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Robertson Davies
Cover of Robertson Davies
Robertson Davies
A Portrait in Mosaic
by Val Ross
Borrow Borrow
National bestseller and a Globe and Mail Best Book

A fascinating, larger-than-life character, Davies left a treasure trove of stories about him when he died in 1995 -- expertly arranged here into a revealing portrait.

From his student days onward, Robertson Davies made a huge impression on those around him. He was so clearly bound for a glorious future that some young friends even carefully preserved his letters. And everyone remembered their encounters with him.

Later in life, as a world-famous writer, perhaps Canada's pre-eminent man of letters (who "looked like Jehovah"), he attracted people eager to meet him, who also vividly remembered their meetings. So when Val Ross set out in search of people's memories, she was faced with a wonderful embarrassment of riches.
The one hundred or so contributors here range very widely. There are family memories, of course, and memories from colleagues in the academic world who knew him as a professor and the founding master of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

Predictably, there are other major writers like Margaret Atwood and John Irving. Less predictably, there are people from the world of Hollywood, such as Norman Jewison and David Cronenberg (who remembers Davies on-set, peering through a camera lens as he researched his newest novel). And we even hear from his barber, and from his gardener, Theo Henkenhaf.

Some speakers contribute just a lively paragraph; others several pages. Yet all of them, through the magic of Val Ross's art, help to create an intriguing, full-colour portrait of a complex man beloved by millions of readers around the world.

From the Hardcover edition.
National bestseller and a Globe and Mail Best Book

A fascinating, larger-than-life character, Davies left a treasure trove of stories about him when he died in 1995 -- expertly arranged here into a revealing portrait.

From his student days onward, Robertson Davies made a huge impression on those around him. He was so clearly bound for a glorious future that some young friends even carefully preserved his letters. And everyone remembered their encounters with him.

Later in life, as a world-famous writer, perhaps Canada's pre-eminent man of letters (who "looked like Jehovah"), he attracted people eager to meet him, who also vividly remembered their meetings. So when Val Ross set out in search of people's memories, she was faced with a wonderful embarrassment of riches.
The one hundred or so contributors here range very widely. There are family memories, of course, and memories from colleagues in the academic world who knew him as a professor and the founding master of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

Predictably, there are other major writers like Margaret Atwood and John Irving. Less predictably, there are people from the world of Hollywood, such as Norman Jewison and David Cronenberg (who remembers Davies on-set, peering through a camera lens as he researched his newest novel). And we even hear from his barber, and from his gardener, Theo Henkenhaf.

Some speakers contribute just a lively paragraph; others several pages. Yet all of them, through the magic of Val Ross's art, help to create an intriguing, full-colour portrait of a complex man beloved by millions of readers around the world.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One RD and Brenda were in Scandinavia in September 1986 when they heard that his name was on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize in Literature. And not for the first time; they were also informed that Anthony Burgess, among others, had been lobbying for a Davies Nobel for at least two years. This was followed by more good news.

    FELICITY BRYAN (London literary agent)

    I was an agent at Curtis Brown, this would be about twenty years ago. Rob was repped by Curtis Brown. . . . I took the Deptford trilogy with me on a holiday to France. I read it, and I was bowled over. When I came back from France I was spouting over about this tremendous writer.

    Then I read What's Bred in the Bone. I sat down and I wrote a long fan letter to Rob. And then What's Bred in the Bone was coming out in England . . . I've never worked so hard on getting reviews. We had wonderful reviews for it. And then it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize! I phoned him while he was on tour in Sweden, to tell him about his being shortlisted. We had not yet met at that point. But over the phone he was very funny and very pleased!


    JOHN SAUMAREZ SMITH

    At the time, I had two sons at Winchester School, and they told me that the head of the English faculty, a Mr. Wyke, was a great admirer of Robertson Davies. I said to Mr. Wyke, "I gather that you're a fan of Robertson Davies. Would you like me to arrange for Mr. Davies to come down and talk to the boys?" He said, "That would be sensational."

    The Tuesday before we were to go down, Felicity Bryan rang me up and said, "John, you and I should be very proud: Robertson Davies is on the Booker Prize shortlist." So I rang up Rob and said, "Congratulations! But will it still be all right for Tuesday?" Rob said, "John, I won't let you down. And as you drive us down to Winchester School you can tell me about the Booker."

    I said [with] the Booker list . . . there was always an agenda that was not always going to produce the best sort of decisions. . . . That day was one of those magical days. Even as Rob and Brenda walked from the college to the cathedral, the cathedral choir was practising. And it was so beautiful it brought tears to their eyes . . .

    Just before the talk, Rob stood before some of the boys. He took out an envelope and said to one of them, "It will appear quite soon that I have given one or two lectures, but I want you to have some pleasure in this. So I will speak for twenty minutes and then I want you to ask questions. I know from experience that this often means there is a horrible pause. But this time there won't be — because here are six questions, and I am very good at answering these questions." A brilliant trick! Then he spoke. He was very informal and he made them laugh. Afterwards, the boys asked questions for an hour and a half. And they never asked his six questions.


    JENNIFER SURRIDGE

    Being shortlisted for the Booker Prize — on top of hearing that he was being considered for a Nobel! . . . But RD was a great worrier and he realized that winning these prizes would have meant a whole lot more time away from his work. . . . He never believed he deserved to win. Too much of a Presbyterian background.


    His diary shows that he was tortured by hope.


    RD (diary, September 26, 1986)

    The Nobel and Booker have stuffed my pillow with thorns . . . no Stoic, I.


    RD (diary, October 20, 1986)

    I have a fit of the Black Dog and am downcast all day, wholly irrationally. I feel I have been weighed on the balance and emerged 15 ounces to the pound.


    The winner of the 1986 Booker was to...
About the Author-
  • Val Ross was a renowned journalist and won a National Newspaper Award. She was highly respected throughout the publishing industry for her coverage of books and the people who create them. She was an arts reporter at The Globe and Mail and her first book, The Road to There: Mapmakers and Their Stories was nominated for many awards and won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's non-fiction. Val Ross passed away in 2008.

    This is her long-awaited first adult book.

    From the Hardcover...
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    June 1, 2009
    A bear of a man, with flowing white hair and beard, the flamboyant and magic-obsessed Robertson Davies (1913–1995) was the Canadian literary equivalent of Orson Welles. As this oral history shows, he was by turns vain, vulnerable, intimidating, kind, depressive, bossy, charming, imposing, even in passing vaguely anti-Semitic. He was a great mentor for many as master of Massey College, in Toronto, which he founded with Vincent Massey. Davies’s life and art are celebrated in this lively remembrance by some 100 contributors. Journalist Ross, who died in 2008 shortly after completing this book, is not so much its author as its organizer, providing the narrative that connects the many voices that celebrate the man, his work and reputation. These include Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, John Irving and Norman Jewison. Among the unexpected highlights of this artful biography is the description of a joint reading tour with a young Sri Lankan novelist and Davies’s nose-holding encounter with Andrea Dworkin. Davies gets his due as one of the 20th-century’s literary voices of English-speaking Canada.

  • National Post "[An] original and compelling portrait"
  • Montreal Gazette "Celebratory.... A tribute to both Ross and Davies."
  • London Free Press "Greatly entertaining."
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    McClelland & Stewart
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