Thursday, April 17, 2008

Murther and Walking Spirits

Murther and Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies
Read: started sometime between 2/21/08 and 3/16/08 (Docs to Go on my Palm killed my records), ended 3/28/08
LibraryThing tags: Ghosts, Ghost's POV, Historical Fiction, Canadian, Character, SLOBS (a reading group)

Firstly, the title: "murther" means "murder," apparently a possible spelling/pronunciation in the 1600's. The book begins with a humorous quote from Samuel Butler: "Printers finde by experience that one Murther is worth two Monsters, and at least three Walking Spirits. For the consequence of Murther is hanging, with which the Rabble is wonderfully delighted. But where Murthers and Walking Spirits meet, there is no other Narrative can come near it."

Secondly, well... I'm not quite sure what to tell you about the book, because I actually felt that I might have enjoyed it more had someone told me "spoilers." A very rare occurence, for me. They wouldn't, in this case, actually "spoil" anything. You see, I expected the book to be about one thing and it eventually turned out to be about something else. This can be vexing. Otherwise quite good though, and I recommend it. I suppose I'll just say that if you want to hear the "spoilers," let me know and I'll tell you personally. One tidbit I will give you all now, in good conscience, because it is the very first line of the book: "I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead." Robertson Davies has a fun writing style, as you can see. And the book... well, obviously it's a ghost story, but what kind of ghost story? There's the rub. I've never read anything quite like it before. As with the other ghost story I reviewed recently, A Certain Slant of Light, it is quite unique. So, with no further ado, here are a couple quotes I enjoyed which communicate some of the main themes rather well (and don't even give away halfway spoilers, so far as I can tell):

"As McWearie used to say, one's family is made up of supporting players in one's personal drama. One never supposes that they starred in some possibly gaudy and certainly deeply felt show of their own.

McWearie used to talk a lot about the personal drama. He liked to call it the Hero Struggle, and when I protested that the term was grandiose for what he was describing he rebuked me with the sharpness of a Scots schoolmaster banging his ruler down on the fingers of a stupid boy.

'You're that dangerous class of fool, a trivializer, Gilmartin! To the human creature nothing that gets strongly to him is trivial. It is all on the heroic scale, so far as he can grasp it. What a fuss about the Oedipus Complex -- the fella who wants to possess his Mum! What about the Hercules Complex -- the fella that must grapple with his Twelve Labours while his wife and kids go by the board? What about the Apollo Complex -- the fella that thinks you can have all light and no releasing darkness? And women -- our towns and villages are jammed with Medeas and Persephones and Antigones and God knows who not, pushing their wire carts in the supermarkets unrecognized by anyone but themselves, and then probably only in their dreams. All engaged in the Hero Struggle!'

'So far as they can grasp it,' said I, to cool him.

'They don't have to grasp it, you gowk, in the sense you mean. They just have to live it, and endure it so far as they can bear. You suppose you're a thinker, Gilmartin, and what you are is a trivializer because your thinking isn't fuelled by any strong feeling. Wake up, man! Come alive! Feel before you think!'"

"One thing, however, is radiantly clear to Brochwel: if he gets out of this mess with a whole skin he cannot embrace the reductive spirit of his age. The reductive spirit that shows itself so trivially in trivial people, and has made some of the most persuasive thinkers of the past century embrace a man-centred world, will not do for him. He does not want a world that prates solemnly about Science, without any understanding of the doubts that haunt great scientists. Science, which seems to offer certainty, is the superstition of ignorant multitudes, who think it means toothpaste and tampons. The hungry sheep look up, and are fed foul air and poisonous garbage. Eng-Lang-and-Lit, the joy of his life, never grew in that soil. What can he believe?"

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