The Lyre of Orpheus
by Robertson Davies
Viking, 472 pp., $19.95
Robertson Davies started writing novels fairly late in life, and has come into his prime as a novelist at an age when most men are glad if they can summon up enough energy and concentration to read a book, let alone write one. Born in Thamesville, Ontario, in 1913, he was an actor (with the London Old Vic company), then a playwright, theater director, essayist, and newspaper editor for many years before (and after) he published his first novel, Tempest-Tost (1951). This and its sequels, Leaven of Malice (1954) and A Mixture of Frailties (1958), which make up the so-called Salterton trilogy, aroused little interest outside Canada. Fifth Business, which appeared more than a decade later (1970), and the Deptford trilogy, which it inaugurated, continued in The Manticore (1972) and completed by World of Wonders (1975), enjoyed some success in America, but made little impact in England. I have to confess that the first time Robertson Davies impinged on my own consciousness was when I was asked (by an American journal) to review The Rebel Angels in 1982.
What’s Bred in the Bone, a related, though free-standing novel, was widely praised, and was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1984. It put Robertson Davies in that small group of novelists whom anyone professing a serious interest in contemporary fiction has to read. His impressively bearded countenance, staring challengingly from the review pages of newspapers and magazines like a reincarnation of Tolstoy (whose birthday he shares, to his obvious pleasure, along with Goethe and Saint Augustine), has become a familiar literary icon. The publication of The Lyre of Orpheus, which completes another, as yet unnamed, trilogy, is an important literary event.
There are several possible reasons why Robertson Davies’s novelistic reputation has ripened so slowly. One is that he is Canadian, and the Anglo-American world has only recently begun to take seriously the idea of a Canadian literature. He was once told by the secretary of a famous London theatrical management to whom he had submitted one of his plays, “Mr. Davies, you must realize that nobody—literally nobody—is interested in Canada.” Such an attitude is not unknown in the United States—some years ago an American magazine competition to invent the most boring book title imaginable was won by Canada—Our Neighbor to the North.
This dismissive attitude toward Canadian culture becomes increasingly difficult to sustain in the presence, literal or metaphorical, of writers like Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Robertson Davies himself, but it is not without some historical foundation, as Davies would readily acknowledge. When he returned to his native country in 1940, after completing his education and theatrical apprenticeship in England, Canada seemed to him “like a dull, ill-rehearsed show that someone should put on the road,” and his novels are peppered with satirical observations on the Canadian ethos that have not endeared him to his fellow countrymen:
The narrator of The Lyre of Orpheus says of his characters, “They were not wholly of …