By Robertson Davies
New York: Penguin Books, 1976
ISBN # 0-14-016796-x (paper)
316 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2008

Robertson Davies presents a fascinating story of the life of illusionist Magnus Eisengrim. The structure of the story is a frame story of flashbacks.

A film company has assembled at a Swiss chalet to film an homage to a late 19th century illusionist. Current, famous, but aging illusionist Magnus Eisengrim has been hired to play the older magician. At dinner one evening Eisengrim reveals a few biographical facts and some of his non-standard values. These seem to be relevant to the film makers, since they believe these things influence the way he plays the role of the older illusioinist.

That discussion raises two major questions:

  1. What is the nature of autobiography?
  2. What is the “subtext” of an actor playing a role?

Each of these themes plays a minor role in the novel. Each of them is meaty and what little is said of them is interesting and enticing, but unlike other Davies’s novels, the follow up on these themes is left undeveloped, relying on a few nice sound-bytes.

Eventually the subtext theme turns to the question of what personal background Eisengrim brings to the role of the illusionist. The bulk of the novel then unfolds, the fascinating and strange story of Eisengrim’s life, at least as he tells it.

Toward the end of the novel another exciting theme is dangled before us but left disappointingly underdeveloped – the story of Magnus’s “Magian World View,” a theme taken from Oswald Spengler’s famous work THE DECLINE OF THE WEST. This is a view that the world is not what we see on the surface and know with our science, but populated by hidden forces and powers of nature. These forces are “…undemocratic, discriminatory and pitiless.”

Alas, we get only a small taste of this theme which doesn’t appear until the end of the novel. Only then do we get glimpses of a double meaning of the title: World of Wonders. At the easy and obvious level that was the name of the freak show portion of the circus in which Magnus worked from the age of 10 -18. However, late in the novel in the discussion of Spengler’s “Magian World View” it too is described as a world of wonders hidden beneath the surface of our knowledge – the truth of the cosmos itself, this is the world of wonders.

It sounds like I’m complaining, and perhaps I am a bit. Davies, I argue, introduces some potentially exciting and meaty intellectual themes, the notion of the nature of autobiography, the concept of “subtext” and the nature of wonder in the Magian World View. That’s all true. However, I am used to Davies’s novels developing such metaphysical themes as central to the novel and exciting in the detail and provocativeness of treatment. On that important score the novel did disappoint me.

However, those issues were laid out in enough detail to at least stimulate me to begin to reflect on them on my own when I put the book down. That’s nice too.

Further, the novel is highly entertaining and successful as an intriguing story of Eisengrim’s life and his relationship to Dunstan Ramsay, the enduring character of this final volume of The Deptford trilogy, albeit now a quite aged Ramsay.

Yet, it is a rewarding, fascinating, and interesting story. It’s just that I’m just so used to a bit more abstract, intellectual challenge from Davies’s novels than I got in this novel that it left me wishing for more.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett