Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“Nobody has ever written a great play on a Biblical theme,” said Cobbler. “Milton couldn’t pull it off. Even Ibsen steered clear of Holy Writ. There’s something about it that defies dramatization.”

“Please do not interrupt the lecturer,” said Solly. “Heavysege did not write a mere Biblical drama; he wrote a vast, cosmic poem, like a fruit-cake with three layers. Only the middle layer concerns Saul and mankind; the top layer is all about angels, and like everything that has ever been written about angels, it is of a deadly dreariness; the bottom layer, which is thicker than the others, is about devils, and much the best of the three. Heavysege was awed by angels, sobered by Saul, but right in his element with the devils. He makes them comic, in a jaunty, slangy, nineteenth-century way; he provides love-affairs for them. In fact, he is at his best with his devils. This obviously suggests a parallel with Milton; in scholarly work of this kind, you’ve got to have plenty of parallels, and Heavysege provides them by the bushel. Heavysege reveals traces of every influence that even the greediest scholar could require.

“But in your eyes I see a question of the greatest import. Was Heavysege, in the truest sense, a Canadian writer? I hear you ask. Set your minds at rest. Who but a Canadian could have written Saul’s speech:

If Prompted, follow me and be the ball

Tiny at first, that shall, like one of snow,

Gather in rolling.

Does not Jehoiadah behave like a Canadian when he refuses to cheer when his neighbours are watching him? Is it not typically Canadian of Heavysege’s Hebrews that they take exception to Saul’s ‘raging in a public place’? Is it not Canadian self-control that David displays when, instead of making a noisy fuss, he ‘lets his spittle fall upon his beard, and scrabbles on the door-post’? Friends, these are the first evidences of the action of our climate and our temperament upon the native drama.

“I could go on at some length about the beauties of Heavysege, as they appear to the scholar. Saul is full of misprints. Correcting misprints is the scholar’s delight. On page 17 we find the word ‘returinag’. Did Heavysege mean ‘returning’? That’s good for a footnote. On page 19 we find the word ‘clods’ where we might expect ‘clouds’. But can Heavysege have meant something deeply poetic by “clods’? That’s good for a paragraph of speculation, for we must be true to the printed text at all costs, and avoid any mischievous emendations. Does the poet allow anything of his own life to colour his drama? Well, at one point Saul speaks of ‘poignant emerods’, and the adjective opens up an alluring avenue of speculation; we must find out all we can about Heavysege’s state of health in 1857, when Saul was published. Had Heavysege a personal philosophy? What else can we call the four lines which he gives to an Israelite Peasant? (Incidentally, this peasant makes his appearance smoking a pipe; Heavysege has not even denied the editor the luxury of a nice, juicy anachronism.) This Peasant says:

Man is a pipe that life doth smoke

As saunters it the earth about;

And when ’tis wearied of the joke.

Death comes and knocks the ashes out.

Can we hear that unmoved?”

“I can hear it totally unmoved,” said Cobbler.

“Then you have no soul, and do not deserve the intellectual feast that I am spreading before you,” said Solly. “But there, in a nutshell, is Heavysege. I spare you his other play, his two long poems and his newspaper writings, which it will be my duty to find and sift. There, my friends, is the ash-heap upon which I must lavish my efforts and thought, in order that I may loom large in the firmament of Amcan. It’s devilish cold.”

“Poor Solly, you look miserable,” said Molly Cobbler. “You’d better get in with us.”

Solly looked at the bed dubiously. “But how?” said he.

“Give us all nice hot drinks again. Then loosen the covers at the foot, take off your shoes and hop in. You can put your legs up between us. We’ll warm you. And I’ll spare you one of my pillows.”

Solly did as he was bidden, and a few minutes later was surprised to find himself snugly tucked in, facing the Cobblers, and with his feet in the remarkable warmth which they had created.

“I feel like the sword which Lancelot laid between him and whoever it was,” said he. Molly Cobbler said nothing, but laughed and tickled one of his feet, which made him blush.

“You know, you tell a very pathetic story,” said Cobbler, who had been blowing his nose and pondering, “but it doesn’t hold water. You want us to be sorry for you because you’re tied to Heavysege and teaching people who don’t want to learn. But you’re not tied, you know. Nobody has to teach if they don’t want to. I remember my own fiasco as a teacher of music appreciation at Waverley. That repulsive Tessie Forgie came to me one day and said, ‘Mr Cobbler, do I understand that I am responsible for all the operas of Mozart?’ I said, ‘Miss Forgie, if you were responsible even for one of Mozart’s overtures I should clasp you to my bosom, but you aren’t; if you mean, do you need to have a knowledge of Mozart’s work to appreci­ate music, the answer is yes.’ That finished me as a teacher. I expected my students to know something, instead of being examin­ation passers. That’s why I only see a few of the university brats privately now, as on that memorable Hallowe’en. If you don’t like teaching, get out of it.”

“But what else can I do?”

“How do I know? But you won’t find out while you are hugging your miserable job. And why do you bother with Heavysege? Why don’t you write something yourself?”

“Me? What could I write?”

“How should I know? Write a novel.”

“There’s no money in novels.”

“Is there any money in Heavysege?”

“No, but there are jobs in Heavysege. Get a solid piece of scholar­ship under your belt and some diploma-mill will always want you. Don’t think I haven’t considered writing something original. But what? Everything’s been written. There aren’t any plots that haven’t been worked to death.”

“You’ve read too much, that’s what ails you. All the originality has been educated out of you. The world is full of plots. I’ll give you one. In a town like Salterton lives a wealthy, talented and physically beautiful couple who have two beautiful and talented children. Arthur is a boy of twenty-one and Alice is a girl of eighteen. Although they live in wealthy seclusion the news leaks out that Alice has had a child, and that Arthur is the father. There is a scandal, but nobody can do anything because no charge has been laid. Then Alice and Arthur enter their child in an international baby contest sponsored by UN, and it sweeps off all the first prizes. They explain that this is because incest strengthens the predominating strains in stock, and as their physical and mental predominating strains are all good, they have produced a model child. Their parents reveal that they also are brother and sister, and that the family has six generations of calcu­lated incest, practised on the highest moral and eugenic grounds, behind it. UN takes up the scheme and the free world has a race with Russia as to which can produce the most superior beings in the shortest time. Amusingly written, it would sell like hot-cakes.”

“You don’t think it a little lacking in love-interest, do you?” said Molly.

“Oh, that could be taken care of, somehow. What I am saying is that it is an original plot. If every story has to be a love-story, you’ll never have any originality, for a less original creature than a human being in love cannot be found. But I get sick of hearing people crying for originality, and rejecting it when it turns up.”

“Your plot is utterly impossible,” said Solly; “it would offend against the high moral tone of Canadian letters, for it is at once frivolous and indecent.”

“Oh, very well,” said Cobbler. “Go on ransacking the cupboards of oblivion for such musty left-overs as Heavysege; that is all you are good for. I have a horrible feeling that in two or three more years I shall despise you. Quite without prejudice, mind.”

The hot toddy and the bed were working strongly upon Solly’s spirit. “I have a strong sense of being ill-used,” said he murmurously. “I am in seven kinds of a mess. I am trapped in a profession I hate, and I am saddled with a professional task I hate. I am the victim of a practical joke which puts me into a very delicate relationship with a girl I hardly know and whom I don’t think I like. I ask advice of the one man I know who seems to be free of petty considerations, and all he does is mock me. Very well. Loaded as I am with indignity I can bear this also.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson