When I stand among the gaggle of parents watching our offspring play little league, I always keep an eye out for my neighbor Bob. Usually conversations amid these sidelines are restricted to children and illnesses (with the Moms) or children, sports and work (with the Dads). But early in our friendship, Bob and I learned that we could converse on books. Now we seem to share a continual conversation that continues, practice to practice, picking up where the last one left off. I'm grateful for it.
I had to take note, then, when Bob used the words 'absolutely my favorite book' when describing Robertson Davies' Fifth Business.
'Fifth business' is a term from opera for the fifth wheel in a production - the tenor has the soprano, the contralto has the basso. But the 'fifth business' is a fifth player with no counter yet he is a vital facilitator for all relationships.
When taking stock of our lives, what do we want remembered? What should be remembered? Upon his retirement, Dunstan Ramsay's life has been encapsulated in a recent tribute by the boys' school where he'd taught for many years. Something however is missing, something so important that Dunstan composes a letter to the school's headmaster to set the record straight?
But what is it that is so glaringly absent? Fifth Business is that letter. As Davies chronicles the initial stages of Ramsay's life (a childhood in rural Canada, service in WWI, his post war recovery) we begin to see Ramsay as a man of sensitivity, deliberation and empathy. Nowhere is this more poignant that in his relationship with Mrs. Dempster, a local woman whose life of tragedy, isolation and illness becomes a cross Ramsay will not relinquish.
Through all these phases we see how Ramsay is the 'fifth business'. Events unfold wherein he (often painfully) bears witness, but never finds himself at the heart of the matter.
Another beacon of Ramsay's life is Boy Stanton, a childhood friend whose trajectory is the polar opposite of Ramsay's. Where Ramsay's path led to contemplative academia and teaching, Stanton's world was financial and political success, much of it achieved via soulless, mechanical means. As Stanton's success balloons, Ramsay silently accomodates the unravelling of his character.
Fifth Business knocked me out. It is elegant and eloquent without being inaccessible. I gave serious consideration to not even bothering to attempt to discuss it on this blog, as a friend of Bob beautifully wrote of this fine book here.