The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

–My training has not been to let things go.

–But Davey, your training and the way you have used yourself have brought you at last to Zurich for an analysis. I’m sure Jo von Haller, who is really excellent, though not at all my style, has made you see that. Are you going to do more work with her?

–That’s a decision I must make.

–Well, don’t be in a hurry to say you will.

Went for a long walk alone this afternoon, and thought about Liesl’s advice.

This eve. after dinner Eisengrim showed us some home movies of himself doing things with coins and cards. New illusions, it seems, for a tour they begin early in January. He is superb, and knows it. What an egotist! And only a conjuror, after all. Who gives a damn? Who needs conjurors? Yet I am unpleasantly conscious of a link between Eisengrim and myself. He wants people to be in awe of him, and at a distance: so do I.

Dec. 22, Mon.: I suppose Eisengrim sensed my boredom and disgust last night, because he hunted me up after breakfast and took me to see his workrooms, which are the old stables of Sorgenfrei; full of the paraphernalia of his illusions, and with very fine workbenches, at one of which Liesl was busy with a jeweller’s magnifying-glass stuck in her eye. . . “You didn’t know I had the family knack of clock-work, did you?” she said. But Eisengrim wanted to talk himself:

–You don’t think much of me, Staunton? Don’t deny it; it is part of my profession to sniff people’s thoughts. Well, fair enough. But I like you, and I should like you to like me. I am an egotist, of course. Indeed, I am a great egotist and a very unusual one, because I know what I am and I like it. Why not? If you knew my history, you would understand, I think. But you see that is just what I don’t want, or ask for. So many people twitter through life crying, “Understand me! Oh, please understand me! To know all is to forgive all!” But you see I don’t care about being understood, and I don’t ask to be forgiven. Have you read the book about me?

(I have read it, because it is the only book in my bedroom, and so obviously laid out on the bedside table that it seems an obligation of the household to read the thing. I had seen it before; Father bought a copy for Lorene the first time we went to see Eisengrim, on her birthday. Phantasmata: the Life and Adventures of Magnus Eisengrim. Shortish; about 120 pages. But what a fairy-tale! Strange birth to distinguished Lithuanian parents, political exiles from Poland; infancy in the Arctic, where father was working on a secret scientific project (for Russia, it was implied, but because of his high lineage the Russians did not want to acknowledge the association); recognition of little Magnus by an Eskimo shaman as a child of strange gifts; little Magnus, between the ages of four and eight, learns arts of divination and hypnosis from the shaman and his colleagues. Father’s Arctic work completed and he goes off to do something similar in the dead centre of Australia (because it is implied that father, the Lithuanian genius, is some sort of extremely advanced meteorological expert) and there little Magnus is taught by a tutor who is a great savant, who has to keep away from civilization for a while because he has done something dreadfully naughty. Little Magnus, after puberty, is irresistible to women, but he is obliged to be careful about this as the shaman had warned him women would disagree with his delicately balanced nerves. Nevertheless, great romances are hinted at; a generous gobbet of sadism spiced with pornography here. Having sipped, and rejected with contumely the learning of several great universities, Magnus Eisengrim determines to devote his life to the noble, misunderstood science which he first encountered in the Arctic, and which claimed him for its own. . . And this is supposed to explain why he is travelling around with a magic show. A very good magic show, but still — a travelling showman.

–Is one expected to take it seriously?

–I think it deserves to be taken more seriously than most biographies and autobiographies. You know what they are. The polished surface of a life. What the Zurich analysts call the Persona — the mask. Now, Phantasmata says what it is quite frankly in its title; it is an illusion, a vision. Which is what I am, and because I am such a thoroughly satisfactory illusion, and because I satisfy a hunger that almost everybody has for marvels, the book is a far truer account of me than ordinary biographies, which do not admit that their intent is to deceive and are woefully lacking in poetry. The book is extremely well written, don’t you think?

–Yes. I was surprised. Did you write it?

–Ramsay wrote it. He has written so much about saints and marvels, Liesl and I thought he was the ideal man to provide the right sort of life for me.

–But you admit it is a pack of lies?

–It is not a police-court record. But as I have already said, it is truer to the essence of my life than the dowdy facts could ever be. Do you understand? I am what I have made myself — the greatest illusionist since Moses and Aaron. Do the facts suggest or explain what I am? No: but Ramsay’s book does. I am truly Magnus Eisengrim. The illusion, the lie, is a Canadian called Paul Dempster. If you want to know his story, ask Ramsay. He knows, and he might tell. Or he might not.

–Thank you for being frank. Are you any more ready than Liesl to throw some light on the answer of the Brazen Head?

–Let me see. Yes. I am certainly “the man who granted his inmost wish”. You would never guess what it was. But he told me. People do tell me things. When I met him, which was on the night of his death, he offered me a lift back to my hotel in his car. As we drove he said — and as you know this was at one of the peaks of his career, when he was about to realize a dream which he, or your stepmother, had long cherished — he said, “You know, sometimes I wish I could step on the gas and drive right away from all of this, all the obligations, the jealousies, the nuisances, and the relentlessly demanding people.” I said, “Do you mean that? I could arrange it,” He said, “Could you ?” I replied, “Nothing easier.” His face became very soft, like a child’s, and he said, “Very well. I’d be greatly obliged to you.” So I arranged it. You may be sure he knew no pain. Only the realization of his wish.

–But the stone? The stone in his mouth?

–Ah, well, that is not my story. You must ask the keeper of the stone. But I will tell you something Liesl doesn’t know, unless Ramsay has told her: “the woman he did not know” was my mother. Yes, she had some part in it.

With that I had to be contented because Liesl and a workman wanted to talk with him. But somehow I found myself liking him. Even more strange, I found myself believing him. But he was a hypnotist of great powers; I had seen him demonstrate that on the stage. Had he hypnotized Father and sent him to his death? And if so, why?

Later: That was how I put the question to Ramsay when I cornered him this afternoon in the room he uses for his writing. Pargetter’s advice: always go to a man in his room, for then he has no place to escape to, whereas you may leave when you please. What did he say?

–Davey, you are behaving like the amateur sleuth in a detective story. The reality of your father’s death is much more complex than anything you can uncover that way. First, you must understand that nobody — not Eisengrim or anyone — can make a man do something under hypnotism that he has not some genuine inclination to do. So: Who killed Boy Staunton? Didn’t the Head say, “Himself, first of all?” We all do it, you know, unless we are taken off by some unaccountable accident. We determine the time of our death, and perhaps the means. As for the “usual cabal” I myself think “the woman he knew and the woman he did not know” were the same person — your mother. He never had any serious appraisal of her weakness or her strength. She had strength, you know, that he never wanted or called on. She was Ben Cruikshank’s daughter, and don’t suppose that was nothing just because Ben wasn’t a village grandee like Doc Staunton. Boy never had any use for your mother as a grown-up woman, and she kept herself childish in the hope of pleasing him. When we have linked our destiny with somebody, we neglect them at our peril. But Boy never knew that. He was so well graced, so gifted, such a genius in his money-spinning way, that he never sensed the reality of other people. Her weakness called him, but her occasional shows of strength shamed him.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson