Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

I know that I shall not see that film. And yet, as the cinema darkens and the screen comes to life, I see, on my own personal screen, the same title: Scenes from a Marriage. Some­thing from my personal archive.

What marriage? My own? Not in the scene that appears. That is certainly the library at St. Helen’s, my grandparents’ house in Salterton, which I remember from boyhood visits. It was on the lakeshore, and the sound of the waters of Lake Ontario is part of my memory of it, and part of what I see and hear now. Who are these people, sitting by the fire? Grandfa­ther, Rhodri Gilmartin, now in his early sixties, a rich man, a powerful man, an owner of newspapers, a man with political influence and, as the world measures success, a success. One would hardly recognize this sturdy man as the slight youth who passed a miserable night with his father-in-law, William McOmish, it must be — what? — more than thirty-five years ago.

Who is that old woman — older, probably, than her years — in the rocking-chair on the other side of the fire? Malvina McOmish she once was, and I sense that she is so still, in the depths of her being, as Rhodri is still the long­headed Welsh lad who gathered some alms from the wreck­age of that failed tailor-shop. Malvina is plainly an invalid, but what is her illness?

She has an attendant, the fat woman who sits in front of the fire at work on a jigsaw puzzle representing, when com­pleted, The Entry of King Charles II into London after His Restoration. Do I know her? Yes, she is what has become of Minerva McOmish, now a dependant and companion to her invalid sister. In her lap nestles a fat little dog, one of the terrier breed called Black-and-Tan. The infamous Janie, with whom I was not allowed to play when I was a boy, because Janie had delicate nerves, as overfed pets so often do.

“Brocky, Janie wants out,” says Auntie Min. A young man, who sits further from the fire, rises and shepherds Janie to the front door, where she ventures into the cold night, urinates weakly by the front steps and waddles back to the warmth, and the lap, and the frowst to which she makes her doggy, gaseous contribution.

I know the young man. My father, as a youth. Brochwel Gilmartin, whom I knew only as a moderately successful university professor, who wrote a psychological analysis of The Ring and the Book that sustained him in a profession where some such publication was obligatory.

He hates being called Brocky. He hates Aunt Min and he hates Janie. He hates the illiteracy of “wants out.” He does not hate his parents, because that would be wicked and, although he fancies himself to be an atheist, he cannot escape from the indoctrination that bids him honour his father and his mother. Honour them he does, as dutifully as he can manage, conscious that such honouring has a whiff of super­stition about it. He hates a great many people, tolerates many people, but he loves only Julia, and his passion for her is a torment.

How do I know what he hates? How is that knowledge communicated to me? I understand with a sinking heart that in this film I am to know whatever I am to know not by the actions and the words alone of the players, if I can call these forebears of mine players, but by sharing their thoughts and their feelings.

How in the world am I to know those things from a film? Films are not adept at conveying thought and feeling without words or actions. How does one become privy to the thoughts of those who do not speak or move?

Writers have tried to convey such knowledge by what they call Inner Monologue. Joyce wrestled with the problem in two great, long, dense books. He was not the first, and his followers have been many. But words cannot give the fullness of feeling; they can only struggle to arouse some echo-feeling in a reader, and of course every reader must comprehend in terms of what he has himself felt and known, so that every reader feels the essence of Joyce and his imitators in a different way. An echo is a diminished voice.

Musicians have done better. With voices and huge orchestras — or possibly with a string quartet — they have aroused greater depths of feeling than most writers can hope to do. Wagner, to name but one, has done it with shattering impact. But even Wagner, with his magnificent music and his rather less worthy pseudo-medieval words, is never wholly successful. Why? Because a work of art must be, in some measure, coherent; but thought and feeling mingled, as all of us experience them, are surging and incoherent. Thought and feeling trimmed into coherence in a work of art are still far from the reality, still far from the agonizing confusion that rises like a miasma in what a great poet has called the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

And not just the heart. The guts, the bones, the physical being of the human creature, which, alone of all creation, is given the sense of a past and a present, and the apprehension of a future — gifts that agree so oddly with the mind, the heart, the soul and the body, all combined. Oh, what a god we have made of the mind, the understanding, which is so necessary to life, but which hangs like a cloud in the sky above the physical world which is the totality of every human creature! The mind: a trifler! Feeling is more than what happens in the mind; feeling possesses the whole living being.

