth. Boy is everything Ramsay is not: outgoing, active, popular and rich. Boy soon makes his mark in the wider world, parlaying the small fortune of his grasping father into the foundations of a business empire that certainly does nothing to lessen Boy’s innate pride and narcissism. Aside from their origins in a small Ontario town as part of the same generation, the two boys share something else, a link to the tragedy that occurred in the life of Mrs. Mary Dempster. On a fateful winter day, when Boy’s pride is goaded on by the shrewd antagonism of Ramsay, the then-pregnant Mrs. Dempster becomes the victim of a snowball hurled by Boy and meant for Ramsay which had a stone at its heart. This blow not only precipitates the early delivery of her son Paul, but also leads to a loss of cognitive functions that makes her, in the words of the people of Deptford, “simple”.

Forever keeping the facts secret, Ramsay is wracked by guilt over this event for the rest of his life (despite the fact that his was certainly more a sin of omission when compared to Boy’s culpability). It in fact becomes the shaping catalyst for his life and in large part determines the man he is to become. Ramsay takes upon himself the care of Mrs. Dempster (officially at the urging of his mother, who helped to deliver the woman’s son, but ultimately at the prodding of his own conscience) and she becomes for him a figure of signal importance. For Ramsay is convinced that there is something special about Mary Dempster, in fact he is certain that she is a saint. This is not only the result of his guilt, but due to the fact that Ramsay is certain that he has personally witnessed three miracles performed by her (one the resurrection of his apparently dead older brother). Ramsay becomes obsessed with saints and saintliness and his life’s work, his true passion, the study of these enigmatic figures in human history. He is not a particularly religious man, but he is not incredulous of the validity of religious experience either. This is where Davies is able to bring in one of his own favourite obsessions: Jungian archetypes and the mythical significance of history. The lens through which Ramsay sees the world is coloured by this interpretation and it is a fascinating one that informs all of Davies’ other books.

Dunstan Ramsay is an excellent narrator and his voice is pitch-perfect. He seems to contain the perfect balance of incisive observation with a somewhat deprecating self-awareness…though of course we probably shouldn’t take everything he says as gospel. Through Ramsay’s eyes we view the petty concerns and grotesqueries of small town life, things that, while petty (or perhaps *because* they are petty), are more than powerful enough to destroy a human life; we share in some of the horrors of the First World War as well as the ennobling elements of life that can overcome such things; and we witness the ways in which, sometimes unbeknownst to us, our lives are intertwined with those of everyone we meet, no matter how disconnected and solitary we think we are.

_Fifth Business_ isn’t my favourite book by Davies, but it’s a very good one and is an excellent introduction to the kind of writing you’ll experience if you choose to try him out. Not only was Davies a learned man, able to convey his learning in his books without sounding like a school-teacher or a man with a mission to convert (even though he was, perhaps, both things), but he was also a very accomplished writer:
I know flattery when I hear it; but I do not often hear it. Furthermore, there is good flattery and bad; this was from the best cask. And what sort of woman was this who knew so odd a word as “hagiographer” in a language not her own? Nobody who was not a Bollandist had ever called me that before, yet it was a title I would not have exchanged to be called Lord of the Isles. Delightful prose! I must know more of this.

Delightful prose indeed. Davies’ novels seem to flow effortlessly, partly due to the charming and fluid voice he attains in them, and partly, I think, through his clever weaving of myth and symbol throughout what is, on the surface, a rather mundane plot. Ramsay’s life, especially in his eventually acknowledged role of “Fifth Business”, is not one that is full of monumental events or unexpected novelty, but it is a human life and one which Davies puts into the greater context not only of the lives that all of us lead, but of the mythic symbols and higher meanings that we look to in order to find greater significance in what we do and who we are.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Fifth Business is the first installment of the Deptford Trilogy by Davies and it is the story of the life of the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay. The entire story is told in the form of a letter written by Ramsay on his retirement from teaching at Colborne College, addressed to the school Headmaster. The
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book's title was explained by the author as a theatrical term, a character essential to the action but not a principal actor. This is made explicit in the focus of much the action on others, including Percy Boyd 'Boy' Staunton and his wife Leola, and Mrs. Dempster and her son Paul; all of whom influence and are influenced by the life of the narrator.

