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."



The Architecture of the Ozarks by Donald Harington - excerpt

Donald Harington has been described as Arkansas's Faulkner. His novels about the little town of Stay More are whimsical and enthralling. In the excerpt below, the founder of Stay More, Jacob Ingledew, meets the indian Fanshaw.

From the woods on the hillside, Jacob Ingledew watched the camp for three and one-half hours before Fanshaw emerged, stooping, from his house. Jacob decided that the village, which consisted of twelve other dwellings similar to the one in our illustration, must be deserted except for Fanshaw. A field to one side of the village was devoted to the cultivation of corn, squash, beans, and, Jacob had been pleased to see, tobacco. Although Jacob, like all Ingledew men, was uncommonly shy, so great was his desire for tobacco that, after bobbing his prominent Adam's apple a couple of times, he began walking toward Fanshaw. Instantly Fanshaw saw him and kept his eyes fastened upon him the whole length of his approach. Jacob Ingledew walked slowly to signify he was friendly.

Fanshaw descried a man of his own height, tall, dressed in buckskin jacket and trousers, wearing a headpiece made from the skin and tail of a raccoon, thin, blue-eyed, brown-haired, long-nosed, and carrying not a rifle but a half-gallon jug with a corncob stopper.

Jacob Ingledew saw a man of his own height, tall, dressed in buckskin moccasins and leggings that covered only his legs, the space between breached with a breach clout, wearing a headpiece (actually just a bandeau) of beaver skin, eagle feathers in the roach of his hair, muscular, dark-eyed, bronze-skinned, long-nosed and naked from waist up except for a necklace of several dozen bear claws.

Jacob Ingledew spoke, rather noisily from nervousness: "How! You habbum 'baccy? Me swappum firewater for 'baccy. Sabbe?"

"Quite," said Fanshaw.

Fanshaw speaks an Englishman's English.



Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy - excerpt

Metropole, first published in English in 2008, (originally published as Epepe in Hungarian in 1970) is gripping throughout.

Budai, an accomplished linguist, ends up in a country whose language is utterly for foreign to him. He cannot find his way home. The only person he develops a relationship with is the girl running the hotel elevator:

Budai pointed to himself and repeated his name a few times then pointed to her questioningly. She gave another laugh and answered with a two-syllable word. He didn't quite catch it, and asked again.

'Pepe? Tchetche?'

Her pronunciation was so odd it might have been Bebe, Veve, Gege, Dede or anything else: each time she said it, it sounded different, sometimes it even sounded as if it had three syllables - Edede or Bebebe, though this might have been merely a pet name or an inflected version of her proper name. There was a constant buzzing by this time, hordes of people must have been waiting on the floors below. Her break over, she stubbed out her cigarette and Budai entered the lift with her. As they descended it filled up with passengers again wedging themselves between him and her so they could not see each other at all. Only once they had reached the ninth floor could their eyes meet and exchange a complicit glance of farewell

Cold Comfort Farm - excerpts

Written in 1931, Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, is one of the funniest books I've read. And it's also well-written.  These excerpts are a taste:

Nineteen year old Flora Poste's parents have died, leaving her with no property. She begins writing to relatives in search of a place to stay:

But Flora was reading the third letter. Her mother's cousin in South Kensington said that she would be very pleased to have Flora, only there was a little difficulty about the bedroom. Perhaps Flora would not mind using the large attic, which was now used as a meeting-room for the Orient-Star-in-the-West Society on Tuesdays, and for the Spiritist Investigation League on Fridays. She hoped that Flora was not a sceptic, for manifestations sometimes occurred in the attic, and even a trace of scepticism in the atmosphere of the room spoiled conditions, and prevented phenomena, the observations of which provided the Society with such valuable evidence in favor of Survival.  Would Flora mind if the parrot kept his corner of the attic? He had grown up in it, and at his age the shock of removal might well prove fatal.

On the farm:

The beasts stood with heads lowered dejectedly against the wooden hoot-pieces of their stalls. Graceless, Pointless, Feckless, and Aimless awaited their turn to be milked.

Flora asks Mrs. Murther the landlady if she "did" lunches:

A smile indicating a shuddering thankfulness, as of one who peers into a pit into which others have fallen while she has escaped, passed over the face of Mrs. Murther, as she replied that she did not.