Tuesday, 29 June 2010
The Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies
I’ve been very conscious of putting off writing this review, not least because I read one posted earlier in this Challenge, by Steve Zipp. Steve's comments were so much to the point that I felt unable to add anything at the time, and I’m not sure that’s changed! However, I shall not let myself be daunted, although I shall restrict myself to a single post on the three books, which I first read about twelve years ago, I think. I loved them then, and couldn’t understand why I had never heard of the author until I discovered Canadian literature. Yes, they were all published in the UK, but where was the body of critical work applauding a giant of twentieth-century literature? British interest in CanLit seems to focus on women writers – Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence (and, of course, the other Margaret). Alistair MacLeod sneaks in on the Celtic fringe, but Davies seems to have been largely ignored. Yet the minute I started to read, I was spellbound, because he is a terrific, albeit oldfashioned, storyteller.
The trilogy tells the story of the late Francis Cornish, a wealthy but slightly shadow-y figure of the Canadian establishment, of good family, but latterly reclusive. In the first book, The Rebel Angels, Cornish has just died, and his three academic executors find themselves responsible, in collaboration with his nephew Arthur, for the disposition of a considerable collection of art and objets. Their task is complicated by the return to Toronto of the disreputable and manipulative “Brother” Parlabane, and the presence of graduate student Maria Theotoky, to whom all the executors are decidedly partial. Lust for Maria vies with lust for artefacts, and moral and sexual turpitude make the reader hope that some, at least, of the characters will meet a bad end. Fortunately, Maria’s overwhelming gypsy mother and uncle take a hand, bullying Maria and dictating the fate of the cast with the aid of the Tarot. Much of the action is seen through the eyes of Simon Darcourt, a priest of distinctly medieval tendencies (fondness for wine, art, food and Maria being mostly virtues, but demonstrative nonetheless of human weakness). And medievalism does indeed hold thematic sway throughout the trilogy: gypsies, the Tarot, the training of an artist in the renaissance tradition, the Arthurian legends and courtly love are deftly woven through the fabric of all three books, with appearances by Francis’s daemon, a recording angel and the ghost of the composer Hoffman all putting in appearances.
The middle book, What’s Bred in the Bone, might also have been called “portrait of the artist as a young man”, as it follows Francis’s path through his Ontario childhood, to England where he falls in love with his English dream in the shape of his cousin, and on to Germany before the start of the Second World War, where he apprentices himself to an artist. Beyond these formative years, in fact, we know very little of Francis, as he is absent in the last book as in the first. The Lyre of Orpheus anatomises the newly formed Cornish Foundation’s first attempt at patronage, when they commission an opera. Based on a lost work by E.T.A. Hoffman, the opera Arthur of Britain, will be followed to its first performance, and will represent the graduate thesis of student (and genius) Hulda Schnakenburg. The story of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot is played out in real life against the inevitable ups and downs of the production, and Davies is in his element here, because he loved the theatre and all its accoutrements, so comedy and tragedy combine to create an immensely human and sympathetic work. Somewhere I read someone's comment that Davies seemed to be the kind of a guy who liked to hear himself talk, and it's absolutely true (you have only to remember his readiness to tell a ghost story every Christmas at Massey College to know that he loved an audience) - if you are the kind of person who can enjoy a barnstormer, then you will like his writing. If you can't bear an opinionated author, then steer clear. Tentatively, I think if you like Dickens, you'll probably like Davies, because he writes the same kind of larger-than-life characters, and books with the a similarly baroque nature. He's certainly the most English of Canadian novelists - like his Francis Cornish he spent time at Oxford, and his writing is masculine and mannered even at a time when Canadian writing was beginning to preoccupy itself with shaking off such characteristics. For me, that's no criticism - while I love and applaud where Canlit went from there, good writing remains just that.