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 the grey majority of their people…. They did not murmur the national prayer: ‘Oh God, grant me mediocrity and comfort; protect me from the radiance of Thy light.’ ” This is something of an understatement: any foreigner who took Robertson Davies’s novels as his only guide to Canadian society would acquire a somewhat distorted image of it. Davies deals for the most part with rich, eccentric, artistic, and scholarly personages, who enjoy good food and good wine, old books and old masters, and engage each other in witty and learned conversation—characters who seem to have strayed out of the pages of Thomas Love Peacock or George Meredith rather than the kind you might meet at, say, a neighborly barbecue in a Toronto suburb.
The affinity with bookish nineteenth-century writers suggests another reason why Davies’s novels have taken a long time to find a large appreciative audience. When he hit his stride as a novelist, in the 1970s, new fiction claimed attention by being formally “experimental” in the postmodernist style (lots of discontinuity, fragmentation, contradiction, randomness, and “metafictional” openness of form) and/or by a boldly explicit exploration of sexuality and sexual politics. Though Robertson Davies’s novels are not without their erotic, sometimes kinkily erotic, passages, he has made clear, both in these texts and outside them, that he regards the contemporary Western obsession with the physical mechanics of sexual intercourse, and especially with what an uncouth character in The Lyre of Orpheus calls “the organism,” as encouraging a fatally limited view of human relationships. As for literary experimentalism, he has characteristically observed:
We all know what the avant-garde was. It was the group that was sent forward to encounter the worst of the fire, and to fall bravely in the service of their country, and then the real army came up and took over and won the battle. And I think that’s what happens in literature. Those who want to be in it, are just inviting their destruction, because the avant-garde has changed its clothes and its uniform and its underwear three or four times in my lifetime. Who wants to get into that?
Certainly there is at present a lull, indicating either exhaustion or disillusionment, in the polemical and creative struggles of postmodernism, and a literary climate, therefore, receptive to the old-fashioned pleasures of texts like What’s Bred in the Bone and The Lyre of Orpheus. Robertson Davies has observed that “great literature always has plots,” and although he likes to group his novels in sequences of three, each has a beginning, a middle, and an end in true Aristotelian fashion. He has called them “romances,” perhaps acknowledging that he takes some liberties with probability in the interest of narrative complication or symbolic design, and uses supernatural machinery (for example the interventions of the Recording Angels in What’s Bred in the Bone, and of the limbo-confined composer Hoffmann in The Lyre of Orpheus), but it is all done in a style hallowed by traditional literary convention, and does not in any way subvert or challenge ways of reading derived from the classic realist text. The word that constantly comes to mind in reading Davies is “gusto”: he seems to have taken huge pleasure in the creation of his imagined world, and this pleasure conveys itself infectiously to the reader. His prose is brisk, supple, and well-balanced. The enigmas of the narrative, and the amusing, cultivated chatter of the characters, draw us effortlessly through the text, intrigued and stimulated, if seldom deeply moved. His novels are (I do not regard this as faint praise) the thinking man’s good read.
The sequence completed by The Lyre of Orpheus may become known as the Cornish trilogy, since its stories revolve around the enigmatic figure of Francis Cornish, a well-to-do Canadian art connoisseur who has left his mysteriously acquired fortune to found a charitable trust for patronage of the arts, administered by his businessman nephew, Arthur Cornish, and a number of other trustees drawn from the University of Toronto—in particular from the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost, which seems to bear some humorous resemblance to Massey College, of which Robertson Davies was master from 1962 to 1981. The Rebel Angels concerns the intrigues and struggles between several of these academics for possession of a rare collection of holograph letters from Rabelais to the Renaissance magus Paracelsus.
What’s Bred in the Bone backtracks in time to relate the life of Francis Cornish and explain some of the mysteries of his life. This is a more serious and ambitious novel than its predecessor, moving confidently in time and space, vividly evoking the hero’s childhood in provincial Ontario, his aesthetic and sentimental education in England, and his experiences during World War II, when he served on an Allied commission for tracing and identifying old paintings. One of the works he discovered was a depiction of The Marriage Feast of Cana by an unidentified genius of the sixteenth century known as the Alchemical Master, following an explication of the painting’s esoteric symbolism by an art critic associated with Cornish.
One of the main plot strands of The Lyre of Orpheus concerns the discovery by Simon Darcourt, a theology professor and Anglican clergyman who is writing a biography of Francis Cornish, that this interpretation of the painting is quite mistaken. The other strand concerns the production of an opera subsidized by the Cornish Foundation—not so much a production, in fact, as the reconstruction and completion of a complicated original work by the German Romantic composer E.T.A. Hoffmann. The subject of the opera is the story of King Arthur, and Hoffmann’s working title was Arthur of Britain, or the Magnanimous Cuckold. Its theme was to be “King Arthur’s recognition of the love of Lancelot for Guinevere, and the great pain with which he accepts that love.” The project foundered because Hoffmann was unable to reach agreement with his London-based librettist, Planché. All that survives (in Francis Cornish’s valuable manuscript collection) are Hoffmann’s notes and rough drafts of the score, and the correspondence with Planché.
