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.