Retro Review: What’s Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies

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“The best thing about Plato was his good style. He liked to invent systems, but he was too fine and artist to trust his systems fully. Now I’ve come to hate systems. I hate your pet system, I hate Fascism, and I hate the system that exists. But I suppose there must be some system and I’ll take any system that leaves me alone to get on with my work.” — Francis Cornish on the mindset of an Artist.

Roberston Davies must have been a fascinating person. I’ve only read one other novel of his, Fifth Business, in Canadian high school. From my small amount of research though, Davies appears to be pretty hung up on the extraordinary story of the un-extraordinary. How wonderful. How Exciting. How Canadian–and I say that with zero disdain.

Fifth Business is a book, that centres around a supporting character in the grander story of something else. Hence that name, Fifth Business, which is a theatrical term, common in operatic story structure. It refers to a role which is supporting and important for propelling the plot, but secondary to the hero and heroine’s role in the story.

What’s Bred in the Bone is a variation on that theme. The hero, is at the surface, simply an old art collector and miser. When we look closer, we find that Francis Cornish’s life was carefully crafted and destined to make an impact on the world, long after his death. Little did anyone know what a portrait of greatness could look like.

We learn of the plot to make Francis a remarkable figure from the Daimon Maimas and the Angel of Biography, The Lesser Zadkiel, while they oversee the writing of Francis’ biography. In my mind’s eye, they appeared to me as the archetypal image of the devil and the angel on either of Francis’ shoulders. I imagined them sitting back, and reflecting on their work of art.

What’s Bred in the Bone is sort of like a self-help book for artists. That doesn’t sound nice, but if you think of all literature as transformative, then maybe you’ll find some room for this base description. It reads like an Art Historian’s guide to Life. If you are an artist, you may find it extremely helpful.

I did. As I read along, I indulged in the fantasy that I had a daimon perched on my shoulder, always watching to be sure that I didn’t fall into a trap of inspirational complacency. Maybe I didn’t get that job because I needed the colour of hunger in my eye. I probably didn’t move to New York because my song didn’t need another lyric like that. I fell in love because I am supposed to write stories that make you feel lucky. Perhaps.

As his life unfolds, tragic and mean things happen to Francis, as things do. Yet, the worse things get for him, the fonder the memories for the Daimon Maimas. He recalls with pride how he purposefully allowed offence and peculiarity to shape and fashion Francis’ life. He knew better than to design a man with a light pencil, he knew that some strokes must be bold and thick and indelible:

–“Oh, hearts! Nobody gets through life without a broken heart. The important thing is to break the heart so that it when it mends it will be stronger than before. If you will allow me to say so, my dear Zadkeil, you angels are easily pulled toward sentimentality. If you had my work to do, you would know how ruinous that can be.”–Daimon Maimas.

This is a reality that I have observed in my own little life. I have had wonderful, beautiful, privileged, intelligent friends that tend towards sad apathetic nihilism and it has occurred to me to blame their fluffly perspective– a perspective that they often defend heartily. It seems to me that what people need is a healthy dose of urgency. In some area of life there needs to be a sense of life or death. If one has never had to to chose life over death, then perhaps one doesn’t know exactly how to appreciate the beauty of their own life’s work–the masterpiece–their self portrait.

But, then, maybe not. Maybe it’s beautiful enough to be a lousy wretch, waiting for something or nothing to happen (I actually kind of like this image).

In attributing the strikes and blows in Francis’ life to what made him so interesting, Davies shines a brighter light on “what’s bred in the bone.” He uses events, tragedies and encounters as the tints and pigments that paint the portrait of a man. We can see what made that shoulder drop, we know the moment he stopped shaking hands, his gaze is the dustier shade of the love that once lived there.

The most important thing that I took from this book is the sense of aesthetic. It isn’t in the interest of the story to make you see a remarkable life as a large, over the top, sensation with all the glitz. This novel wasn’t painted in optimistic, modern brights. It is the earth-brown and grey-skyed reality of greatness that exists without fanfare–or whether anyone notices or not. It’s beautiful and terrifying.

Like a professor, he paints the portrait of this man and then teaches you how to see the beauty by explaining the strokes of the brush and the history from which this work could have sprung. The history becomes the context that helps us to understand what the work’s beauty means for the time and forever.

What’s Bred in the Bone is an art history lesson on the craft of a life. Afterwards, you can take what you’ve learned and apply it to yourself, or you could keep on trying to prevent “bad” things from happening to you <yawn>.

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