Fifth Business by Robertson Davies an excerpt

Fifth Business (1970), rich, and elegantly written, is the life story of  Dunstan Ramsay.

When he was a boy, his friend and enemy Percy Boyd Staunton hits the minister's wife in the head with a snowball, leading to her collapse and premature delivery of her son, Paul.

When next I met him after that bad afternoon, we approached each other warily, as boys do after a quarrel, and he seemed disposed to talk. I did not at once speak of the birth of Paul, but I crept up on the subject and was astonished to hear him say, "Yes, my Pa says McCausland has his hands full with that one."

"The baby came too soon, " said I.

"Did it?" said he, looking me straight in the eyes.

"And you know why," I said.

"No I don't."

"Yes you do. You threw that snowball."

"I threw a snowball at you, " he replied, " and it gave you a good smack."

I could tell by the frank boldness of his tone that he was lying. "Do you mean to say that's what you think?" I said.

"You bet it's what I think," said he. "And it's what you'd better think too, if you know what's good for you."

We looked into each other's eyes and I knew that he was afraid, and I knew also that he would fight, lie, do anything rather than admit what I knew. And I didn't know what in the world I could do about it.


When he was fifty he meets  mysterious magician Eisengrim. Here Eisengrim addresses Ramsay.

"You remarked that we did not smile much in the performance; no jokes, really. A smile in such a show is half a cringe. Look at the magicians who appear in night clubs; they are so anxious to be loved, to have everybody think 'What a funny fellow,' instead of 'What a brilliant fellow, what a mysterious fellow.' That is the disease of all entertainment: love me; pet me, pat my head. That is not what we want."

"What do you want? To be feared?"

"To be wondered at." This is not egotism. People want to marvel at something, and the whole spirit of our time is not to let them do it. They will pay to do it, if you make it good and marvelous for them. Didn't anybody learn anything from the war? Hitler said, 'Marvel at me, wonder at me, I can do what others can't'--and they fell over themselves to do it. What we offer is innocent--just an entertainment in which a hungry part of the spirit is fed. But it won't work if we let ourselves be pawed and patronized and petted by the people who have marveled. Hence out plan."