Dear Professor Davies,
I hope that is an acceptable form of address. Given the way your novels skewer pretention of any sort I imagine the 'Professor' part might raise a wry smile, just visible through that excellent beard of yours.
I've recently finished reading your novel Tempest-Tost - the first book in your Salterton trilogy - about the amateur dramatic staging of Shakespeare's Tempest in a small Canandian university town. And I felt compelled to write you this short blog missive. It's in place of a review or a longer piece of critical writing. I imagine you raising your eyebrows at that, because you were a professor of literature and perhaps you would have preferred an essay? Or perhaps a blogger's license to say pretty much what they like in whatever format they like would have suited you? You see, I wanted to tell you things I liked about your book without getting bogged down in the detail, and the best way to do that seemed to be to enlist them in a letter.
1. I like the way you show how serious you are about literature by being anything but serious about it.
At the beginning of the book you define literature as 'ambiguous and unsupported assertions by men of lax mind', and poke fun at your characters' as they reverently pontificate about The Bard. You hold up literary Professor Vambrace as a figure of fun, make light of his determination to obscure rather than illuminate the play with his esoteric interpretations of the text. All the while you demonstrate how it isn't the people who interpret the play, but the play that interprets the people, drawing out their frailties, hopes and secret selves.
2. I admire your humane cruelty.
It's an oxymoron (how Shakespearean!) but you make it possible. There are very few unambiguous characters in the novel, perhaps none at all. They all have their weaknesses, sometimes revolting ones, and you make the most of them. None more so than your anti-hero Hector (aptly named?) Mackilwraith, the pudgy middle-aged maths teacher who falls for the beautiful 19 year old Griselda. Could he be any more ridiculous, with his shiny suits and his outmoded ideal of a girl's honour and unrealistic dream of romance? He is ridiculous, and hopelessly tragic; a joke to everyone but himself. And you. You know he is a a deluded fool - you say it over and over - but you also know that his 'simple wish to have fun' and to 'live my own life and make my own way' has been hopelessly thwarted by his upbringing and his native personality. We can laugh at him with you, but you make us understand how much it hurts him to be laughed at. You poke fun, but with generosity, so that we see the fullest possible picture of a person. Thus we know that Griselda is flighty, oblivious and egocentric, but also full of courage and determination to be herself; and we know that Bonnie-Susan 'The Torso' Tompkins is a flirt and a tease but with a heart of gold. Even Professor Vambrace, who is pretty unforgivable in most respects, has his love for his daughter Pearl.
3. I love your close observation of individual natures.
Although this book ostensibly belongs to Hector's story, it is very clearly an ensemble piece. You give a lot of time to picking out details of your wider cast: Solly Bridgewater's relationship with his hypochondriac mother; Robert Tasset's military arrogance; the rivalry between Nellie Forrester and Valentine Rich; even Freddy Webster's ambitions for her champagne cider. Almost to the extent that what we have here are a series of vignettes, short stories with shared characters. Some are very very funny indeed. The sale of Valentine's grandfather's estate for example, and the parable of the first editions she fails to recognise and sells at a pittance. Or Solly's painful attempt at a bachelor drinks party in his bedroom, which descends rapidly into fisty-cuffs.
I'm not quite sure what I expected from your work Professor Davies. I had this idea in my head that you were Canada's answer to Kingsley Amis, which I suppose is a little bit right and mostly wrong. You were contemporaries, and made fun of academics, but that may be the end of the similarities. I'd need to read more of you both to know for sure. I also had a vague notion that your fiction had mystical or otherwordly elements. Perhaps it does later on, in the Deptford or Cornish trilogies? Which is not to say I'm disappointed by Salterton; only surprised to find it so grounded in the real-world silliness of human life. Perhaps its the beard that made me think you were solemn. I didn't expect you would make me laugh outloud. I'd never seen that twinkle in your eye, or the expressive character of your raised eyebrows.
If it weren't too presumptious I'd say I was looking forward to getting to know you better. Leaven of Malice next. From the library, of course.