Davies discusses several themes in the novel, including the difference between materialism and spirituality. He has also created a sort of bildungsroman in the narrative of Dunstable 'Dunstan' Ramsay, who lives a life dedicated to teaching (history in a boys' school) and studying the lives of saints, becoming a hagiographer of some note. Significantly, Davies, then being an avid student of Carl Jung's ideas, deploys them in Fifth Business. Characters are clear examples of Jungian archetypes and events demonstrate Jung's idea of synchronicity. The stone thrown at Ramsay when he was a child reappears decades later in a scandalous suicide or murder. This along with the impetus in Ramsay's life of three "miracles" become the mainstays of the plot line. Finally, it is all held together by Davies attention to detail, his characterization and above all his ability to tell a good story. I expect to return to finish the Deptford Trilogy sooner rather than later.
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LibraryThing member AgneJakubauskaite

"Fifth Business,” the first book in The Deptford Trilogy by Canadian writer Robertson Davies, is Dunstan Ramsay’s memoir written as a letter to a Headmaster of Colborne College, where Dunstan was teaching for 45 years. This letter-memoir was provoked by a farewell article which
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offended Dunstan deeply as it downplayed his accomplishments and presented him as "a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose." The story told by this letter-memoir turned out to be far away from what at first sight might look quite ordinary.


1) Beautiful writing and thought-provoking content.
Not without a reason "Fifth Business'' is a classic: the writing is so simple yet so beautiful (truly a piece of art), and the main themes, such as religion and morality, illusion and reality, debilitating effects of guilt, and lifelong effects of childhood and family, offer timeless lessons. It is one of those books which demands to be thought about, if not read, over and over, and which gets better the more you do so. It is a great choice for a book club!

2) Wide vocabulary.
One of the reasons that made Robertson Davies' prose so beautiful is his ability to pick just the right words: descriptive, playful, and often not very common. Such a wide vocabulary not only makes his writing more lively but also serves as a great vocabulary exercise as most of these words are rarely used in everyday conversations.


1) Strong beginning and ending but a little bit slow in between.
I especially loved the first third of the book and gobbled it up in a day, but later the action slowed down, and my excitement wore off. The last chapter was captivating yet again, and the ending remarks made it all worth it, but somewhere in the middle I caught myself wishing that the book was shorter. However, it might be just me getting tired of extensive dictionary search because, since English is not my native language, I was looking up several words per page as I wanted to understand every single wordplay or colorful epithet.

VERDICT: Although I really liked the main themes and the writing style of this book, the story itself could have been a little bit more eventful.
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LibraryThing member raschneid
Recommended to me by a very nice librarian with a wild mustache when I said I was looking for something sort of like Margaret Atwood. He also compared it to John Irving, which I think is incredibly apt.

Very very good, with an incredibly disturbing and wonderful ending (that echoes the beginning).
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The characters are fascinating but also have weight and don't just feel merely quirky or symbolic - it succeeds at the important double job of being artistically complex and being a good story.

It's about agency, roles, and using symbolism and narrative to interpret life, among other things.

It also has charming pages-long monologues in the manner of Brothers Karamazov and gets away with it.

Such a complex little story that it would be worth rereading! I hadn't ever heard of the author but I will have to read more by him.
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
After retiring from forty five years of service as Senior History Master at a boy’s private school, our narrator Dunstan Ramsay, offended by an article which depicts him as a senile old man, decides to write a letter to the school’s headmaster so he can relate his life story in his own words.
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He recounts his complex friendship with childhood friend Percy Staunton (aka Boy) who married Dunstan's love interest and takes advantage of life to the fullest as an industry magnate who managed to grow his fortune during the great depression. There is also Mrs Dempster who occupies much of Dunstan’s thoughts, as he takes responsibility for an incident which occurred in his boyhood and which everyone believes has brought on her mental deterioration and the premature birth of her son Paul, who eventually runs away to join the circus and reappears later in Dunstan's life while on a trip through Europe. Robertson’s skill as a master storyteller keeps things interesting, and a sudden twist toward the end creates a nice bit of intrigue to lead us into the next installation of the trilogy.
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LibraryThing member Romonko
For some reason this is the first book I've ever read by the great Robertson Davies. This is a travesty since I love Canadian literature, and Mr. Davies is an icon in that select group. This book is the first in the Deptford Trilogy and it was given to me as a gift. I am sure that the giver knew
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that it would start me on a totally different reading tack with an author that I should have been familiar with by now. My thanks go to the gift giver for finally bringing this extremely talented author to my attention. The storyline in this book begins with a throw of a stone, cunningly concealed in a snowball. This stone, literally and figuratively, sets this novel in motion. The book is about growing up in a small Canadian town near the beginning of the 19 century, and the values that this instilled in children, and about lessons learned, decisions made and consequences inevitably experienced. It takes us through to the trenches of the First World War. We follow young Dunstable Ramsay through the war and through catastrophic injuries that he suffers during this war. We watch him as he grows up (as he was only 16 when he enlisted). We see him forging ahead after he gets back home after recovering from his injuries. He is sporting a Victoria Cross on his chest with no real idea of how he got this amazing honour. Dunstable goes to school and then becomes an educator in an exclusive boys school. But he does so much more than that with his life. The people we meet through him and the places he visits are so well depicted in this book. This is a very powerful novel, and one that left me shaking my head in wonder as I read about Dunstable and his quite startling life. Robertson Davies knew what he was about. He has the skill of a master novelist and a sense of humour that keeps rising irrepressibly out of the pages of his books.
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LibraryThing member charlie68
A book that is tightly written and plotted. A book that has all the essentials of a great read. I can see why it's considered a Canadian classic.
LibraryThing member deweydui
Very metaphysical. Shows the unseemly underbelly of the magic profession. It kind of reminds me of that movie "The Prestige" with Christian Bale.
LibraryThing member rabszu
A highly enjoyable read so far with outlandish characters that have a touch of the miraculous in them, creating a story that peeks under the veil a bit.
LibraryThing member iron_queen
An awe-inspiring, if brief, novel about the wondrous mythology of life. Davies seamlessly weaves in the miraculous with the tapestry of one ordinary man's long life in such a real, believable way that one is forced to ponder the nature of the miracle and what it means to the everyday person. Davies
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takes a loving, intelligent look at what it means to live in a world where saints and God are all around, if only we can see them. Not fun, per se, but enlightening in a way that is rare and satisfying.
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LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
Part of the outstanding Depford trilogy - a real treat for its depth of characters, ideological themes, and diversity of ideas
LibraryThing member laughingwoman6
This was the first book of Robertson Davies that I ever read way back when I was a teenager...I think I had borrowed a copy from someone. I absolutely loved it, I've re-read it many times. Definitely a favourite book, I would recomend it to anyone.
LibraryThing member Glorybe1
I really enjoyed this book, I read somewhere that is was the idea for John Irving's book "A Prayer for Owen Meany", but really apart from the freak accident at the start of the book it was nothing like it at all! Still very absorbing though. Dunny Ramsey and Boy Staunton had a sort of Love/hate
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relationship from childhood, when coming back from sledding one day after an argument Boy threw a snowball at Dunny containing a stone, Dunny ducked and it hit Mrs Dempster inducing early labour and leaving her with mental problems. Here is where the story really starts. The guilt of one, the selfish thoughtlessness of the other and the results of the hideous consequences of the last.
Dunny becomes a teacher and somewhat of an expert on saints writing books about them. Boy becomes a well heeled business man and later a powerful political mogul. The baby born prematurely Paul becomes a master of prestidigitation and goes on to have a fairly important part in the story . With a very unexpected ending.
Quite in depth and full of very profound observations about the differences of spiritualism and down right materialism. I really liked it.
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LibraryThing member marfita
An ordinary man's life cannot really fit into a paragraph - and Ramsay sets himself to fleshing out a tossed-off tribute in honor of his retirement that offended him by its lack of depth and revelation. He writes his life history to the headmaster of the school for boys where he taught all his
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adult life. Ramsay is what Davies refers to as "the fifth business": not the lead or antagonist, but a character in dramatic works who carries an essential piece of the plot.
In essence, then, Ramsay's narrative is a tragedy from this fifth business's point of view. He became obsessed with a neighbor's wife as a child because he dodged a snowball that caused a premature birth and the woman's descent into a gentle madness. All his life he is burdened with the responsibility for her child, Paul, and for her. In his eyes she has worked miracles and he comes to think of her as a Fool-Saint. This leads him to research and write hagiographies, although he was brought up as a dour Scots Presbyterian.
I didn't find the saint business that interesting, but Davies does a wonderful job of depicting life in a Canadian town, the horrors of the trenches of WWI, and developing characters. Ramsay is self-deprecating in that stereotypical way we associate with Canadians. His antagonist/best friend, "Boy" Staunton, becomes rich and influential from the most mundane of businesses: sugar. He also takes Ramsay's "girlfriend" away from him, saving him the trouble of dumping her himself - but he is unable to disentangle himself from their friendship. Even amid the tragedies there are some laugh-out-loud moments. I am tempted to continue the series, if only the third book which may pick up where this left off.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
There is so much to admire about this book, that I honestly don't know where to start.

Generally, I tend not to like stories that start with the childhood of the main character and proceed linearly on through their life. I don't know why this is - perhaps it's because there is an inherent
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contradiction of the writer giving us the deepest, most philosophical thoughts and presenting them as originally the child's. Davies sidesteps this thorny issue magnificently by making a direct admission of this, that everything he recalls is tinged with his knowledge of the world as an educated adult, and that it is unreasonably to say that the thoughts he reports are authentic.

The story follows the life of his main character, who is neither hero, nor heroine, nor confidante, nor villain. In other words, he is, in the language of the theatre, fifth-business, and it is this central idea that is felt through the novel: here is a man who has forever been a spectator in life, who has never managed to break free of the path that history has taken him down. I can really relate to this myself, although I am quite content sitting by the side of the road, watching the world go by and taking notes. Perhaps, when my own role in life is presented to me, I shall feel compelled to do something about it like the narrator of our story, but until that happens, I will content myself with literature, hoping forever to find books as good as this one.
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LibraryThing member dmacsfo
With a dramatist's flair and a character actor's twinkle, Robertson Davies helps us to understand the human condition, and for me that condition is entirely hopeful. The latest rereading of Fifth Business, his finest work, reveals new insights into Davies's use of humor and irony, myth and reality,
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and of life's many opposing forces. Astute first-time readers may have understood these elements, but it has taken several readings for me to appreciate them.

As the narrator, eccentric professor and seeker of saints Dunstan Ramsay shows a childlike awe for his predecessors and a flinty parental attitude toward his progeny. With no children of his own, he writes of simple saints as if they were his own great-grandparents, and he creates a saintly mythology for his surrogate prodigal son, Magnus Eisengrim.

Fifth Business is a book that encourages re-reading. Davies's tale is quietly interesting, lulling many a reader into the comfortable surroundings of rural and urban Canada; then energizing the story with unexpected and worldly turns. He brings a young man's innocence into the fearsome realities of World War II, a cynic's grit to the illusions of traveling shows and magic, and a searcher's dedication to the conflicting stories of religion and saints. The characters are marvelous and the ending is just right, sending the reader out looking for the remaining excellent books of his Deptford Trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders

Fifth Business is an extraordinary book, written by a wise, good-humored and clear-eyed master of language.
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