Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Book Review: The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks

Davies, Robertson The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947)

Here, Marchbanks (or Davies) restrains himself a little compared to the second book, The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks. But in both he expresses himself forcefully on the absence of a Canadian sense of pleasure. According to him, Canadians cannot abide mere fun, let alone culture (a much more strenuous pursuit.) Although there have been changes for the better, we still have a lingering sense that something advertised as good for you cannot be and must not be pleasurable. It was Presbyterians that set the ground-rules for social and cultural life in this country, and many of us suffer from a lingering hangover of puritan megrims. Only the terms of opprobrium have changed: these days, the blue meanies oppose the arts not because of their putative immorality but because of their supposed impracticality. Significantly enough, the Harperites are willing to fund children's sports via a tax break for family expenditures on hockey and other forms of mayhem, but not for music lessons. Like many money-mad people, they confuse price and value, and worse, have a very limited knowledge of the market that they profess to admire and understand.

Marchbanks' struggles with his furnace form the leitmotif of his life as described in these diaries, and his repeated bouts of one or another kind of mild illness form the accompaniment. His casual mentions of daily triumphs and defeats remind us that in many ways our life has become more comfortable in the last 60 years. But it hasn't, therefore, become better. There's more to the good life than creature comforts.

The quotable bits in this book tend to be small paragraphs. Robertson has mastered the art of the long slow curve and the sudden break (he does not, however, use any baseball metaphors or allusions.) He tends to use the semi-colon where most writers would use a period, so that his sentences seem to be lengthy. But here and there one finds a sentence that can be quoted without context. "If man has conquered the air merely to fill it with bombs and illiteracy, we might as well discount this civilisation, and try another." "New York, I perceive, contains almost as many rogues as Toronto." "If we were all robbed of our wrong convictions, how empty our lives would be."