Can this film succeed where other arts have failed? Never. Not a hope. But this one will try, and I must watch and feel so far as I can, for in my disembodied state feeling is still my last hold on life as once I possessed it. Feeling, as though I still had a body, a mind, and all that makes a living creature thrill with joy or writhe in pain.

Nobody in the room I am watching thrills or writhes. They might perhaps be said to stew, to bubble deeply and with terrible purpose in the gumbo of their emotions. Three of them appear to be reading, and so they are, but the reading is no more than the uppermost layer of their reflections and emotions. Rhodri seems to be busy with his favourite author, P. G. Wodehouse. Malvina is reading St. Elmo, an almost forgotten novel of her youth. Brochwel is chewing doggedly away at The Faerie Queen, of which a portion is required reading for his literature studies at Waverley University, but which he is determined to read in its entirety, for already he detests half-heartedness and superficiality. Auntie Min is try­ing to find the moustache of King Charles the Second for her puzzle; five hundred pieces in all, and a terror, as she fre­quently tells anybody who will hear.

The books and the puzzle occupy the upper layer of their minds, various as these are. Each of the four is conscious of a musical accompaniment to reading, and reflection. With them I — the patient looker-on — read, and listen and experi­ence their deeper monologue.


AUNTIE MIN: (Music: “The Honeysuckle and the Bee,” played on a banjo, minstrel-show style.)

This it? No; won’t fit. Must be hair off one of the girls. He had plenty of girls, they say. Can’t really see. Of course they’ve all got lamps, but nobody imagines I’d like a lamp. Where did this fellow come? Brocky would know, but I daren’t ask him. He’d jump down my throat, or else heave a sigh and tell me in that “Poor old dumb Minnie” voice he puts on. Lordy, Lordy, the young! When they’re babies they love you and you can’t do enough for ’em, but wait till they’re grown up, and then they seem like they can’t stand you. Even if they’re your own. Brocky is like that to Viney. Coldly civil. No more. What went wrong there? Why doesn’t he love his Ma like a real son? Viney and I loved our Ma. Couldn’t have loved her more. Poor Ma. What she went through with that Old Devil. He died in the Poor Farm. Long after Ma, too. The Devil looks after his own. Of course all Brocky can think of is that Julia. Well, that’s how it goes. That was the way it was with me and Homer. . . . You be my honeysuckle, honey, I’ll be your bee.

Homer was undoubtedly the neatest man I ever saw. Shoes always shined like glass. Always a clean white hand­kerchief in his breast pocket, too. And one in his hip pocket.”One for show and one for blow,” he used to say. He had more jokes. . . .! Called his hip pocket his pistol-pocket, as if he was a bandit! I loved just walking down Colborne Street with him, he was so classy. And believe me I dressed up to his style, you bet. Great big hats. He used to call them my Gainsborough hats. A painter. Must have liked big hats. A big hat, and a dress made up in a good Dotted Swiss, silk stockings and patent leather pumps so tight they nearly had me crippled. Lots of beads. Always have loved beads, and that was the time of the really Big Bead. Those red ones! I have them still. Some place. Yes, the Big Bead was The Bead of Choice, as Miss McGovern at Ogilvie’s used to say. And scent! He used to give me scent after we were engaged, when it was all right. Djer Kiss — that was the name of it. Spicy. Black box with a parrot on it. A small man. Good gifts come in small packages, he used to say when he gave me a quarter-ounce of Djer Kiss. Small, and bald in front. A distinguished baldness, not that scabby baldness. And pince-nez. French for pinch nose. Of course he was an optometrist and always in the height of the fashion in eye-wear. Pince-nez, and the lenses tinted just a hint of violet. It rested the eyes, he said. He pioneered tinted lenses in our city. Sometimes I asked him if he wasn’t afraid the violet tint would look like an unhealthy shadow under his eyes, but he would chuck me under the chin (if we weren’t in the street) and say they made him look passionate. Pretty strong talk, but after all, we were engaged, and when he kissed me . . .! Brocky was playing that song last week on the Orthophonic as they call it now. Taken over from what we called the phonograph. That song when the girl sings about her lover and bursts out, “And Ah — his kiss!” It brought it all back, and I had to pretend I’d got something in my eye. That phonograph Homer gave me the Christmas after we got engaged. An Edison. Thick, heavy records. Like stove-lids, Ma said. Some records came with it.”Gems from The Yokohama Girl.”. . .

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Categories: Davies, Robertson