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Robertson Davies’s 1970 masterpiece Fifth Business is something of a manual for the deceptive arts.

The first curious bit of sleight of hand is the title: what the heck is “fifth business”? Davies helpfully quotes the 19th century Danish theatre scholar Thomas Overskou.

“Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.”–Thomas Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads.

Ok, we think. That’s cool. It’s about a character—Dunstan Ramsay—who is not a central character in the narrative, but who is essential to it. Sure. Makes sense. There is nary a clue in the novel to let us know that Davies just made that up. There is no theatre tradition of calling a character “fifth business” and Overskou—who really did exist—never wrote the quoted passage. I discovered this tidbit more than 30 years after reading it, all the while believing that the phrase was exactly what Davies had told me.

One of the recurring themes in Fifth Business is that “story truth” isn’t the same as “world truth”. Dunstan Ramsay ghost wrote the official autobiography of the great magician Magnus Eisengrim. Every word of the autobiography is a lie, including the claim that it is an autobiography. We poor readers are stuck in the bigger lie of Fifth Business and never get to read it. What’s worse, Fifth Business is also narrated by Ramsay, and we know that he’s a liar.

But hold your horses there, John. Fifth Business is a novel. It’s a big pack of lies. Aren’t writers little more than paid liars?

And magicians. Aren’t they paid liars too?

Let me deceive you to reveal a truth.

Robertson Davies 1913-1995

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