I have loved Robertson Davies’ books ever since I discovered the Salterton Trilogy about 15 years ago. He’s funny, he’s erudite, and man, could he ever spin a yarn.

Then, a few months ago I came across this quote, made by Davies in the wake of the initial publication of Lolita. According to Davies, Nabokov’s novel was about:

“not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child.”

Ew. Eww. Ewwww!! Oh Mr. Davies, how could you disappoint me so? Even if I take into account that Davies made this comment nearly 60 years ago, in an era when child abuse and molestation were not identified and defined as crimes the way there are now, it’s gross because even 60 years ago, children were considered children, not miniature adults, and as such should not have been considered capable of the ‘corruption’ that Davies posits.

I could almost get past it if he were saying that the child was so seductive that the weak adult succumbed (although again, ew, 3x) because there the onus is not on the child for exploiting the adult and the child is not having corruption attributed to her that isn’t possible for someone of that age. But he’s actually saying that a 12-year-old child could actively set out to exploit (?) an adult. Also, did Davies even read Lolita? It’s not about a child who is inherently seductive, it’s about a man who, because he is a pedophile, finds children seductive.

So, what’s my verdict? Can I still enjoy Davidson’s writing? I think I can take a free pass on the ethics of it since Davies is dead and can no longer benefit from royalties but what about his content? Is it colored by what I now know about him? I have read The Salterton Trilogy and have picked at The Lyre of Orpheus since I read the damming quote.

While I did enjoy Salterton I was on high alert for signs that Davies is a closet asshole or pervert. I didn’t see perversion, but I did see a deeply embedded terror of mothers. One main character is nearly devoured by his mother but manages to break free and fashion a good, if grimly practical, life for himself as a bachelor. The other nearly founders in his new marriage because he’s unable to stand up to his needy and domineering mother. He eventually attains some independence, but not until his mother dies.

I kind of lost interest in Lyre because, with a perspective I didn’t have 15 years ago when I first read it, I see a certain privileged smugness in the subject matter and his approach to it – although Yerko and his budding love for the Bebby Jesus just about saves the book. The strong women in Lyre are considerably more nuanced than those in Salterton but I believe I detected at least a whiff of gyno-terror.

We write what we know, which makes me think that Davies suffered at the hands of a domineering mother himself and surely that colored his attitude towards females – possibly so much that he came to see them as predatory, even the ones who are still children. It doesn’t excuse him, but it does give me a new way to read his work.

Posted by lesherjennifer

4 Comments

  1. How empty my bookshelves would be if I had to like the author as well as the work!

    Have you ever been moved by Rudyard Kipling’s “If”?

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too; …..

    Yet the man made his living glorifying the British Empire at its worst, and poured out nonsense like The White Man’s Burden,

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    Send forth the best ye breed–
    Go bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;
    To wait in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild–
    Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
    Half-devil and half-child…..

    How about Abraham Lincoln, the man who wrote,

    “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

    Yet the man who also wrote:

    “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; ….”

    Excellent writers often have odious opinions. Being able to appreciate their writing despite their personal flaws is a sign of wisdom in my book, a rejection of Talibanization.

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  2. Hi Josh, I just realized I never replied to this – great comments.

    Kipling’s work did in fact lose its appeal for me once I learned more about British colonialism and understood him in context, but I also think that’s partly because his writing is of that stilted Victorian variety – the narrowness of this style echoes the narrowness of his understanding and it all combines into a rather fusty offering. But, that doesn’t disprove your point, because in that case, it is the writing that I don’t like much.

    As for Lincoln, yeah, I am really sorry he said that about social and political equality. I wish he could see our society now – we still have a ways to go, but things have certainly come a long way since his era, especially since the Civil Rights movement. But, I still love his writing – lyrical expression of a brilliant mind.

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  3. Luc Santos-Dumont April 23, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    VN is my favorite author and, “Lolita” is my favorite novel. Often over looked is that this is one of the funniest books ever written. I know I know, it’s so wrong. But anyway, I think I can restore Robertson Davies for you. This is the way Humbert Humbert sees himself. That is as the seduced not the seducer. Remember, this is a work of fiction. RD is reflecting the narrator’s point of view, twisted though it may be.

    HH often refers to himself in disparaging terms but like most hebephiles, he’s got all sorts of rationalizations attempting to neutralize and justify his illicit passions. He points to the fact that Lolita was not a virgin when he first had her and often complains that she cheats on him. In the book, when HH speaks of the night he and Lolita first have carnal knowledge of each other, he says she came to him and initiated that encounter.

    Do reread Lolita. There’s so much in it. I’ve read it probably 20 times and discover something new each time. War and Peace is about 2 % French and Lolita is probably at least that much French. The annotated Lolita helps uncover some of the more obscure references.

    I’m going to send you my little Lolita trivia quiz and also what I think is a nearly perfect short story that VN wrote and had published in the New Yorker, “Signs and Symbols.”

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  4. What a great question.

    I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. There are a couple of authors whose work I can no longer read because of the awful things they’ve done in their personal lives. Every time I try to read their stories, I’m reminded of how much they harmed their victims.

    With that being said, I definitely don’t expect perfection from authors (or anyone else). There are authors I still love while also acknowledging that they had some pretty sexist, racist, or otherwise horrible opinions. This is something that’s easier to do with authors from past centuries, IMO, because the time and place someone lives in can warp their minds in ways that are difficult to reverse.

    I think it’s also important to remember that none of us are perfect. We’ve all said and done things that we later came to regret. I’d hate to be judged for all of eternity on my worst moments.

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