RD and Brenda were in Scandinavia in September 1986 when they heard that his name was on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize in Literature. And not for the first time; they were also informed that Anthony Burgess, among others, had been lobbying for a Davies Nobel for at least two years. This was followed by more good news.
FELICITY BRYAN (London literary agent)
I was an agent at Curtis Brown, this would be about twenty years ago. Rob was repped by Curtis Brown. . . . I took the Deptford trilogy with me on a holiday to France. I read it, and I was bowled over. When I came back from France I was spouting over about this tremendous writer.
Then I read What’s Bred in the Bone
. I sat down and I wrote a long fan letter to Rob. And then What’s Bred in the Bone
was coming out in England . . . I’ve never worked so hard on getting reviews. We had wonderful reviews for it. And then it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize! I phoned him while he was on tour in Sweden, to tell him about his being shortlisted. We had not yet met at that point. But over the phone he was very funny and very pleased!
JOHN SAUMAREZ SMITH
At the time, I had two sons at Winchester School, and they told me that the head of the English faculty, a Mr. Wyke, was a great admirer of Robertson Davies. I said to Mr. Wyke, “I gather that you’re a fan of Robertson Davies. Would you like me to arrange for Mr. Davies to come down and talk to the boys?” He said, “That would be sensational.”
The Tuesday before we were to go down, Felicity Bryan rang me up and said, “John, you and I should be very proud: Robertson Davies is on the Booker Prize shortlist.” So I rang up Rob and said, “Congratulations! But will it still be all right for Tuesday?” Rob said, “John, I won’t let you down. And as you drive us down to Winchester School you can tell me about the Booker.”
I said [with] the Booker list . . . there was always an agenda that was not always going to produce the best sort of decisions. . . . That day was one of those magical days. Even as Rob and Brenda walked from the college to the cathedral, the cathedral choir was practising. And it was so beautiful it brought tears to their eyes . . .
Just before the talk, Rob stood before some of the boys. He took out an envelope and said to one of them, “It will appear quite soon that I have given one or two lectures, but I want you to have some pleasure in this. So I will speak for twenty minutes and then I want you to ask questions. I know from experience that this often means there is a horrible pause. But this time there won’t be — because here are six questions, and I am very good at answering these questions.” A brilliant trick! Then he spoke. He was very informal and he made them laugh. Afterwards, the boys asked questions for an hour and a half. And they never asked his six questions.
Being shortlisted for the Booker Prize — on top of hearing that he was being considered for a Nobel! . . . But RD was a great worrier and he realized that winning these prizes would have meant a whole lot more time away from his work. . . . He never believed he deserved to win. Too much of a Presbyterian background.
His diary shows that he was tortured by hope.
RD (diary, September 26, 1986)
The Nobel and Booker have stuffed my pillow with thorns . . . no Stoic, I.
RD (diary, October 20, 1986)
I have a fit of the Black Dog and am downcast all day, wholly irrationally. I feel I have been weighed on the balance and emerged 15 ounces to the pound.
The winner of the 1986 Booker was to be announced on October 22, at a
gala dinner in London.
That evening, the Booker evening, I picked them up in a taxi at Pont Street. There is a photo at the flat . . . Rob is in black tie and smoking a cigar. He is wearing his big black ring, and is looking right at the camera. Here’s another photo from that evening, of Rob wearing a black bow tie and a burgundy velvet waistcoat, looking very smart. Brenda is in a sequined dress, navy or a dark teal blue, with a red scarf at the neck. . . . Gosh, she’s an elegant woman.
RD (diary, October 22, 1986)
The evening of the Booker. Fatigue has gone beyond the point when a night’s rest can do much to dispel it. . . . A man from the Toronto Star
affects a familiarity I do not understand for I know nothing of him. . . . Win or lose it means little, but it consumes a great deal of energy and spirit. A great throng and two policemen keeping a wide swath to a great car. We dress and Brenda looks very elegant. Felicity calls for us and we drive to Guild Hall, to the crypt for champagne and meet celebrities. . . . Denis Healey. . . . Talk with Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson. . . .
Atwood was shortlisted for The Handmaid’s Tale and RD was shortlisted
for What’s Bred in the Bone.
He gave good interviews. This was the first time two Canadians had been on the shortlist, and he talked about how the English were all saying, “How curious! How odd! Two Canadians!
” And he said, “The English are just a little late in discovering what the rest of the world has known for some time.”
That year, alas, the judges gave the Booker to Kingsley Amis for services rendered.
As predicted, Amis. . . . He speaks ungraciously, thanks no one. . . . Clearly pretty well boozed up. . . . Dora Herbert-Jones used to rave about Amis and what a handsome young man he was. Now a swollen wine-skin.
I was furious, of course. But I believe that year was the first time in history that the judges announced the runner-up.
I was runner-up. Mrs. Healy told me afterwards one of the judges weakened. A lot of cheering and I had many supporters. Another interview with Margaret Atwood, and we had a jolly indiscreet time.
On Booker night, when we both lost, we did not commiserate. Self-pity is not appropriate at these things. How very Canadian of us! “We were both pleased to be there and it was very nice to be on the shortlist.” If it mattered deeply to him, it didn’t show. In 2000, when I won the Booker, I thanked him, which was a very Canadian thing to do: to thank All Those Who Had Gone Before.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Robertson Davies by Val Ross. Copyright © 2008 by Val Ross. Excerpted by permission of Emblem Editions, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.