On the basis of these documents, Hulda Schnakenburg, a brilliant if unprepossessing graduate student of music at Toronto, undertakes to reconstruct the opera as a Ph.D. project, supervised by the Swedish composer and musicologist Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot (Davies’s gusto is very evident in his invention of names). Darcourt supplies the libretto (deftly plagiarized from Sir Walter Scott) and the performance is directed by the ambitious and eloquent Welsh director Geraint Powell. The ghost of the composer himself watches over the whole enterprise with some excitement, from his vantage point in the limbo of forgotten artists from which the production promises to release him.
Robertson Davies makes full use of his theatrical experience in relating the story of this production, and the account of its first night is genuinely thrilling even to a reader (like myself) who has little enthusiasm for opera. One acquires from this book a great deal of fascinating information about the history of operatic form, early-nineteenth-century stage design, and the mechanics of libretto writing (“Do you know a two-syllable word meaning ‘regret’ that isn’t ‘regret’? Because ‘regret’ isn’t a word that sings well if it has to be matched up with a quarter-note followed by an eighth-note”), not to mention Arthurian legend, the Tarot pack, art history, pony breeding, old Ontario figures of speech, and Romany proverbs. The apparently effortless deployment of specialized and arcane knowledge about many different subjects is one of Davies’s great strengths as a novelist.
The production of the opera is enmeshed in various amorous intrigues. The lesbian Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot seduces Hulda Schnakenburg, who falls in love with Geraint Powell, who, by a device reminiscent of the bed tricks in Shakespeare’s problem plays, impregnates Arthur Cornish’s barren wife, Maria (née Theotoky, a former graduate student of the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost, and a major character in The Rebel Angels). By magnanimously accepting the child, Arthur Cornish reenacts the theme of Hoffmann’s opera—Maria corresponding to Guinevere and Powell to Lancelot.
“Let us, I entreat you, explore the miraculous that dwells in the depths of the mind,” Hoffmann writes to Planché. “Let the lyre of Orpheus open the door of the underworld of feeling.” The lyre of Orpheus stands metonymically for music and mythopoeia, which break through the crust of rationality and materialism concealing our real desires and fears from ourselves. Davies, a self-confessed Jungian, invokes archetypes in his novels for the same purpose. The fact that the characters are all well aware of these archetypes makes the mythic level of the novel seem somewhat artificial and contrived, but Davies tries to mitigate this effect by a kind of mythic overdetermination. Thus it is not only the Grail legend but also the Tarot pack that offers clues—confusing clues—to the fortunes of the characters. Darcourt, for instance, who supposes himself to be the Hermit in the pack, turns out to be the Fool.
But a wise fool, whose disinterested pursuit of the truth about Cornish, to the point of endangering his own reputation (it entails his stealing some drawings from the National Gallery in Ottawa), enables him to unravel the mystery of The Marriage Feast of Cana. It proves to be the work of Francis Cornish himself, executed in a flawless imitation of sixteenth-century painting, every figure of which is a portrait of some member or associate of the artist’s family.
Darcourt feels that his discovery “establishes Francis as a very great painter. Working in the mode of a bygone day, but a great painter nonetheless.” Arthur Cornish is not so sure: “He may be a great painter, but that makes him unmistakably a faker.” This exchange seems to bear obliquely on the art of Robertson Davies himself, which some critics have seen as skillful pastiche of an obsolete fictional style rather than an authentic contribution to modern literature.
The Lyre of Orpheus ends with a discussion of Keats’s remark “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory”; and in the invented life of Francis Cornish Davies seems to be writing an allegory of his own artistic career. Like Cornish, Davies has “dared to be of a time not his own”; like Cornish he has been fascinated by the figural tradition in late medieval and early Renaissance art and literature, “all that allegorical-metaphysical stuff, all that symbolic communication” that, according to Darcourt, post-Renaissance Europe rejected. Through the theme of the fake or imitation painting which is indistinguishable from its revered models, Robertson Davies seeks to undermine the arrogant historicism of modern aesthetics that would condemn his highly crafted and highly enjoyable novels as “irrelevant.”
The Lyre of Orpheus is not perhaps as powerful and surprising a novel as What’s Bred in the Bone, but it has all Davis’s wit, learning, and inventiveness in abundance, and brings to a satisfying conclusion a trilogy that stands as a major fictional achievement independent of literary fashion. Davis’s own spiritual home, however, is not so much the sixteenth century as the early nineteenth. He is essentially a latter-day Romantic who believes in man’s unconquerable mind, and the expressive function of art. The Marriage Feast of Cana, when decoded by Darcourt, turns out to be a work not of alchemical symbolism but of Romantic biography and autobiography, rather like Benjamin Haydon’s huge canvas Christ Entering into Jerusalem, in which Haydon himself and most of his acquaintances, including Keats, were portrayed. Does this imply that underneath the highly contrived plotting and archetypal patterning of the Cornish trilogy there is a kind of confessional, autobiographical novel waiting to be discovered? Davies has hinted as much, and in the process given another explanation for the late maturing of his formidable talent. In a very recent interview he told Herbert Denton of The Washington Post that “he was able to write more frankly as he grew older because ‘people died.’ ” We must be grateful for his own vigorous longevity.
April 13, 1989
Quoted in J. Madison Davis, ed., Conversations with Robertson Davies a collection of lively and informative interviews with the author to be published in May by the University Press of Mississippi. ↩