The Salterton Trilogy is actually three books: Tempest-Tost, A Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties. However, they’re bound as one, so I’m calling it one book for the sake of convenience, and because I wouldn’t want to be accused of artificially inflating my book totals so early in the year.
Robertson Davies is a brilliant, brilliant man, and I have long been a fan of his books. This trilogy was actually the first thing of his that I read, and I keep returning to it for the acerbic wit, keen insight, and general plot excellence. I think that Davies is not very fashionable these days, which is a great pity, because his work deserves to be widely read and celebrated. And given the schlock that passes for modern fiction these days, you could do much worse than Davies. And I have.
This book touches on several subjects which are dear to my heart. Tempest-Tost is about a performance of The Tempest, a play which I once worked on, and reading about reminded me of all the excellent reasons that I don’t work with local theatres. A Leaven of Malice, as the name implies, details a spiteful act and the unexpected consequences. A Mixture of Frailties deals with music, and opera, a form of music which I greatly enjoy, much to the surprise of people who don’t know me well.
I like Davies because he is smart, and witty, and he references things in the full confidence that people will know what he is talking about, and that’s rather refreshing in modern fiction. He assumed that people understand clever Latin jokes, and sly implications about modern society and the arts, and I like that in an author. He also brings characters vividly and beautifully to life, creating a complex and rich tapestry of people and places ranging from the sleepy town of Salterton to the larger than life figure of Benedict Domdaniel.
As critics have often pointed out, Davies is often very shrewd, and I imagine the corners of his eyes wrinkling during some of the passages in his books. But his writing style is also wonderfully clear, concise, and elegant, in a way that I really aspire to. He manages to be scathing, witty, and sharp without being obvious or condescending about it, and you can’t help but feel a certain sense of satisfaction and smugness when you finish one of his books.
He also has an obvious and strong ground in the arts, as his knowledge of the arts he writes about implies. This book isn’t just a work of fiction, it’s a peep into the world of theatre and music, especially as these fields stood in the middle of the twentieth century, a period of immense turmoil and confusion for the arts. The plot trips right along rather nicely, making these books a quick and pleasant read, and I highly recommend them if you’ve got a weekend and a beach to lie on.
The Salterton Trilogy, by Robertson Davies. Published 1951 (Tempest-Tost), 1954 (A Leaven of Malice), 1958 (A Mixture of Frailties), 808 pages. Fiction.