Davies, Robertson. The Lyre of Orpheus.

NY: Viking, 1989.

This set of three novels more closely resembles a triptych than the usual sort of trilogy. The first published volume, The Rebel Angels, and this one are the side panels while the middle volume, What’s Bred in the Bone, forms the middle panel. That middle book tells in detail of the multifaceted life of Francis Cornish, while the first and third volumes are both set after his death and deal with the effects Francis’s life has had on his friends and colleagues.

The first volume also had as one of its major foci the art of writing — specifically, Maria’s study of Rabelais and John Parlebane’s unreadable autobiography. The second volume dealt largely with the art of painting and how Francis Cornish became an Old Master (sort of). This one is about the art of music in the form of opera. Arthur Cornish is Francis’s nephew, a very wealthy and very successful businessman (his “art” is money), and chairman of the foundation established with the considerable fortune Francis left. He’s a good man and he yearns to be an intellectual (like his wife, Maria) and an artist. But that just isn’t in him so he’ll settle for being a patron of the arts, a moneyman who enables art to happen. The Toronto university that is home to Maria and Father Simon Darcourt and Prof. Clement Hollier (the regular characters throughout the trilogy) also has a music school, which includes Miss Hulda Schnakenburg (henceforth “Schnak”), an extremely talented young musician — possibly even a genius — who wants to earn her doctorate in music by completing an opera by the early 19th century Romantic, E.T.A. Hoffmann, whom almost no one performs or listens to anymore. And the new fourth member of the foundation’s board of directors, Geraint Powell, an actor/musician of some note himself, and who wants to remake himself as a director, thinks it would be marvelous if the Cornish Foundation were to underwrite the actual staging and performance of the completed doctoral opera: Arthur of Britain, or The Magnanimous Cuckold. When the work and its sponsor have the same name — and when the author is Robertson Davies — you can guess at what’s coming.

Davies is a master of sardonic wit, as in the professor of comparative literature who “had the steely core of the woman who has scrambled up the academic ladder to a full professorship.” He also has a way of pointing out the obvious (“obvious” after you’ve thought about it): “That man knows every trick in the book to make people feel rotten who don’t share his attitude toward life. It’s an underdog’s revenge. You are not supposed to kick the underdog, but it’s perfectly okay for the underdog to bite you.” In this case, the underdog is a religious fundamentalist zealot — what Father Darcourt calls “the Friends of the Minimum. In the great electoral contest of life he is running for martyr.” Boy, I can think of a lot of people to whom I could apply that razor-sharp observation. But perhaps the best bit of all is this: “What is a Philistine? Oh, some of them are very nice people. They are the salt of the earth — but not its pepper. A Philistine is someone who is content to live in a wholly unexplored world.”

Davies is a first-class comic writer and it’s impossible to read this book without grinning at almost every page. He also writes at many levels in many voices and it (like all his other works) will be most rewarding to the reader who has a wide and deep background. I’m sure many younger, less experienced readers – especially those who haven’t bothered to learn much about the art, literature, and history of the past two centuries — are going to miss many of the jokes and allusions. But for the rest of us, Davies is pure gold.

Published in: on 12 July 2011 at 2:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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