Turning my attention to the last completed trilogy of Robertson Davies (The Cornish Trilogy), I must confess that I have only read the first installment of it, The Rebel Angels.
Gypsies, defrocked monketry, tarot, Mariolatry, violin repair, Rabelais, scatology, (specifically, the study of medieval excrement)... in short, a usual plethora of Robertsonian esoteric avenues are here for the finding. And, as always, these are generously littered with flagrantly strewn tidbits of arcania, drawn from the author’s fathomless storehouse of incidental knowledge.
Along with being what I would call “a latent love story”, The Rebel Angels is a wonderfully convoluted lampoon of academia!
In his early years at the University of Toronto, while Fifth Business was being conceived, Davies knew that he was resented and even mocked in certain academic quarters. [Reminds me of C.S. Lewis at Oxford, being mocked by his peers, for writing the Narnias]. But by the time he was planning and writing The Rebel Angels, (late 1970’s) the atmosphere around him was much warmer. After its publication in 1981, novelist Anthony Burgess included it among the 99 Novels, his list of outstanding works of fiction written in English since 1939. And in 1985, Burgess (albeit unsuccessfully) lobbied the Swedish Academy to award Davies the Nobel Prize for literature.
It took me quite a few pages to catch on to the way Davies constructed this novel. It's written in six sets of chapter couplets, which made for a really unique storyline.
Two alternating narrators take their turn in describing the current thread of the story.
One is the beautiful and brilliant 23-year old student of Comparative Literature, Maria Theotoky.
The other is middle-aged Professor Simon Darcourt who teaches New Testament Greek. He is not the only professor of the University who acknowledges that Maria is among the "scholarly elect". Indeed, many would like to make her their soror mystica, or “scholarly girlfriend”, to put it in modern terms.
Darcourt becomes enamored of her, but she has already become the special pet of Professor Hollier.
Hollier’s impetuous (and singular) seduction of Maria leaves her a bit bewildered, for rather than the continued intimacy she desires from this man she greatly admires, he becomes distant. When his eccentric longtime friend John Parlabane returns for a visit (which never ends) the relationship between Maria and Hollier becomes even more confined to that of professor -- research assistant.
Meanwhile, a wealthy art collecter (Arthur Cornish) passes away and leaves his estate to be settled by three executors, all of them being professors at the University. They are Hollier, Darcourt, and a true nutbar by the name of Urquhart McVarish.
As they go through the mountain of Cornish's priceless items, Hollier becomes obsessed with the recovery of a manuscript of Rabelais which he is convinced McVarish once purloined and never returned. McVarish denies ever having borrowed the papers from Cornish, but Hollier will not give up. His obsession is motivated and fueled by the fact that the authentic document would greatly advance Maria in her own doctoral work on Rabelais, and he longs to do something tangible that will atone for his earlier seduction of her.
Without ruining some of the comic turns in this story for those who haven't read it, I will hint that it is ingenious how Davies knits the eccentricity of Parlabane and the extra-curricular nightime perversions of McVarish together in a way that becomes the ONLY way the above dilemna (of the missing manuscript) could be solved. And not before Hollier himself has degenerated into a superstitious nut in his own right.
Being a bit of a nut myself made this book all the more enjoyable!
I close with a letter that Davies wrote to one Janet Frankland, who was, back then (1983) a grade 13 student who had written to the author on behalf of her classmates at R.H. King Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, Ontario. Even though, in my opinion, the letter seems a bit harsh (as he himself even admits) still, it is so representative of the sometimes pompous “rebel angel” nature of Davies himself, that I reproduce it here in full. If his response was not considerate, it was at least considered.
[NOTE: Letter is found in For Your Eye Alone: Letters 1976 – 1995, selected and edited by Judith Skelton Grant and published by McClelland and Stewart, 1999.]
University of Toronto
June 21, 1983
[Dear Miss Frankland and Grade XIII Students:]
I was interested to receive your letter of June 6th about The Rebel Angels and glad that some of you enjoyed it. However, there are some matters that you bring up in it which I would like to pursue further. The first was that several of your members thought that the book was above the average reader’s comprehension because of its vocabulary. May I suggest to you, as gently as possible, that the book was written for average readers, and that a Grade XIII class in a collegiate institute cannot quite claim to have reached that status. You hope some day to be average readers but that is not your status at present.
You may think that is hard, but consider these matters: you say that you felt that Ozias Froats was a lampoon of a professor doing fairly useless research, but being paid to do so. If you had read the book with the care that the average reader would bring to it you would see that one of the principal points of the book was that Froats’ research, which was not understood by anybody but himself, eventually produced remarkable results and that the theme of the discovery of great value in what is rejected and despised is one of the main themes of the book. If so, you could not have missed the fact that Ozias Froats is about to receive the Nobel Prize for science. The Nobel committee does not give its prize to fakes.
You may have found that the professors’ conversations dragged for you, but I have had many letters from average readers who liked them very much. As for Maria, when you arrive at the university you will probably meet a number of girls like her and you should – particularly the boys – prepare yourself for the experience. You may say that you have never met anybody like her but I presume you study some of the plays of Shakespeare and I do not expect that you have met anybody like the heroines of those plays either. It is not an author’s object to give a photographic reproduction of reality.
This also answers your final question: none of the characters in the book are portraits of living people. Fiction may be portrait painting but if it is any good it is not photography. The purpose of the book was to suggest that universities are great and fascinating places and I hope that some of you will find it so when you attend university next year.
With good wishes, I am